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North Laurel native to compete in World Series of Poker

Greg Merson has been known to dedicate 60 or 70 hours a week to his job. He's traveled all around the world for work and taken very little vacation time. And in just five years in his profession, he's become one of the best in the business.

Merson, a 24-year-old from North Laurel, is a professional poker player.

Merson became interested in the game after watching poker tournaments on ESPN as a teenager. Nearly a decade later, the 2005 Reservoir High School graduate is about to become one of the poker stars he used to watch.

On Oct. 29, Merson will compete against eight other players for the 2012 World Series of Poker title.

The WSOP Main Event, the world's most celebrated poker tournament, started July 9 with 6,598 players. Anybody who puts up the $10,000 buy in can play, but it's usually the professionals who make it to the end, Merson said.

Over the course of 10 days of competition, each averaging about 13 hours, hundreds of games were played to narrow the field down to the final nine.

"It all just happened so fast," Merson said. "It seemed like a blur."

The nine finalists have a more than three-month break before they return to Las Vegas for the two-day final table event. Six of the finalists will be eliminated on the first day, Oct. 29. The final three will compete for the championship, which will be aired live on ESPN, Oct. 30.

Merson is currently in third place with $28.7 million in chips. The players in first and second have $43.9 million and $29.4 million in chips, respectively.

"If I win the tournament, my life is going to change so much," Merson said.

The winner will take home more than $8.5 million, a custom-designed WSOP gold-and-diamond bracelet, and all the fame that comes along with being named the world's best poker player.

"You're like a poster boy for poker forever," Merson said.

The winner also gets a one-year, seven-figure contract with Poker Stars, the world's largest online poker site.

Signed with an agent

But Merson doesn't have to win to open more doors in his career. He's recently signed with an agent, who will help him get sponsorships from companies that want to have him wear a patch to advertise for them during the two-day championship.

"There is a lot of sponsorship money up for grabs for the final table because it's going to be live on ESPN for hours," Merson said.

Regardless of what happens at the final table, Merson could be named WSOP Player of the Year, an honor designated from cumulative points earned during WSOP tournament play. He is currently leading the Player of the Year race, as he and other players head to London to compete in WSOP Europe tournaments, held Sept. 14-28.

Of the nine finalists in the main event, Merson is the only one to have already won a WSOP bracelet this year.

"If you play poker for a living, the ultimate dream is to have a World Series of Poker bracelet," Merson said.

"I don't chase the glory of poker," Merson added. "All the fame and stuff of doing well this summer is all new to me."

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."

ESPN.com 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."

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."

Though he can't imagine quitting poker any time soon, Merson said if he ever leaves the profession, he would like to become a drug counselor.

"That's the only thing that I've been really passionate about other than poker," he said of helping others overcome their addictions.

Merson's mother, Donna Merson, said "not in a million years" did she expect her son would drop out of college, become a professional poker player and be successful.

"You live in Howard County, and you go to Howard County schools and the expectation is you're going to college," she said. "People ask me what my son does, and you say he's a professional poker player, and they kind of look like you like, 'Really?' "

Merson's career choice was not easy for his mother to swallow, especially as she watched him struggle with his drug addiction.

"It was painful to watch, but I'm also just so happy to know that he has the strength to overcome," Donna Merson said through tears.

But ultimately, she sees that poker really was one of the best things that ever happened to her son.

"Poker made him happy, and it basically saved his life," Donna Merson said.

Though it's not all positive — "There have been plenty of ups and downs, and plenty of times I've been on the phone with him when he's lost a lot of money" — Donna Merson said she's OK with her son's career choice.

"Ultimately, kids just have to live their own lives and just be happy about what they do," she said. "And he has supported himself. It's not like he's doing it and asking us for money."

Loving the game

While some may see poker as a game of luck, Merson said there is a lot of skill involved because you're playing against other people, not against the house like in most gambling games.

"A professional is usually going to be pretty smart about what game he should be playing, when he should stop playing the game," he said.

And to play full-time, Merson said, you need to be mentally and physically strong.

"You're using your mind so much … it feels like you've taken a really hard test in college or the SAT or something — just mentally exhausted," he said.

To gain an edge, Merson said he exercises often and eats well.

"Putting good stuff in your body helps with concentration," he said.

Merson can spend 10 or more hours a day playing poker, either online or in tournaments. Exercise, particularly strengthening his core he said, helps when he is sitting without moving for hours on end.

Most of Merson's career has been spent playing online.

"It's pretty normal for me to win or lose five figures in a day on the Internet, any given day," Merson said. "You just get used to the swings after a while."

When the United States government essentially shut down online poker in 2011, Merson decided to move to Toronto, Canada.

"It was one of the hardest days of my life. … It was what I devoted my life to, and now, I can't even live in the country," he said.

Merson recently moved back home to North Laurel after spending the early part of the summer in Las Vegas, competing in the WSOP events. He said he plans to travel and continue playing in tournaments and such until online poker is legalized in the states.

Despite all the ups and downs Merson has experienced from the game, he can't imagine ever giving up poker.

"I still love the game just as much as I did when I was 16 and played it for the first time," he said. "Waking up and doing what you love is the best feeling that you can have."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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    Greg Merson, here seated in front of the announcer during a World Series of Poker event earlier this year, plays poker for a living and is one of nine finalists for the 2012 WSOP championship, to be held next month in Las Vegas. "If I win the tournament, my life is going to change so much,"...

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    Greg Merson poses after winning $1.1 million and a WSOP bracelet in a tournament July 5. "People ask me what my son does and you say he's a professional poker player and they kind of look at you like, 'Really?' " says his mother, Donna Merson.

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