And the $1.1 million Merson took home with his bracelet when he won WSOP Event No. 57?

"That was never really important to me," he said. "For me, poker is really about the competition, not the money." poker editor Andrew Feldman had great things to say about Merson.

"He is a superior online cash game player who finally put all the pieces together and became … one of the more focused short-game tournament players in the world," Feldman said. "He's surrounded by a lot of great poker minds that he always learned from and really just went on a roll to remember throughout the summer."

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Asked about Merson's chances at the final table in October, Feldman said: "He's in a great chip position. As a cash game player he has a big edge considering stacks are incredibly deep."

(Tournaments are different than cash games in that players rely on the chips they have; they can't buy back in. The deeper the stack of chips players have, the more freedom they have to make big moves and take big risks.)

Merson's friend and fellow 2005 Reservoir High graduate Matt Pecker started playing poker with Merson in high school. Like Merson, he competes in high-stake cash games.

"He is probably one of the hardest workers I know, out of all my friends, and just deserves everything he accomplished lately," Pecker said.

Turning his life around

Merson's path to the peak his profession at age 24 has not been an easy one.

Things started off well enough. He was a straight-A student in middle school and most of high school. At Reservoir, Merson played baseball and ran cross country. He had time to enjoy extracurricular activities and hang out with friends because he didn't have to work.

"Everything had been so perfect," he recalled. "I grew up in Howard County. Everything had been provided to me."

During his senior year of high school, after he'd been accepted to the University of Maryland, Merson said he no longer cared about trying. And the summer before his freshman year of college, he started experimenting with drugs.

Experimenting turned to addiction, and in fall of 2006, Merson's sophomore year, he dropped out of the University of Maryland.

Back home, away from the pressures of college life, he was able to seek treatment through the Howard County Health Department.

Once he was back on the right track, Merson enrolled at Howard Community College. But he still wasn't keen on school. His passion was poker.

"I just thought I was ready to take it seriously as a business … to be really smart and responsible," Merson said about his decision, made at age 19, to pursue online poker as a full-time career.

It was poker that Merson said really helped turn his life around.

"Poker's been a good release for me because gambling is a stimulant," he said.

"That's one of the reasons I worked so hard is because it keeps me clean: It keeps me busy. I love it, and it makes me a good living."