Greg Merson: An Addictive Life

greg-merson-an-addictive-lifeLee Davy sits down with the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion, and Player of the Year, Greg Merson, to talk about his battles with drug addiction.

Suffering an addiction affects everything. I’m talking about your mindset, your relationships, and whatever it is you choose to call a ‘job’.

When stuck in this spiral of descent, there is no hope. Happiness is a gift that lies under someone else’s Christmas tree.

This is why my next guest is so important.

Greg Merson is a professional poker player, and former drug addict. He hit the proverbial ‘rock bottom’, but then found sobriety. In 2012 he reached the pinnacle of his profession winning over $9.5m, including being crowned the World Series of Poker Main Event Champion, and Player of the Year.

Today, he represents the WSOP brand, and is an advocate and inspiration for people with addiction issues.

*Note: the following transcription is a condensed version of the interview. To listen to the entire interview head to

How long you have been sober?

“I have been sober for three and a half years. My sobriety date is December 10, 2011.”

Was remembering your sobriety date important for you?

“Going to the meetings and picking up those milestone chips were very important to me. Reaching those goals gave me extra motivation. It worked for me. I know it doesn’t work for everyone. I am very proud to be able to count the months and the years. I am more proud of my sobriety, than any other achievement in my life.

“Sub-consciously, I still take it one day at a time. I don’t think I have this thing beaten, or solved. There is no magical way to stay sober. It’s different for each person. I have my own way of staying sober, and I stick to that routine each day. I take it one day at a time.”

When you took a drug for the first time, how did it feel?

“I tried weed when I was 16. I hated it. It made me paranoid, and that continued to happen the next 5-10 times I smoked. I continued because I wanted to fit in. Eventually I fell in love with it.”

Can you remember the peer pressure at that time? Was it external, or did you create it from within?

“I created it. There was never any external pressure on me to take drugs. Especially, after I had done it a few times. Nobody was pushing it on me.”

There is a lot of clamor to get marijuana legalized in many places around the world. Do you think it’s a gateway drug, and what is your thoughts on feelings on legalization?

“I am a firm believer that it is a gateway drug. I also think each individual person is different. Not everyone, who takes drugs, is a drug addict. There are some people who can moderate. I am not a fan of legalization, but I am not going to be upset if it is legalized.”

What did you think when Shane Schleger told the world that he took crack in moderation?

“I went on his show a week after he announced that he had smoked crack on and off for the last 10-years. I don’t know him well enough to comment on whether he has had addiction issues. But if him, or anyone else, has had addiction issues in the past, and then tries to convince them and others that they can moderate – that is quite laughable. When people go through the addiction process, and eventually get clean, the thought of moderation will enter your mind. You think you can do it this one time, this weekend, or once a month. Eventually, it turns into all-day, then every day. If you have this personality – this disease – then it takes hold of you. It’s a vicious downward cycle.

‘My most recent relapse in 2011 was a really slow dive underneath the water. It was 3-4 months of me smoking once a week, then smoking more often, then exploring other drugs, until eventually I was all-in. I convinced myself that I had everything under control. I never did. It was only a matter of time before it overtook my life.”

When did drug taking stop becoming a social norm for you, and you suddenly realized you had a problem?

“In America, when you graduate high school, you go to senior week, and this is a time when you head down to the beach and spend time with your friends for a week. That week I was drunk every single day. One day I smoked weed, and then I picked up my cigarette habit. When I came back I truly believe I was a drug addict. After spending seven days intoxicated on drugs, when I came home I could feel that I was going through withdrawal.

“I started smoking every single day that summer. Then it hit me. I had all of this freedom and thought I could just bum around because I was a straight ‘A’ student. Unfortunately, by the time I went to college I was a huge pothead and I couldn’t perform as well anymore. That’s when I started getting into coke.”

What was life like for you back then? Who and what was being damaged the most?

“I was really close with my parents. I was living this big lie so I could get high every night. My life was becoming one big lie. I became better at manipulating people and getting whatever I wanted. Especially drugs. I never wanted to be without drugs. I always needed to have my next high on hand.

“What eventually helped me quit, the first time, was the fact that I was a straight ‘A’ student. As I started to become a failing student and it really shook my confidence and made me depressed. I had never failed in school. Here I was failing classes. By the end of my freshman year in college I came clean to my parents. I had lost 25 pounds in weight, and was taking coke every night. I wasn’t even a year into every day use before I realized I needed help.”

How did your parents react?

“They were extremely disappointed. Even when I got clean I quickly started smoking weed again, I just wasn’t doing coke. I dropped out of school for the first time. That was a big shock for my parents. To see me go from straight ‘A’ student to full-blown drug addict who had dropped out of school to play poker. They didn’t want to see that.”

How important was it for you to be liked and recognized for being successful at that time?

“I think it’s really common at that age to want to feel accepted. I wasn’t a nerd in high school, but I wasn’t super popular either. I was second-tier popular, because I did sports. Most of my friends were smart, and smart kids are not popular.

“When I was using I was hanging around with the so called ‘popular kids’. When I got clean I hung around with the so-called ‘nerds’. It takes time to realize that it’s the ‘nerds’ that run the world and end up in charge of the biggest corporations in the world.

