Merson’s long road to world poker champion

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As you likely know by now, Greg Merson of Maryland is the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event champion and WSOP Player of the Year. But overcoming that huge field of nearly 6,600 players to win $8.5 million was nothing compared to overcoming his addiction to drugs. In an exclusive interview, Ante Up’s Dr. Stephen Bloomfield, a poker psychologist, had a chance to chat with Merson at the bestbet Jacksonville poker room, a week after Merson’s win at the World Series of Poker.

He’s the new and chemically-free $8.5 million man. Greg Merson played great at the World Series of Poker. Even before he won, poker greats such as Phil Ivey knew this, and I guess so did bestbet Jacksonville because it sponsored him.

Much has been made of Merson’s drug addiction. We discussed this at length. He had a serious pill problem, using Adderal and Roxyoctin. A couple of years ago, he played the whole WSOP on pills and felt he was thinking great, but not doing as well as he thought. He was high and now realizes he was rationalizing and lying to himself.

“I want people to know that playing with a clear head makes me a better player,” Merson said. He also wants everyone to know playing high gives a false sense of mastery of the game and playing straight lets you play your best. And he played his best at the longest final table in WSOP history, 12 hours and 399 hands.

“I’ve played a lot of long cash games in my career, which helps you prepare for something like this, but this whole stage is something you can’t ever really prepare for,” Merson said after winning the main event and tearfully placing his gold bracelet on his mom’s wrist. “I couldn’t feel better for everyone who I’m sharing this victory with.”

Merson defeated Jesse Sylvia heads-up for the title and his second bracelet from this year’s series. Sylvia took home $5.295 million for second.

I think Merson has a lot to say. His strongest message: “You will play better when your mind is clear; stop pretending.”

There are different paths to drug addiction. Some get prescribed meds for real disorders and get hooked. Some hear a drug will create a certain effect and try it. It creates the effect once, but then they chase that high for years.

Some rationalize. “I play a stressful game for hours at a time and need a little weed to chill out,” or “I play better when I am on Adderal or other similar drugs because I can focus.” Greg says no, but also knows this is a common refrain among players.

He’s in recovery; he’s playing his best and he’s not high. His mind is clear; he knows how he wants to proceed and he knows addiction and abuse are treatable, though it’s possible he could have a relapse. He also talked about wanting to contribute to the poker community. He will no doubt find a way.

So, what should folks do? Don’t get started. That sounds as trite as “Just say no.” But it’s easier to make a good decision when you’re straight. If you get started, then stop; use natural supports; talk to other players; try 12-step programs; go to a counselor.

“Players who are using drugs fool themselves into thinking they are playing well,” Merson said. “I am not talking about partying; I am talking about people playing high and thinking they are playing well and they aren’t.”

I strongly believe the concepts of sports psychology can give a natural high, a feeling of being actualized and clear. Use breathing, visualization and even meditation.

Keeping your head in the game is keeping your mind straight and clear and drug-free.

Recovery is a long and arduous process. Merson seems to have a good handle on this; has gone through rehab and relapse; is young and resilient and knows the temptations that lie ahead. Good luck, Greg; you played a heck of a World Series with a clear head.