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.
"I was just always trying to drill in his head to just stop," Greg's best friend, Matt Pecker, said. "I know it's hard when you have a disease like that, but the only way to get better is [to] have good people around you."
After almost a year, Merson regained his sobriety, making a promise to himself not to ever touch alcohol or drugs again, even if he wins at the final table. Now sober for almost a year, Merson said knowing how far he could go in poker served as motivation for him to become clean.
"It definitely helped knowing that if I turned my life around I could really do great things for myself," he said.
And he has. He's become a well-respected poker player — a potential WSOP Player of the Year —and has no shortage of earnings to prove it. But those closest to him believe he has learned valuable lessons from all he has had to face.
"I guess I would say that it's probably taught him to grow up in a hurry because he's seen a lot of ups and downs, emotional ups and downs that some people may not have experienced," Donna Merson said.
Merson plans to start a real estate business this fall. But he has no desire to stop playing poker after playing in the final table.
"I don't really see an end in the near future, just because poker is so popular around the world, especially if poker comes back to the U.S.," Merson said. "I'm addicted to the competition much more than I am the money aspect of it."
And aside from his real estate business, he still has plenty of personal goals to reach in the career that gave him something to live for.
"I want to be known as one of the best all time when it's all said and done," he said. "It's not that I want to win a lot of money, it's more the respect factor that I seek.
"I just love the game."