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Sean Chaffin Sean Chaffin

Greg Merson’s Rise From Rock Bottom to Poker Rock Star

The 26-year-old World Series of Poker champion talks about recovering from his addiction to coke and oxy while thriving in the hard-partying, high-stakes professional game.

12 Substance

In the world of professional poker, 26-year-old Greg Merson is a household name. With unyielding determination, Merson took down the $10,000 World Series of Poker Main Event—aka “the biggest deal in poker”—a seven-week-long poker spectacle, in 2012. Fans and fellow poker players marveled at his skills on the table and loved his comeback story—how he found himself in rehab not once, but twice, and shook off near-financial ruin to claim the first-place money of $8.5 million.

Like many others, Merson got into poker after watching the ESPN coverage of amateur Chris Moneymaker win the event out of nowhere in 2003. In his card-playing career, Merson has amassed almost $11 million in tournament winnings and plenty more in cash games.

Professional poker players do not occupy the same reality as the rest of us. Winning and losing thousands on a single hand takes a superhuman disregard for risk. Cash is the weapon of choice, and for a generation of young Internet poker pros, fine wine, fast cars and the like are a major part of the high-flying scene. The combination of big risk and little responsibility can carry over to other areas: Drugs, alcohol and all-night partying are an ever-present temptation. After his epic win, Merson said that he wanted to be an advocate and inspiration for people with addiction issues. The notion of overcoming addiction while playing poker for a living may seem counterintuitive, but it works for him.

Substance.com spoke with Merson from his home in Toronto on the eve of the 2014 World Series of Poker, which takes place in Las Vegas from May 27 to July 14.

Sean Chaffin: How has your life changed since winning the World Series of Poker Main Event?

Greg Merson: My life has become much more public but I try to keep it as private as possible. It’s nice that poker is only popular in a small circle of people, so that I can go about my everyday life without often getting recognized. That summer was much different for me, as I was being stopped by random people and asked for autographs and pictures.

Overall, my experience has been great, although I don’t particularly enjoy doing interviews as I find the questions to be very repetitive and focused around that one moment of my career. Being mostly a cash game player instead of a tournament player, I don’t get acknowledged much for my accomplishments. I am much prouder of being a recovering drug addict, who most would consider one of the hardest-working online cash games players around.

Can you talk about your addiction? What were your problems and how did you address them?

I started using when I was 17, it developed very rapidly, and I was doing cocaine within six months of my first time trying marijuana. Coke was my drug of choice until I was 19 and got sober for the first time. I felt like I had hit rock bottom at the time—failing out of school, always being broke from my habit and losing touch with reality.

I spent the next full year completely sober. A couple of months in, I turned pro and had a great year. Things were going well. My second year of recovery, I began drinking socially because I never was fond of alcohol and didn’t think it was a risk. Within two and a half years, I had a full-blown relapse at 23 in February 2011. I had three and a half years clean and one sober. I had made over $1 million on the Internet during that time and was beginning to feel like I deserved to “treat” myself—big surprise for an addict to think this way. I then began a downward spiral to my actual rock bottom.

In April 2011, the US shut down online poker, my main source of income. and it sent me into a massive depression. I then gambled even higher stakes in live games while on drugs to compensate for my online poker income now being gone. I had lost about $200,000 on the year going into July. I never had a losing year sober. So I decided to move to Canada to play online. I then proceeded to lose another $200,000 between live and online, being messed up all the time.

What was your lifestyle like and how did it affect your poker game?

In October 2011 I tried roxies [Roxicodone, a form of oxycodone] for the first time and that became my drug of choice. I was quickly losing just over half of my net worth, and wasting all the hard work I had put in during the previous three and a half years playing professionally. I detoxed myself from roxies on a trip to Vegas in December in my room at the Aria hotel. I didn’t leave the room for three days and on the fourth day only left for cigarettes.

I knew I needed to change my life—I was just in denial over how bad things had really become. One of my roommates at Aria called me out really hard about how badly I was fucking up. He’s someone I respect a lot and something just clicked and the next day I was detoxing, December 10, 2011. I have been clean ever since.

As a person who might have an addictive personality, do you ever worry that poker or gambling might itself become an addiction for you?

This was never a concern of mine. I’ve always used poker as a source of release from my addictions, and I’ve always been very smart about how much I risk each time I play. I don’t play any casino games other than poker and I don’t bet sports. I’m lucky that I can channel my sickness into gambling strictly through poker.

What made you save yourself? What was the reaction of friends and family about how things were going?

