Greg Merson: 'None of This Would be Possible if I Wasn't Clean'

Published on 7 April 2013 by Pokerlistings 1052
Last year Greg Merson did the impossible, winning his first WSOP bracelet for over $1.1 million and then going on to win the World Series of Poker Main Event for over $8.5 million just a few months later. But Merson's life hasn't always been so smooth. The young poker pro has battled addiction and now credits poker with helping him stay clean. He also credits his sobriety for his success on the felt. We sat down with Merson to discuss the changes he's gone through and what it means to him to lead a satisfying life.
Yeah, I definitely feel blessed to have these opportunities. This type of situation that my life has turned into, I don't think that anyone in the world could actually truly say that they deserve it because there is so much variance involved in playing a 7,000-person tournament, and there's so many players worthy of winning the title. I would like to think that I put in enough work over the years that I would be one of those people, but it doesn't mean that I deserve it more than Esfandiari or someone who's been traveling, playing tournaments for 20 years. It still doesn't even seem real to me to this day.

I guess what I value the most is that this happened to me after I relapsed. So I was almost a millionaire at 21 and relapsed with a big head with a lot of money at a young age, and there's nothing to prepare you for that. Similar to these professional athletes, they're getting million-dollar contracts at 22 years old. There's nothing to prepare them for that. And then losing a bunch of money when I relapsed then gave me an appreciation for "Wow, this is so cool. I get to do this for a living. I get to make a lot of money. I need to be a lot smarter about the choices that I make away from the table," not that I was sports betting or anything, but I was playing high-stakes poker under the influence which isn't a good idea.

So for all this to happen after that experience just made me so much more aware of how fortunate I am and to not mess this up. And that the most important thing every day is my sobriety and then everything else comes second. And I think I have the right support system in my life to make sure that I can't mess it up and that it is one of the reasons I went public with it too is because now I have all these eyes. I can't just walk around being messed up. Someone's going to call me out and be like, "Hey, what are you doing?" So I have to be that much more responsible about it. None of this would have been possible if I wasn't clean. It's not even possible.

This is my sixth year playing for a living. I've spent ten months under the influence and the other five plus years sober, and it's disgusting. When I'm using, my graph is down like this. It's just crazy. I wouldn't have any shot at any of this if I wasn't in the right state of mind.

My friends in poker now that are still there from the beginning which is most of them are people that I latched onto that were very intelligent, super nice chill people that didn't use drugs. Because as soon as I got clean, I went full-time three months after my original sobriety date in 2007, and all I did was just spend 24/7 with these kids because they're really smart. I was getting better. I loved poker. They loved poker. They didn't use drugs. So it was just the perfect situation.

Anthony Gregg in 2007, I would literally wake up at 5 PM, go to his apartment at 6 PM, play from 6:30 until 6 in the morning, and then go home. My parents and family would be waking up to go to work. I'd go to sleep. I'd wake up when they came home from work. I did that, not kidding, every single day to get super nova elite.

And then we all eventually got a house together. Christian Harder, Tony bought a house. We all lived there. Tony and Christian are my two best friends in poker. And then branching outside of that, Andrew Lichtenberger, Timothy Adams, all really successful players, and we all have that killer instinct where we have that motivation to want to be the best. And that's something that I can't really find in most nine to five-ish people. And I just think that poker players are wired a certain way. It's really difficult to understand how a nine to fiver looks at life, the same way that it is for them to look at how we live our lives. I still have friends that are normal people, but I would say 95% of my friends are poker players.

The main event win changed my life in a way where now...I've always been someone that looked towards the future financially, where I want to be at. Even at 18 years old, where I wanted to be at 25, 30, 35, 40, and I've always been making goals and readjusting them and stuff. At 21, I had my best year as a poker player until last year. So it was almost depressing to think, "I made so much money in 2009. Did I hit my ceiling? Did I make the most money I'm ever going to make in a year at 21 years old? How can I start getting into other things?"

The decision to go with Ivy was just a no-brainer, absolute no-brainer. In beginning discussions with them four or five days after I got home from vacation, so I guess a couple of weeks after the main event and as soon as I saw the different deals, I was like, "Wow, this could get pretty interesting because... I wonder what they're going to offer me." And they offered me a pretty sick deal, higher than I expected quite honestly. And to have that opportunity where this day and age, that market has decreased by over 90% of what it was for main event winners in the past, I just couldn't be more excited. And David Ortiz is the head of the operation, and I see his vision, and I've seen the software. And I've played on so many different sites over the last seven years, eight years of playing online that... I truly am happy to see the software, and the vision they have, I'm so for it. I'm excited to see what happens now. We'll see which states pass it and how it goes from here.