Upper Hand: Interview with Greg Merson

A Laurel native wins the World Series of Poker.

Jess Blumberg - January 2013

Upper Hand: Interview with Greg Merson

A Laurel native wins the World Series of Poker.

Jess Blumberg - January 2013

Did you play cards as a young boy?

I played poker for the first time when I was 16 and I went full-time when I was about 19. I basically went to college for my parents, but was spending all my time getting better at poker.

Talk to me about how you practiced and honed your skills.
I was playing 95 percent of my hours online and I was playing with a fake ID sometimes. I played pretty much all poker online, except I played at an 18 and over Indian reservation in upstate New York. I would go up there five or six times a year. But I probably played about 70 hours a week online. As soon as I went to college, I got introduced to underground games and I was playing a decent amount. Soon after, I spent every summer in Vegas.

What was it about poker that interested you?
I always got straight A’s—all the way from 6th grade on. And then when I went to college, I had to take all these boring pre-req courses. I thought, “That’s what I had been doing my whole life and now I have to do this all over again.” I found poker to be so much more complex, so much more interesting. It’s just a good combination of competition and gaming. It reminds me of sports, but also involves game theory. I didn’t do it for the money. I could easily make $2000, which was more than enough for spending money. I never looked at as an end all and be all.

Then I got addicted to drugs. I’m real open about it because I want to help other people. I’m just trying to give information to people struggling with drug addiction. Part of being an addict is being a perfectionist, and if you channel it into the right thing, you can be successful. It takes money to make money, just like anything in life. I was spending all the money I was making on drugs, and wasn’t able to make any because I wasn’t growing my bankroll. As soon as I got clean, I started doing pretty well for myself. I’ve had two or three relapses, but the first two were very early. If you’re playing a game that involves control, you need to be as level headed as possible. I don’t drink when I’m in Vegas; I don’t do any of that shit and it gives me an edge over other players. I was fortunate to pull myself together. There aren’t many successful poker players who have to deal with being a drug addict and having depression issues. You have to be careful when your mind is in that foggy state. If I feel like I’m having one of those days, I just don’t play at all.

What goes through your head during poker games?
Poker is the type of game, and anyone who plays poker will tell you, it’s all about making the right decisions—the rest will take care of itself. You can do everything right, but then it’s all in the cards. But, if the long run, you’re constantly making the right decisions, there’s no way you’re going to lose. It’s just like day trading. They win or lose money every day, but in the long run the market goes up. When I went in [to the tournament], I told myself I want to play every situation the best possible way and then I can live with the results. Even though everyone was telling me I was the best player, mathematically, I was only going to win 20 percent of the time. I had prepared myself to say whatever happens happens.

How’d you decide to wear the Orioles jersey at the final table?
I’ve always loved baseball. I played club at University of Maryland. At first, I was going to wear my high school baseball jersey. But then, I was getting a bunch of support from my hometown and the Orioles started to have such a successful season, so I wore my Adam Jones jersey—he’s my favorite player. Adam Jones was tweeting about it while i was playing. He started following me and sent me a message and said, “Thanks and it was super sick to watch you.”

How many days was the tournament?
It was seven 12-hour days, but I’m there all summer anyway. It’s funny because our house lease was only until the 16th. And so that night, we played until almost 3 a.m. and I had to go home and pack all my stuff and then finally went to bed and then drove back with all my stuff in tow to the final table.

At what point did you start to realize you might win the whole thing?
I definitely thought, “I’m going to have to get very luck to win this whole thing.” You’re never 100 percent.

I noticed you got pretty emotional when you won.
The thing is I guess I get pretty emotional from my mom’s side of the family. I didn’t see that coming. When I won, I saw my dad crying and it was only the third time in my life I had seen that. So it hit me, and I just lost it.

What are your thoughts on what you might do with the money?
Well I just signed a lease for an apartment in DC. I’m also going to be a silent partner in a real estate company. I’m going to meet with financial advisors that I trust. It’s really hard to trust people when it comes to investment. I’m going to be super careful. I’m going to continue to play poker, travel to Australia and Macaw. The biggest games in the world will be where poker is popular; and where really rich people want to spend money.

But yeah, it doesn’t even seem like real life. Everything has been so crazy. You go to Vegas every summer with goal of winning $100,000 or so and then I pretty much just won $10 million in two-and-a-half weeks.

How has your life changed since you won?
What’s kind of cool about it is that, if I wanted to, I could go around and have all the glamour and travel poker rooms and be recognized. But that’s the not the type of person I am. I just wanted to make a good living because I love doing it. And, If I go out to the grocery store, no one recognizes me. It’s pretty nice.

How do you feel about the slots decision being passed in MD?
We all want to be able to play poker online legally. Almost every country in the world you can play it online. It’s regulated in Spain, Italy, France; that’s what the US is going to do eventually. I had to live in Canada for 10 months just to practice legally. You have to leave your family in friends. I had to sacrifice things to pursue my dream. There are already so many illegal poker games in Maryland. People have no idea how many games there are. People are going to gamble no matter what. So, yeah, it was exciting. And if I could get linked up and be an ambassador to the new Harrah’s or National Harbor, that would be awesome.

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