“I was 19 at this time. That’s when I met Tony Gregg. I started hanging around with Tony and his friends. None of them smoked or drank, and my life started to change. Hanging around with them was an important part of my life.”

Isn’t is funny how that same nerd/cool ideology follows us into later life when we quit our addictions? It’s cool to be an addict, and you are a nerd when you take the brave decision to quit?

“I still feel like that in certain social situations today. I can be around people who drink, but I can only handle it for 2-3 hours before people get so messed up I can’t hold a conversation with them. If you look at me from afar you will notice how miserable I am to be in that situation.

“I imagine people look at me and think that it’s sad that I can’t enjoy myself unless I am playing poker. It’s not like that. I just don’t choose to be around people who drink alcohol, even if they not drug addicts. It’s just too much for me after a certain amount of time.”

Since I quit alcohol I have created this belief that I am boring. When people then call me boring it re-enforces this belief. Yet, I know I am not boring. It’s very damaging, do you relate to that?

“I couldn’t agree more. I have been with my girlfriend for three years and I feel bad when I am checked out in these social situations. It comes off like I can’t have fun in social situations with her. That’s not true. I can do it, but I can’t do it for 10-12 hours. It’s difficult for me when everyone drinks all the time. It does make me feel like I am boring. My girlfriend drinks very rarely. She is very respectful in that way.’

It would be tough to have a relationship with someone who took drugs or drank a lot of alcohol.

“100%. I knew that coming into this relationship. If this didn’t work I would never date anyone who drank or took drugs recreationally. I feel so strongly about it. It doesn’t mean I have to be with someone who is completely sober, but I didn’t want to be biased. I have been through enough relationships. I didn’t want to risk my sobriety over a relationship.”

How did you get clean after telling your parents?

“I went to an out patient program four days per week. It was two days of meetings, one day a week of counseling, and one day of acupuncture in my ears. When that started slowing down I started going to NA {Narcotics Anonymous} meetings. My first stint of recovery was three and a half years long. In the first year and a half of that recovery I never smoked, drank or took drugs. In the past two years, of that period of recovery, I started drinking socially and smoking cigarettes.

“During my addiction I never had much of a love for alcohol. Those two years that I was drinking, before my full-blown relapse, I may have got drunk once or twice per month. I would only drink to get messed up. I wouldn’t drink a beer at home for example. I had a very low tolerance to alcohol. One night when I was drunk I made a bad decision. I took coke, and it was downhill from there. When I got clean in 2011 I knew I would never be able to drink alcohol again in my life.”

Do you also believe that alcohol can be a gateway drug for people?

“Yeah, for sure. In a lot of ways it’s even worse because it is socially acceptable. Alcohol is a long, and slow deliberate disease because it’s socially acceptable. It’s in its own class because of how socially acceptable it is. I definitely, believe it is a gateway drug. It led to my relapse. To this day I believe I never got blackout drunk, but I was messed up that night and I took coke.

‘It took me six months from that point before I started taking weed, and then moved on to harder drugs. I thought I had gotten through it, but it was a cry for help without realizing it.”

What was your state of mind when you relapsed?

“I felt terrible. I was in denial over the fact it was happening. A lot of my original motivation to get clean was for school, and also poker had become a huge part of my life. My poker winnings were being spent on drugs. I realized if I stopped taking drugs I could use that money in other ways.

“By 2011 I had already won a million dollars playing poker. I felt entitled to do these things in moderation. I felt I had become so good at poker that taking drugs wouldn’t affect my game. I grew up so fast. I was working 60-70 hours a week and felt I needed a break.

‘It was an exceedingly embarrassing situation for me to lose over 50% of that bankroll. Fortunately, my friend Christian Harder was on hand to call me out. He told me that I was an idiot, and pointed out that I could lose everything if I didn’t get help, and quick.

“That’s when it hit me. I broke down crying hysterically. I was at the Aria. I will never forget those three days, even though I don’t remember them, because the detox was so brutal. The amount of drugs I was doing, and the mix I was doing, I was taking almost lethal doses. With opiates you are not that far off taking too much that your heart just stops. You are always chasing that initial high. I would just describe my relapse as a bunch of denial, and self medicating my depression and anxiety.”

Why did you take drugs?

“I think from the original days it was out of boredom and to fit in. School was easy and nothing was challenging me. When I went through my first round of counseling I realized that I had underlying issues with my father – never feeling good enough. I had depression, and anxiety. The first time around those were my underlying issues for using.

“The second time around it was the perfect storm. I was playing really high stakes for the first time in my life. I was having really huge swings, and although my bankroll could handle it I couldn’t handle it emotionally. I was also living with a huge pothead and was constantly being exposed to drugs, so it was only a matter of time before I was going to fail.

“I had reached the threshold where I could lose $20-30k in a day and it wouldn’t effect me. But I had so many days before my relapse when I was losing $50-100k in a day. I don’t want to live my life like that. I don’t want to lose $100k online and then going to make a sandwich. I’m not sick enough as a gambler to be able to do that. It was driving me crazy.”

To listen to the second part of this interview please visit to hear the full 60-minute audio.