For some people, poker is a game. For others, it's a career. To Greg Merson, it's the reason he's still alive.
"As cheesy as it sounds, poker saved my life," he said. "I don't know where I'd be, if I'd even be alive, if I didn't have this passion."
Merson is 24 and has played poker since he started watching it on television in 2003. Now in his fifth year of playing professionally, he has already won a gold bracelet and is one of the nine players who have advanced to the World Series of Poker final table. Play will begin Monday at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas with Merson sitting in third place with 28,725,000 chips.
He has already earned a net profit in the millions of dollars and stands to walk away with $8.5 million if he wins the $10,000 buy-in Main Event. It would seem the Reservoir alumnus from Laurel has it all. But he would be the first to say the road to get here wasn't easy.
"I was a straight-A student from sixth grade until I graduated high school — straight edge, didn't do anything," Merson said. "And then as soon as I graduated high school, as soon as I got back from high school senior week, I just started smoking weed every day."
It was around this time that Merson began playing poker online. What began as a hobby soon turned into the income needed to pay for his addiction.
"It certainly wasn't good in the beginning that I could pay for my addiction with such an easy source of income," he said.
But after he began abusing cocaine as well, he soon found that his poker winnings were no longer enough. Before long, he had run out of funds, not even having "enough money to make money."
By the second semester of his freshman year at the University of Maryland, he had "become a full-blown cokehead" and the once straight-A student had a 1.1 GPA. At this point, he knew something had to change. He began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and counseling sessions, and became clean in August 2007.
After three months of sobriety, Merson went to his parents with a startling proposition: He would drop out of school and play poker for a living.
"I tell this to people: I wish you could see my parents' face the first time I dropped out of school," he said.
For Donna and Stan Merson, the idea came as a surprise.
"It was a typical parental shock: disbelief, didn't want to accept it, didn't understand his decision, didn't understand the ability to play poker full time," Stan Merson said. "I guess just really we were in disbelief, didn't anticipate it, didn't expect it."
After five weeks of playing professionally, Merson realized he wasn't good enough to make a career of it at that time. But he never doubted he could make a living playing poker. He enrolled in community college to please his parents, only to drop out in his second semester in favor of a poker career.
"I knew I just had to follow my dreams," Merson said.
This time around, his dreams paid off in 2008 when for the first time, at just 19, he made a six-figure income playing poker. Eventually, after seeing his success and commitment, his parents came around.
After a year of sobriety, Merson began drinking occasionally in social settings. Though he never played drunk or hung over, he said, it was the alcohol that "made me slip up one night three months before my full-blown relapse."
The result was a nine-month spiral that cost him more than he ever could have expected.
"I lost a lot of money," Merson said. "I lost almost half of what I had made in 3.5 years."
Through his addiction and relapse, Merson could count on three things: his family, his friends and poker.