Life has accelerated quickly for Laurel native Greg Merson in the wake of his $8.5 million victory last week in the World Series of Poker Main Event. As champion, Merson got to luxuriate in a free villa provided by the Rio Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, where the tournament was held. He spent part of the day after his victory being ferried around the city in a Rolls-Royce by new sponsor IveyPoker, an online venture recently launched by the world's best player, Phil Ivey. But the former University of Maryland student nonetheless made a little time to call The Baltimore Sun and reflect on his experiences at poker's biggest event.
What's the most interesting thing that's happened to you since you won that final hand?
My experience [last Thursday] has been pretty surreal. I got picked up by IveyPoker in a Rolls-Royce, and the Rio gave me a villa for winning. That place is pretty sick.
Is your family in there with you?
My parents and my brother went home [Thursday], so I'm in there with some buddies. It's only got two bedrooms, but it's got like five bathrooms and a bunch of other stuff.
When you were at your lowest point, battling addiction last year, did you still believe you could come back and do something like this?
I mean, I always had confidence in myself and my ability to play cards when I was staying clean. But this is something you never really imagine. I mean this is something, you can play in it for 40 years, 20 years at your peak, and never get this opportunity, because there are like 7,000 people in the tournament. So there has to be some luck in there. But I certainly want to play my best at the end, and I think I played pretty well.
Did anything about the final table surprise you? Were you aware of the stage and how many people were watching?
It never crossed through my head how many people were watching back at home or anything like that. But for the first 15 or 30 minutes at the table, I was more nervous than I thought I'd be. Poker is usually not a game where you play in front of 1,200 people with an atmosphere like a pep rally. So I was lucky I didn't do anything too stupid early on.
To the outside eye, your composure was remarkable, even when the momentum turned against you. Is that something that always came to you pretty naturally or did you have to practice it?
I've definitely had to work on it. One of my friends, Anthony Gross, is one of the big reasons why I'm able to remain so stable when I'm at the table. We talk about how you can't overreact to things that are outside of your control. That's easy to say, but it's not always easy when you're playing. When I had Jesse [Sylvia] all in and he won that hand to double up, I was pretty torn up inside. I thought I was about to win. But I just told myself, "Now, you have to win it twice."
When the momentum turned against you, did you have to have little talks with yourself about staying focused?
Actually, I drank like four or five Red Bulls just to keep myself jacked up. As Zen-like as I might have looked outside, that's not really what's going on inside. But I just tried not to show that much. I felt pretty defeated at some points, and I couldn't get that out of my head. That shouldn't be going through your head at that point.
How did you get that out of your head? Did you just tell yourself to keep playing?
No, I just started drinking Red Bulls. I'm telling you, they should sponsor me.
When you won, was there a sense of vindication? Did you think about all the people who said you were crazy to devote your life to poker?
All that stuff went through my head when I won [another World Series tournament] back in July. That's when my name started to get out in the media and people back home started to be aware of what I was doing. That was more of the "Hey, I did it," moment. So I had already gotten over that whole phase awhile ago. With this one, I felt better for my friends and my family. You know, now they can say, "That's my friend or that's my brother or that's my son." So I feel better for them in a way.
You went to embrace Jesse Sylvia right after you beat him. Why was that your first instinct amid all the craziness?
When I won back in July, I kind of collapsed under the emotion of the moment. And I remember somebody telling me, "You need to go over and shake your opponent's hand." So when Jesse went all in, I reminded myself that if I won, I needed to get over and do that. But I couldn't believe how fast some of my friends got to me on the stage. I almost had to push one of them down just to get to him.
I've read poker analysts say that we're not likely to see you at tournaments all the time. Is that right? Is that not your favorite setting?
I think they're pretty dead on with that. But you could see me bracelet chasing for awhile to represent myself and Team Ivey. I have a chance to put myself in some pretty rare company, so there's some excitement that goes with that.
You had already won a lot of money playing poker, but did the $8.5 million number still blow your hair back? Do you see it as life-altering?
It's almost not even fair. There's only one tournament like this, that pays four times as much as the second biggest. It's almost like cheating in a way. But this type of money, I feel I would have gotten there at some point in my career anyway. I just want to be smart with it. I think a lot of the stuff I went through early in my career prepared me to deal with this kind of money. I came up playing on the Internet, and a lot of us learned the hard way.
And given your battles with addiction, you've already been up and down the roller coaster money-wise, right?
Yeah, I had reached a certain level, so when I relapsed, I was still playing against the best guys in the world. And if you're playing the best guys in the world when you're not in the right mindset, you're going to lose a lot of money. I lost probably half my net worth.
Do you worry about letting your guard down with addiction given that everything is going so well?
If anything, I just want to live as normal a life as possible. I want to be an ambassador for the game of poker and do anything possible in that role. I think it's really unfair that online poker is banned in this country. It just doesn't make sense that you can go to a casino and play, but you can't play on your computer at home. So hopefully, a change is coming soon with that. That will be one of my focuses. And then I want to share my story with anyone who might have questions about sobriety.
Do you feel a particular allegiance to online poker because that's your background?
Yeah, ideally, I'd be sitting at home, playing five days a week on the computer and then picking and choosing the tournaments I travel to.
If you had to guess, what will the next year be like?
I'll spend the holidays at home and then go to the Bahamas in January. I'm going to Australia after that to play the Aussie Millions and also, because I've never been to Australia. Then, I'll probably go to Macau to check out some of the high-stakes games there and I'll try to get over to Thailand while I'm there. The spring? I haven't gotten that far yet. But next summer, I'll be back in Vegas and stay out here through the whole World Series.
Thanks for calling, Greg. You definitely made fans here, especially by wearing the Orioles jerseys.
Yeah, I really wanted to represent for the people there.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun