The Washington Post

From dropout to poker star: Greg Merson is ready for WSOP championship

Stan and Donna Merson’s second born son Greg did not take the traditional life path out of suburban Maryland.

Greg Merson, college dropout and poker millionaire. (Joe Giron/Poker News)

He did, however, become a millionaire before age 25. He is, according to his most recent tax filing, an “internet probability specialist.”

In other words, he is a professional online poker player.

“It was hard for us at first,” said Stan Merson, a former banker and now a chief financial officer for a contracting company. “You always expect your kid to grow up to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever. But over time we realized, as long as your kid is happy, and as long as they are self-sufficient, there is probably not a lot more than you can ask for.”

Greg Merson, 24, is more self-sufficient than others in his age cohort. Making the move from online to big-time live poker this year, he has won more than $1 million in World Series of Poker tournaments. On Monday, Merson will take one of nine seats at the WSOP’s Final Table. At stake: $8.5 million. A victory would also lock up the Player of the Year award, beating poker legend Phil Hellmuth.

“It is not a traditional lifestyle, and we understand that,” Stan Merson said. “But he loves it.”

And it saved his life.

Merson took up poker in high school after watching the game obsessively on ESPN. A straight-A student, he deposited $100 in an online poker account -- this was when online poker was a-ok in the United States -- before leaving his childhood home in Laurel for College Park.

He played online at Maryland. He also began dabbling in drugs -- first marijuana, then cocaine.

Merson’s winnings funded a drug hobby that became a drug habit. A couple days high a week became a few days high a week. Then he was high every day. Then he was high almost by the hour. He snorted cocaine in between classes. He took tests high. He lost 25 pounds. His GPA fell to 1.1.

Merson hid his addiction from his parents, and he kept playing poker. After two-and-a-half semesters, he dropped out to play fulltime. He moved to an apartment in Howard County and then to Atlantic City, and he finally went to rehab in 2007.

The online poker life is not unlike telecommuting to work: You log-in on your computer, you dress however you like, you take a break to hit the gym, you shower when you want, if you want.

“I don’t really know too much about the 9-to-5 gig,” Merson says.

But after online poker for cash was banned in April last year, Merson moved to Toronto so he could legally play online. And he fell into drugs again -- adderall and oxycontin.

Drugs and poker did not mix well. “I was down about half of my net worth,” he says. “To watch it go so quickly, it just sucked. It was terrible.”

On a trip to Las Vegas late last year, Merson detoxed himself in a room at the Aria hotel. He spent three days inside without leaving, vomiting and shivering. He has been clean ever since. He won’t even take a sip of beer.

With drugs, he realized, a successful poker career just wasn’t possible. Eventually he would lose all of his money — and then his life.

“It sounds like a cliche and it’s cheesy but it’s really true: Anybody who is really really really close to me knows that poker saved my life,” Merson said. “I can’t be more thankful that it was there for me.”

His parents feel the same way.

“I think it’s good in life to have something to look forward to, and for Greg, for better or for worse, poker is it,” his father said. “He enjoys the heck out of the game, and he’s very, very good at it. I think poker keeps him focused and straight.”

Merson’s father said he sometimes worries about the longterm potential for a poker career. “You don’t see a lot of old players,” he says.

Merson doesn’t worry, but he is working with a financial advisor to put money away, which provides a bit of comfort when he loses, say, $40,000 in Atlantic City, which happened not long ago.

He’s also working on a sponsorship deal with poker legend Phil Ivey, and he invests in other poker players, taking a cut of their winnings. He moved home recently, took up yoga, and just rented a condo near George Washington University. He plans to travel around the world playing poker.

His first stop: Las Vegas. Merson arrived over the weekend to get ready for the final table. He plans to wear his customary dark sunglasses and a professional sports jersey at the table — probably an Orioles jersey. He assumes he will have $8.5 million in his pocket by the end the week. His family will be there watching.

“He can’t lose,” his father said. “I mean, we hope he goes all the way and wins the money, but Greg has already won.”

Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post's local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.


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