For a record 12 hours this week at the tournament’s final table, Merson battled and baffled Balsiger and Sylvia. He was up, then really up, and then he was down, and then up again — a poker roller-coaster ride.
Through it all, Merson was the Lincoln Memorial of professional poker players: inscrutable, unflappable, stone-faced. He unfolded his arms only to move chips or cards.
As Tuesday night became Wednesday morning, with the sun creeping up in Las Vegas, Merson locked in on the adversaries to his right and to his left. He knocked out Balsiger after the plaid-shirted student went all-in. And then, in their 17th head-to-head hand, Merson ratcheted up the pressure: He went all-in against Sylvia.
Confetti rained down from the ceiling. Lights flashed. In hand number 399, on national television, the dropout got the last laugh.
Merson’s haul: $8.5 million in cash stacked on the table, the Player of the Year award and a $150,000 gold bracelet, which he promptly placed on his mom’s wrist. He hugged his parents tightly, and he cried.
“We didn’t say a lot,” said Merson’s father, Stan. “We were both crying. Greg was crying. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was just one incredibly emotional minute.”
Greg Merson was stunned.
“It’s absurd,” he told ESPN TV. “It doesn’t even feel like real life.”
Merson’s odyssey from typical suburban kid — his father is a corporate executive, his mother is a teacher’s assistant — to world-famous poker kingpin began at Reservoir High School, when he joined his brother and his friends for a basement poker game.
Merson had watched tournaments obsessively on ESPN, and when he finally got a chance to play, he was smitten.
Before leaving for the University of Maryland, the straight-A student deposited $100 in an online poker account. But Merson’s winnings soon began funding a more dangerous game: drugs. First marijuana, then cocaine. Merson says he got high between classes and even before tests. He lost his straight-A pedigree. He also lost 25 pounds.
Merson somehow hid his addiction from his parents, but they didn’t hide their disappointment five years ago when he told them, after just 21
2 semesters, that he was quitting college to play poker full time. They thought he was crazy.
He moved to Atlantic City, got clean and, after an online poker crackdown in the United States last year, moved to Toronto to play legally.
In February 2011, he relapsed. His addiction almost ended his career. And his life.
“I was down about half of my net worth,” Merson said one afternoon at a sports bar near his home before leaving for Vegas. “To watch it go so quickly . . . it was terrible.”