Five years ago, 14-time World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth had just captured the WSOP Europe Main Event in Cannes, France, becoming the only player to win both main events in Las Vegas (1989) and Europe. With 10 cashes in 2012, including four final tables and two bracelets (he also won the $2,500 Seven Card Stud in Las Vegas), Hellmuth was poised to win a title that he truly coveted: 2012 WSOP Player of the Year (POY).
In 2011, Hellmuth came agonizingly close to WSOP POY but finished runner-up to Oklahoma native poker pro Ben Lamb, after Lamb’s November Nine third-place finish. In 2012, with only the WSOP Main Event final table remaining, The Poker Brat was leading the WSOP POY standing once again and only one player could overtake him: Greg Merson.
Although the Maryland native had already won a bracelet that summer ($10,000 six-handed no-limit hold’em), Merson could only capture the improbable double feat (WSOP main event champion and WSOP POY) if he won the WSOP main event. Entering the final table third in chips, Merson still had a long battle ahead to make this an unbelievable reality.
As the 2012 WSOP main event final table raged on, Merson and Hungarian Andras Koroknai created a massive 80 million-chip pot with Merson’s AsKs versus Koroknai’s surprising KhQd. After the board ran clean (8h-3s-2c-7s-7h), Koroknai was eliminated in sixth place, while Merson catapulted into the chip lead.
However, the battle was far from over. Play was halted with three players remaining, which included “October” Niner (WSOP played the main event final table at the end of October due to the 2012 presidential election) chip leader Jesse Sylvia and Arizona State University student Jake Balsiger. When they resumed play the next day, the trio engaged in an epic 12-hour three-handed battle. In the end, Greg Merson emerged victorious as the 2012 WSOP main event champion, with the full support of his family and friends.
An emotional Merson lifted the coveted gold bracelet above his head amidst tears of joy. His emotional road to recovery from drug addiction, specifically cocaine, heroin and Adderall, made the victory so much more poignant, capturing the hearts of poker fans around the world.
Merson spoke to ESPN about that final table, trying to win POY and what his day-to-day life is like now.
“The player of the year [award] wasn’t as important to me just because I never set out to win [it]. I’ve never been a high-volume tournament player and never felt I had a chance to win that title. The bracelet and the money were worth a lot more to me. However, I will say that the banner is super cool.“
Surprisingly, Merson admits that he didn’t initially enjoy his victory in the 2012 WSOP main event, as he continued to set out to prove that he was one of the best poker players in the world.
“Initially, I really didn’t let it sink in. As soon as it happened, I felt I was in the prime of my career … I was so locked in on trying to be the best I could be and trying to play the biggest stakes I could. In order to do that, you have to work really hard and it is hard to enjoy winning the main event. I didn’t want to take a step back and wanted to keep getting better. I didn’t want to settle just because I won the main event.”
Although he continued his hot streak after the main event victory, Merson did experience huge money swings playing in high-stakes cash games in Macau ($600/$1,200 no-limit) and online ($200/$400 no-limit).
“In Macau, I had $300,000 to $500,000 swings; online, I had $100,000 winning and losing weeks. I came to realize that those swings were just not a healthy way to live my life. For me, I couldn’t continue living my life that way. Looking back, I can’t believe that I played as big as I did.”
In November of 2014, he and his girlfriend, Julie (now fiancée) moved to northern New Jersey in order for him to play poker online in one of the few regulated states in the United States. With this new residence, Merson was now able to reduce his nomadic lifestyle.
“I’m enjoying playing online poker in a regulated, secure environment where I don’t have to worry about my money in my account. I just want to play online as long as I can because I enjoy playing online so much more than live. It is just the worst being in a casino and being in a game that you can’t leave and now you are stuck playing there until 6 in the morning. Whenever I can’t make enough playing online, then I will go back to playing live. But, for now, I like playing online from home so much more.”
Now, half a decade later, Merson thoroughly enjoys a healthier lifestyle and can fully appreciate his remarkable 2012 accomplishment so much more.
“Looking back, it brings back some great memories. After I won, I couldn’t appreciate it, but now I fully value the freedom that winning the main event has given me. I still love the competition and want to keep challenging myself. But today, I can play online poker from 9 to 5 and then just live a normal, healthy life, as I even quit smoking a couple years ago. I’m able to get in decent volume and I enjoy the lifestyle of online poker better than playing in a casino.”
Since his emotional victory in 2012, Merson has been very open about his past trials and tribulations with drug addiction and his arduous road to recovery. For more than five and a half years (Dec. 10, 2011), Merson has remained sober but still has the occasional recurring nightmares of falling off the wagon.
“Recently, I had a dream about cocaine. It was more of a nightmare, having this vivid dream and thinking about throwing away all that hard work. I suddenly woke up from the adrenaline rush. It is one of the worst nightmares I can have.”
To cope with the high stress of poker and help maintain his sobriety, Merson still attends yoga classes one or two times a week and has recently started meditating daily. More relaxed and centered, Merson is enjoying his life and poker much more.
Last year at the WSOP, Merson played in 17 events, only min-cashing in two events, while playing in online cash games during his off times. As for this year’s WSOP, Merson has taken a lighter tournament schedule due to torn labrums in his hips, which is a hereditary issue. He played in only 10 tournaments this summer, and unfortunately has not registered a cash. Away from the Rio, he has once again primarily grinded online. Nonetheless, he has still enjoyed his time in Las Vegas this summer.
“I absolutely love the summer camp feel to the WSOP. I stay with the same crew of guys every year. Keeping my game sharp involves talking a lot of spots with these guys and I’m thankful to have such great players in my corner. I haven’t gone out once this summer. I’m here to get better and to put myself in spots to make money, but I get enjoyment out of the grind. Although my summer hasn’t gone very well, I love poker so much and I still love waking up every day and getting after it.”
As he enters this year’s WSOP main event five years after his unforgettable victory, he still remains confident and focused.
“Although I’m two out of 27 events during the last two summers, I’ve run insanely above EV during my lifetime here at the WSOP, so I can’t complain. I’m really excited for the main event and I don’t need much momentum to get my confidence where it needs to be.”
Since the schedule announcement of the WSOP Main Event final table beginning on July 20 with the final three players competing on July 22, Merson has been extremely excited, but is not receiving the “full” support from his fiancée. July 22 conflicts with another momentous date for Greg and Julie, as she tweeted out on May 15.
— Julie Anna (@JulieAnnaXOXO) May 15, 2017
Although the WSOP Main Event final day is scheduled on his wedding day, he is initially focused on playing, but so grateful for his life today.
“My current focus is the WSOP and being in the best head space possible for the home stretch. If I could delay the wedding because I make the final three of the main event, it would make for an amazing story to tell our kids, but that is extremely unlikely obviously. I will just play my best and see what happens. In the end, I’m really excited to marry my best friend. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive partner.”