THE ANNIVERSARY MAN: Greg Merson
Five years ago, Greg Merson won two World Series of Poker Bracelets, $9.75 million and WSOP Player of the Year, but the things that happened to him off the felt just before and after that summer have had a bigger impact on his life.
As people go through life, they mentally circle important dates on the calendar in permanent ink. Memories pile up as each calendar page turns, but celebrating or remembering the important ones is only half of the process. Adding new dates as you reach new milestones makes up the other half and over the last five and half years, Greg Merson has built up an impressive collection.
Five years ago, Greg Merson was one of thousands of online poker players who made their living – and built their reputation – sitting in front of a computer screen. The 2012 World Series of Poker changed all of that for Merson, but not before a far more important milestone began his path to poker stardom and ultimately saved his life.
December 10, 2011
It was early December 2011, and a lot of poker players were in Las Vegas for the World Poker Tour Five Diamond World Poker Classic at the Bellagio. Merson was sharing a room at Aria with two of his better friends, Tony Gregg and Christian Harder. Merson was in the room alone when his two friends returned to find him sitting upright in the bed, unconscious.
“I really don’t remember that much. Last thing I really remember is eating goldfish (crackers),” said Merson.
“I just remember being scared and then immediately being like, ‘Alright, he’s alive’, and then telling him, ‘Greg, you can’t do this bro’ and then just him having a breakdown,” said Harder, who realized his friend and fellow Maryland poker pro had come ridiculously close to dying of an overdose in that hotel room.
“I just completely nodded out, which is somewhat close to overdosing, where you just kind of fade out, and if your heart stops beating, then you’re going to die,” said Merson. “I don’t remember nodding out, but I just remember them telling me that I was positioned like that, like I was dead. So that was a big wake up call for me.”
As Harder remembers that day, Merson got himself together, grabbed his phone and headed for the hallway where he called his mom, in tears. He had just turned 24 years old, but Merson was smart enough to recognize he needed to get his life together in a hurry. He took the unusual step of locking himself in his hotel room for three days to get the drugs out of his system and start over. It worked, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
“I remember the depression being by far the worst, like ten times worst than anything I had ever experienced, and how sick I was,” said Merson. “But for all that, I can only imagine what it would have been like if I continued to use for a long time.”
A little less than a month ago, on June 10, Merson quietly celebrated 5.5 years of sobriety. His life is very different now than that day where he woke up in a hotel room with uneaten Goldfish crackers all over his shirt. Not long after detoxing himself in his hotel room, Merson made the decision to move to Toronto to get back to doing the thing he loved more than anything.
“He got clean, he went through some stuff and he was like, ‘alright, I’m going to bury my head and play online constantly’,” said Harder. “So he went to Canada, it was post-Black Friday and he just played online a million hours a day.”
It wasn’t the only thing he did though. While in Toronto, Merson took up yoga and began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. When he wasn’t doing that, he was playing upwards of 24 tables of No Limit cash games with stakes as high as $5/$10. Through all of that, Merson never forgot one very important fact that he was going to have deal with the rest of his life.
“You have to stay focused on the fact that you are an addict and you are not going to ever be cured of this. So you just have to constantly remind yourself that one bad decision could mean falling back into some bad habits,” said Merson.
It might be over 5.5 years ago now that two of his closest friends walked in on him and probably saved his life, but Merson still looks back once in a while at the way he was before he got clean.
“I think about it sometimes. I don’t dwell on the past, but I am also not embarrassed about my past, because similar to poker, you just need to keep moving on,” said Merson. “I don’t really regret anything that happened. I’m not super spiritual or think that everything happens for a reason, but for me, it ended up working out so I could not really change anything if I wanted to.”
July 6, 2012
As the 2012 was drawing closer to the Main Event, Merson had a cashed a couple of times, including bubbling a final table, when the event Merson describes as his personal “Super Bowl”, the $10,000 Six Max No Limit Hold’em Championship began. After three days of play, Merson had just one opponent standing in between himself and a WSOP bracelet; Keith Lehr.
Merson woke up on July 6, knowing he had to be at the Rio for 1 PM. Only 11 hours earlier, Merson had bagged up a 2-1 chip lead over Lehr. The event was scheduled to end that night, but tournament staff wouldn’t allow the pair to finish it out.
