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August 23, 2014

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WSOP:

Greg Merson shines as poker’s champion less than one year after personal low

Merson knocks off Jesse Sylvia to become 43rd World Series of Poker champion

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Steve Marcus

Greg Merson, 24, of Laurel, Md., is overcome with emotion after winning the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event at the Rio on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. Merson takes home a championship bracelet and $8.5 million in prize money.

Greg Merson Wins 2012 WSOP Main Event

Greg Merson, 24, of Laurel, Md., holds up his championship bracelet after winning the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event at the Rio on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012. Merson takes home a championship bracelet and $8.5 million in prize money. Launch slideshow »

2012 WSOP Main Event Final Table Payouts

  • Greg Merson (1st) — $8,531,853
  • Jesse Sylvia (2nd) — $5,295,149
  • Jake Balsiger (3rd) — $3,799,073
  • Russell Thomas (4th) — $2,851,537
  • Jeremy Ausmus (5th) — $2,155,313
  • Andras Koroknai (6th) — $1,640,902
  • Michael Esposito (7th) — $1,258,040
  • Robert Salaburu (8th) — $971,360
  • Steve Gee (9th) — $754,798

An incoherent fan reveling in all of Greg Merson’s World Series of Poker glory stumbled up to the new world champion with a beverage in hand early Tuesday morning at the Rio.

The celebrator barely extended his arm before Merson stopped him. Standing in front of the $8.53 million he had just won and wearing a fresh $150,000 WSOP championship bracelet, the 24-year old from Laurel, Md., apologized and said he didn’t drink.

“I never want to do any of that ever,” Merson said later, “literally ever.”

Merson ultimately outlasted the eight other players at this year’s WSOP Main Event final table, which went down as the longest ever with 399 hands dealt, in part because of a decision he made less than a year ago. Merson decided to kick his vices, namely a pair of crippling addictions.

Eleven months before Merson stood on the heavily lighted stage at the Penn & Teller Theater as the toast of the worldwide poker community, he was down the street in a much darker and lonelier place.

Merson checked into a room at Aria in November 2011 and forced himself to get over his dependency on adderall and oxycontin. Having already beaten a cocaine habit, Merson was determined to get clean once and for all.

Detoxing made for an unpleasant few days to say the least, but it’s what Merson felt he had to do to get his life in order.

“I could possibly not be alive right now, and that’s no exaggeration,” Merson said.

Merson was a breakout star at this summer’s WSOP. Before advancing to the final table, he won $1.13 million and his first WSOP bracelet in a $10,000 buy-in, six-handed no-limit hold’em tournament.

Merson became the first Main Event champion since Chris Ferguson 11 years ago to already have a WSOP title at the time of his victory. He’s also the only player in the history of the WSOP to win both the the Player of the Year award and the Main Event at the same series.

His play was close to flawless in the final round that began at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday and ended at 5:45 am. today.

Merson held the chip lead for the majority of the time during three-handed play with Jesse Sylvia and Jake Balsiger, but he took a few bad beats to lose large chunks of his chip stack. The most notable example came early when Sylvia went all-in with Ace-King and caught a straight on the river against Merson’s superior pocket Kings in an 85 million chip pot.

Unaffected by losing pots that would set some players off, Merson stayed calm and rebuilt his lead repeatedly. While Balsiger and Sylvia both yawned numerous times as the hours wore on, Merson showed no signs of exhaustion. He’d take a swig of an energy drink and lock back in on the table.

“You can’t let the fatigue get in the way,” Merson said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’ve pushed myself through tons of hours of poker in the past and, obviously, you have to get through it somehow.”

Merson eventually took out Balsiger when his King-Queen held up against Queen-10. Sylvia failed to last much longer.

Using his trademark aggression, Merson forced Sylvia to make a decision for all of his chips less than an hour into heads-up play. Sylvia called Merson’s all-in bet after some prolonged thought, but the 26-year-old who lives in Las Vegas had the worse hand with a suited Queen-Jack. Merson had a suited King-5, which won the pot.

Sylvia, who entered the final table as the chip leader, received $5,295,149 for the second-place finish.

“I fought hard,” Sylvia said. “We were one flip away from having a giant chip lead. Sometimes things don’t pan out, and that’s fine. I feel like I played really well.”

Merson came away impressed with Sylvia’s game. The final table was so draining that Merson expressed no desire to play more tournaments anytime soon.

With his fortune, he plans to travel to Macau, China, in pursuit of high-stakes cash games, instead of traveling the circuit to compete in grueling tournaments.

“That’s what I’m looking forward to doing the most — getting in the biggest cash games in the world,” Merson said. “And not losing all my money.”

“It’s kind of my dream.”

Most would assume Merson accomplished all his dreams in the Main Event, but he’s got even higher ambitions that developed in the last few months.

Sure, he wants to win as much at poker as possible. But Merson also envisions using his experiences to inspire those in similar situations.

“We live such a ridiculous fast-paced lifestyle,” Merson said of poker players. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the wrong stuff. That’s something I look forward to helping more people with or sharing my story with, whatever I can do in that regard.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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