When Greg Merson got hooked on poker as a Laurel teenager in the mid-2000s, he had to find private games if he wanted to play locally. “I started playing in home games around the area,” Merson said. “I played all different stakes in underground games in Maryland because we didn’t have casinos.”

Much has changed since then, of course.

Merson won the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event — poker’s most famous tournament — and now travels the world to play in online and live games with nosebleed stakes.

And next Wednesday, Maryland Live Casino will open one of the East Coast’s largest poker rooms at Arundel Mills mall, near Merson’s childhood home.

“It’s pretty surreal, just knowing we’re finally going to have a poker room so close,” Merson told me. “I’ve had to drive 21 / 2 hours to Atlantic City since I was 21. Yeah, there’s also Charles Town, but to play big games, you would always have to go to A.C.”

The reigning world champ got a sneak peek of the 52-table, split-level room at Maryland Live this week. He shared his thoughts in an interview.

Initial impressions: “It has a feel that’s really elite amongst poker rooms in the U.S. It helps that it’s brand new, so everything’s going to be state of the art. But the layout is unique. There’s 26 tables on each level. The tables are long and not wide, so that allows for more room to walk around and not be cramped in. They’ll have space, not like Bellagio [in Las Vegas], where it’s hard to walk through the poker room without squeezing through people. ”

Early expectations: “I think there’s going to be a pretty big explosion off the bat. There’s a lot of demand here. A decent amount of pros from around the area go to A.C., and I imagine those guys are going to play at Maryland Live. And there are some amateurs, some action players, in the area that I imagine are going to drive those games in the beginning.”

On whether he’ll become a paid poker room ambassador at Maryland Live: “We’ve had discussions regarding that. But the thing is, I prefer to play mostly online; so I’ve been outside the country as much as possible. I have a place in D.C., but I’m moving out in November because I literally have spent less than two months there since moving in last year. I’m on the road nonstop: Macau, Australia, the Bahamas, Vegas for a month for the World Series. I didn’t want to lock myself down for a contract where I wouldn’t be able to travel and play online. Some states are getting online poker, like New Jersey; if we had online poker in Maryland, Virginia or D.C., I would 100 percent sign a contract immediately. But I’m not willing to give up my freedom right now without knowing where my future lies.”

Free feedback: “I’ve been doing a little bit of free consulting for them because I want to see them do well. It’s smart for them to understand what players will like and not like and make the right decisions from the start. The first impression is so important in any business. You want to make players comfortable the first time they step in your poker room. One thing I told them is they’re going to have to get more safety deposit boxes. Right now, they only have 40. They’re going to need more if they want to have big games there.”

No private rooms or secluded areas for high-stakes games: “That’s another one of the things I brought up with them. There’s pros and cons to that. If you have a private area, it’s nice for some of the players that don’t particularly like people watching them. I enjoy having a private section to play in, like they have at Borgata [in Atlantic City]. But I also enjoy something like Commerce [in California], which doesn’t have private tables. I always thought it was cool when I was playing $10-20 and the next table was playing $100-200 and you saw famous faces — Kenny Tran, Barry Greenstein — playing there. It’s an inspiration for people, seeing famous faces playing a level they want to reach at some point.”

Maryland Live vs. Borgata: “I really like the style of the room at Maryland Live. I think Borgata is nice, with a separate section of high-stakes tables and two private tables. Maybe Maryland Live goes that route in the future. The color scheme is much more pleasing to the eye than what Borgata has, and the TVs on the walls are more up to date because they’re brand new. I didn’t see the chips, but I’d imagine they’re better than Borgata’s, which are glossy and sticky. They’re nice to stack but hard to shuffle because they’re magnetic. Most people don’t like them.”

Delayed debut: “I’m going to be out of town for the first six weeks it’s open. I leave Sunday and won’t be back until October. As long as I’m in town, I plan on playing there. I might just try to set a big game up when I’m in town, to have some guys come in that I used to play private games with. When I move out of my place in D.C., I’m going to be homeless. I’ll be going back and forth between my girlfriend in Syracuse and my parents in Laurel. Maryland Live is 15 minutes away from where they live. It’s going to be nice to have something close. It’s kind of weird, honestly.”