Merson and Lehr played exactly one hand on the extra day, with Merson beating Lehr to win the first bracelet of his career and $1,136,197. The previous six months had been a long journey, but seeing the fruits of his labor was more than enough for Merson to break down in tears during his post-win interview.
It was just his fifth career WSOP cash and third that year. Harder didn’t even know how many WSOP events Merson, who prefers to play high stakes cash games, had planned to play that summer, but definitely saw a much-improved version of his friend before the WSOP began.
“I just knew that he was in a better place and was playing everyday. That’s the best thing for him, if you ask him, just getting in a groove of playing all the time. That’s when he’s playing his best,” said Harder. “Then the World Series came around. I didn’t know he was going to play any tournaments because Greg barely played any tournaments.”
Merson wasn’t done there though. Ten days later he made his way through the Main Event field to make the final table. Thanks to the U.S. Presidential Election, the November Nine was moved up a week and became the October Nine, but Merson still had a 3.5-month break before the final table began, so he did what any online grinder would have done; he went back to Toronto and went to work.
After two months of that life though, Merson headed back to his hometown of Laurel, Maryland. The drive should have taken just about nine hours, but Merson had a planned stop to see a friend that he’d known since he was in high school, Julie Sosenko.
Greg and Julie had met at the beach years earlier and stayed in touch via Facebook and email. They hadn’t seen each other since 2005, but Julie’s hometown was the halfway point of the trip, so Greg messaged her on Facebook to see if she’d want to grab dinner as he drove through town.
Even though they’d been friends on Facebook for a while, Julie didn’t really know much about what Greg was up to. She knew he was into poker, but not much beyond that. And she knew nothing of his addiction issues. The pair had first met before Merson was doing drugs and this reconnection was coming almost a full year after he’d cleaned up.
“At dinner I was kind of waiting for her to bring up either one, and it was not happening and then I brought up the poker thing without trying to sound like I was bragging,” said Merson. “She was like, ‘Yeah, I saw some stuff on Facebook, but I didn’t know what that meant’.”
The poker side of his story was the easy one to tell, the other part came up after dinner when Julie suggested they go to a bar for drinks. Greg told her he didn’t drink and next thing he knew, he was explaining the rest of the story to her.
“I didn’t really flag it as anything concerning, mostly because I’ve been around it here and there before,” Julie said. “Of course, there were concerns, it’s scary. Nothing you ever want to think about, but me personally, I don’t know him as that. I hope to never know him as that.”
Not long after that reconnection, the pair began dating. It went against what Merson was looking for at the time as he was solely focused on preparing for the Main Event final table and wanted to avoid any possible unnecessary distractions.
“I can’t be falling in love and then have the girl break up with me two days before,” said Greg. “But it just kind of happened.”
“We kind of both dove in pretty quickly. We were both very hesitant to get into a relationship at all,” said Julie. “We both assumed, ‘Oh, we’re just gonna be friends,’ which is kind of funny because immediately our friends could tell we were inseparable. Something about him made me trust him a lot and I think he felt the same way.”
Six weeks later, Merson sat down on stage at the Penn & Teller Theatre to play the WSOP Main Event final table while he and Julie, who was studying to be a physical therapist at the time, were well into a relationship.
October 31, 2012
With poker fans around the world watching, Merson plowed through the other eight Main Event final table players to win his second bracelet of the year, $8,531,853 and WSOP Player of the Year.
His total earnings for the 2012 WSOP topped $9.75 million. That type of windfall boost to somebody’s net worth can change people at their core. Those closest to Merson don’t see him acting any differently today than he did before he won those two bracelets and the money.
‘I don’t know if he’s that different, honestly. He loves the game. He loves poker more than anyone. People don’t know because they don’t see him out in tournaments, but no one plays more than Greg,” said Harder. “I talk to him almost everyday, he’s just playing on New Jersey sites. He’s content to just grind.”
Obviously winning nearly eight figures in a single year affords one a different type of lifestyle, but Merson doesn’t feel like he can sit back and not continue to work hard.
“The financial freedom is awesome. I struggle with being afraid of not being able to make money. I have no degree. I have no backup plan. I want to take advantage of my skill set in the industry as much as I can,” said Merson. “It’s a good thing and a bad thing because it makes me work a little too hard sometimes if you ask people close to me.”