My buddy snapped me out of it and I finally realized how bad it had actually become. My family didn’t know what was going on because I avoided contact with them. I think they assumed that I was just having a bad year and was grumpy. My friends had always been passive about the issue and never confronted me on it. It was so refreshing to have someone be like, “Dude, you’re an idiot. What are you doing, man?”

Can you talk about your rehab stays?

I checked myself into a rehab when I was 19 and went to treatment four days a week—two days of group, one day of individual and one day of acupuncture. I did that for over a year and then started doing Narcotics Anonymous. My counselor during that time may have saved my life. Although I did relapse at 23, he gave me the tools to be able to pull myself out of that state of mind. My second time around I’ve just been using NA and all the knowledge I’ve gained over the years to put myself in the best position to stay sober every day.

What other things have helped you stay sober?

Yoga is one of the key elements, for sure. I get a nice core workout that helps with long poker sessions. It also helps clear my mind of the hectic grind.

But poker is the number one reason I stay sober. I love to compete and money is just a way of keeping score. I could care less if I made $50,000 a year or $1 million. I just like to compete at a high level and I’m fortunate to be able to make a good living because of it. I love the game as much as I did when I was 16 and played for the first time. I don’t spend 70 hours a week married to the game like I used to, however. My life is much more balanced and I play about 30 hours a week during trips to Macau or Vegas. Those trips are for poker business only but can reach to the 50-to-70-hour range when I’m really fresh and the games are good. I try to push myself hard when the games call for long hours.

Have you seen a lot of drug or alcohol problems in the poker world?

Tons, tons, tons. These guys have no boss, a lot of extra income and flat out just time to kill. Drugs become a much more fun way to waste time. Someone who plays poker suffering from addiction needs to use all the resources available and find out which source of recovery works best for them.

Are the drugs and alcohol in the scene still a major temptation as you carry on with your career?

I gradually started playing bigger and bigger as the years went on, all at my own pace and comfort. Now the temptations are not as bad as most people would think. I think this is largely because of who I hang out with. I have an amazing girlfriend and family who support my sobriety and are always there for me.

Sadly I haven’t been to an NA meeting in quite some time but I use poker and yoga to help with my cravings, which are very rare these days. I typically try and watch documentaries on drug addicts as much as I can to remind myself where I was and why I don’t want to go back to that lifestyle.

How have other players reacted to your sobriety? Do they ask you for help with their own problems?

Other players are supportive. I’ve gotten basically zero negative feedback. I have helped a few guys out, and I’m always willing to listen to someone’s story or offer advice. However, the process of recovery starts from within and that person ultimately makes the decision to get clean.

What advice would you give someone with a friend or family member battling some of the issues you went through?

Pray. Don’t put the addict down during their use, but don’t support their habit, either—there’s a fine line between these two. Sadly there isn’t much you can do but hope they realize how much better their lives can be without drugs. Once they have turned the page, support the hell out of them and ask them how they are doing periodically.

What are some things you have been involved with outside the poker world?

I have played sports my whole life so I enjoy going to games and watching games at home. I’m big into Showtime/HBO/AMC shows and yoga. I spend a lot of time with my girlfriend and I have a dog I love to death. I stay as busy as I can to avoid being bored and letting my mind wander.

I started a real estate company in 2012, which was supposed to start in 2011. But then I relapsed and moved to Canada. Having the extra money and a clear mind has allowed me to start it the right way with my business partner. I am also signed by Iveypoker.com [an online poker training site founded by American poker icon Phil Ivey], which should be getting real-money gaming in the US within a year.

Have you bought any big toys with your winnings?

Courtside Miami Heat tickets, but not much other than that. I fly business international, which is a nice perk.

What were you like growing up?

Sports, video games, straight-A student. Never played many card games, but liked board games and always very competitive. Only worked two jobs, both for entrepreneurs, and I quit both within weeks because of poker.

What are some of your poker and life goals in the next few years?

I want to regain my status as one of the best online grinders in the world. I’m currently working very hard to get back to that level. I want to be married with three or four kids and live in the suburbs. I’ve always wanted a Ferrari, but I’m making myself wait until I’m in my thirties because if I bought one now, what do I have to look forward to?

Anything else to add?

With enough hard work, any goal or dream can be accomplished. And for all you poker players: When playing in recreational games, try not to bluff too much—the value in these games comes from betting your hands correctly and making good folds.

Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas. He is the author of Raising the Stakes: True Tales of Gambling, Wagering and Poker Faces. His blog, PokerTraditions.com, is about poker history, people and lore.