Even at the depths of a drug addiction that cost him a fortune and dulled his world-class poker skills, Greg Merson believed he could do something great.
“He always had a lot of faith in himself,” said his father, Stan. “I never saw him lose that.”
Wednesday morning in Las Vegas, the North Laurel native showed the world that his faith was well-placed, winning the $8.5 million first prize in the World Series of Poker Main Event.
“He’s been through a lot, and a lot of people have told him he wouldn’t make it at poker,” said Stan Merson, still running on emotion as he watched a television replay in his hotel suite a few hours later. “So this was definitely a ‘prove them wrong’ kind of experience.”
An exhausted Greg Merson was asleep in a nearby room, after placing the gold-and-diamond championship bracelet he won on his mother’s wrist.
“I’ve played a lot of long cash games in my career, which helps you prepare for something like this, but this whole stage is something you can’t ever really prepare for,” Greg Merson said shortly after winning. “I couldn’t feel better for everyone who I’m sharing this victory with.”
After 12 hours of play on poker’s biggest stage, Merson finally defeated fellow pro Jesse Sylvia of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. About an hour earlier, they had dispatched Jake Balsiger, a 21-year-old senior from Arizona State University who was the surprise of the tournament.
Merson, a 2005 Reservoir graduate, is not the first Marylander to shine before the ESPN cameras at the World Series. In 2005, Severn accountant Steve Dannenmann won $4.25 million for placing second. Oakland logger Darvin Moon repeated that finish in 2009, winning $5.18 million.
But Dannenmann and Moon were amateur players on once-in-a-lifetime runs. For Merson, 24, the victory completed an ascent to poker’s top ranks. He won another World Series event earlier this year, taking home $1.136 million, and his Main Event victory also clinched Player of the Year honors.
Though Merson has been a pro for five years, his brilliant play in 2012 represented a remarkable personal turnaround from 2011, when he relapsed into drug and alcohol addiction and squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars in poker winnings.
The former University of Maryland student has said that without his love for poker as a beacon, he might be dead.
“Greg’s story is amazing, and he’s an amazing poker player,” said Dannenmann, who was in the stands in Las Vegas for part of Tuesday night’s session.
Moon called Merson’s run this year one of the greatest in recent poker history. “You gotta root for Greg,” said the 2009 runner-up. “He’s from Maryland. We’ve got to stick together.”
Merson played the final session in a black Orioles jersey with Adam Jones’ No. 10 on the back (Jones tweeted congratulations after). And his long night of twists and turns mimicked the extra-inning epics that defined his favorite baseball team this year.
Holding a significant chip lead as play began just before 9 p.m., Merson pressed his advantage early, drawing good cards and betting aggressively. As Balsiger and Sylvia battled for second place, Merson appeared to take a commanding position about four hours into the session, with more than 60percent of the chips under his control.
But fortunes shifted as the clock ticked toward the wee hours of Halloween morning. Balsiger and Sylvia triumphed on all-or-nothing plays, and the lead passed back and forth between the three men. They cruised past the all-time record for most hands played in a Main Event final.
Merson shows little emotion as he plays. Even as his lead slipped away, he generally stared straight ahead, his eyes shielded by dark sunglasses and his lip set at the same serious curl. He cracked a few momentary grins when he won tense hands, his supporters waving a Maryland flag and a giant cut-out poster of his face in the background.
“He just looks like he’s sitting at the doctor’s office,” said ESPN commentator Norman Chad as Merson played the event’s final hand, a giant stack of cash piled beside him.
Tears didn’t fill Merson’s eyes until he traded his sunglasses for his regular glasses post-victory.
Dannenmann and Moon both mentioned Merson’s composure when asked to describe him as a player.
“I liked his demeanor at the table, the way he never celebrated during a hand,” said Moon, who watched all 12 hours of the final session on ESPN, despite being buried under 30 inches of snow thanks to the storm Sandy. “I just liked how cool and calm he was.”
Top tournament players are used to long, tense games that last well into the night, Moon noted. So what might have seemed remarkable to a casual television viewer was less so to Merson.
“You’ve got to prepare yourself for some long days,” Moon said. “I tried to get my heart rate as low as possible, almost like sleeping at the table. You sit there 10 or 12 hours a day and you can’t make a mistake. It takes a lot of concentration.”
It was Merson’s ability to remain impassive through hours of grinding play that led many experts to favor him heading into Tuesday’s three-man final.
“I think he’s always had that,” said Stan Merson. “The fact that he can do that in this environment, when he’s more used to playing on the computer in his sweatpants and slippers, is phenomenal. But he knows he can’t be emotional. That’s just what he does.”
Merson has made a good living playing poker, but the Main Event’s $8.5 million prize represents a potentially life-altering windfall.
Stan Merson said he expects his son to “probably go out and spend a few dollars to reward himself, maybe get a new car.”
“But I expect it to be an even keel for him,” he said.
For an addict, temptation is a daily reality, but Merson’s father said he doesn’t worry too much about that either. “I think he realizes he wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t gotten straight,” he said. “He’s awesome when he’s not on drugs and not so awesome when he is on drugs. I don’t expect him to go back to it.”
The runner-up prize has been nothing but a blessing to Moon, who treated the money as a retirement fund and went right back to cutting timber in the forests of Western Maryland.
“I know how I managed my money; I still have it,” he said. “I have a business, and I knew how hard it was to make a dollar. So that really helped me. But I’m not going to give anybody else advice on how to manage their business.”
Moon said winning the World Series isn’t exactly like hitting a lottery jackpot, which sometimes becomes a curse for the newly wealthy. “I worked through 10 days of hell to make that $5 million,” he said. “Anybody can win the lottery but winning at the Main Event, that requires some self-control.”
Dannenmann said he continued living similarly after he finished second at the World Series. He kept his accounting business in Glen Burnie, continued flipping real estate as a hobby and stayed in the same house, though he splurged on an $8,000 refrigerator for the basement.
“Greg was a winning player anyway,” he said, in predicting good things for Merson. “I think he’s more proud that he was able to turn the wheels on what was going on in his life. I think everything else for him is extra credit.”
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