Now 29 years old, Merson still loves the game as much as he did when he was in his early 20s, playing online after dropping out of college. That passion is something only those closest to him get to see on a regular basis.
“He plays a lot, wins at a high rate, at stakes where people would not expect somebody with that much money, that many accomplishments,” said Harder. “That’s the Greg I first met and he was off drugs, then he relapsed and he wasn’t the same Greg. Then before the (2012) Main he was in the zone. It still crazy that until this day, not one sliver has he let up.”
September 25, 2017
In just under three months, Merson is heading into surgery to fix both of his hips, a degenerative issue that has caused him a lot of pain the last couple of years – so much so that it’s actually prevented him from playing live for the better part of the last 12 months.
“I would have had the surgery earlier, but with the Series … I just wanted to deal with the pain and then get the surgery in the fall,” said Merson. While he delayed the surgery in part to be able to play the WSOP this summer, he didn’t come out to Las Vegas until mid-June.
“I literally cannot sit for more than a couple of hours without being in a lot of discomfort. That’s why I haven’t been playing any live poker for the last year,” said Merson. “I’m just going to deal with the pain for the tournaments.”
Having both hips operated on at the same time – a rarity for somebody as young as Merson – also presents a challenge that is simply just a fact of life for any former addict. He’s going to come out of surgery and have a lot of pain to deal with and he’s going to be prescribed painkillers. A few years ago, he had his Achilles operated on and went through that recovery process without any prescription medicine.
“I just have no idea what kind of pain I’m going to be in, and my Achilles was fucking awful for two days of not having anything. So, if I need them, I’m not going to hold back from using them,” said Merson.
He won’t have easy access to them though. Julie will be the one responsible for giving Greg the drugs and keeping them out of reach when he doesn’t need them. Julie is happy to act as the checks and balances for Greg, but she thinks he’s more than capable of recognizing any potential problems himself.
“He tells me, ‘Hey, do you mind taking care of these? Give them to me if I ask for them and we’ll go from there’,” said Julie. “I don’t see it being an issue. If I were concerned, I would address it with him, but I also feel like he would see that.”
July 22, 2017
Earlier this year the WSOP announced that the November Nine concept was being retired and that the 2017 WSOP Main Event would play out live on ESPN in late July. Every poker player made note of the new scheduled date of the final table and told friends and to expect to be busy that day.
Except Merson. He panicked.
July 22 – the day that the 2017 Main Event champion will be crowned – is the same day that Greg and Julie are getting married in Morristown, New Jersey. After dating for just over four years, Greg popped the question and the two picked a date they though wouldn’t conflict with the already-announced dates for Main Event.
“It’s not even just me though, it’s half of my groomsmen are going to be in the tournament,” said Merson.
The new schedule calls for the final nine players to begin play on July 20 and play down to six. Those six return on July 21 and play down to three. The final three return on July 22 and play down to a winner.
The announcement from the WSOP came early one morning in mid-May. Harder jokingly texted Merson, but he’d already seen the news and was reading it to his soon-to-be-wife who wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. She just reassured herself that the chances Greg or any of his friends made it to the final table were slim.
“Once I got past the confusion and taking the whole idea in, I was like ‘Wow, that sucks’. From there I thought, ‘You know what? It’s like one in a billion chance that he’ll get to the final table again,” Julie said. “Then people tried to make me feel better. He was like ‘Really? It’s like 1 in 900.’ and I thought ‘Oh, great’.”
“It’s not even just me though, it’s half of my groomsmen are going to be in the tournament, and then other close friends,” said Greg. “If one of our super close friends make the final three, she just feels like it takes away from our wedding, since people are going to be watching (the final table) on their phones.”
Even with the wedding planned and everything already paid for, Merson is a poker player and can’t help but dream about the possibility of repeating his performance from five years ago.
“It’s so unlikely to affect anything and I think it would just be such an awesome thing if I were in the final three, obviously,” said Merson. “Who the fuck cares that I’m punting all of this money we spent on the wedding because it’s just not going to matter.”
Julie might not be a poker player, but she understands the odds are actually in her favor. Still, she’s come up with a contingency plan should Greg still be in the tournament on July 22.
“The wedding is probably get canceled or put on hold for however long,” said Julie. “I fly to Vegas with my wedding dress and probably sit behind him in my wedding dress until he’s done.”