LAS VEGAS -- Greg Merson cried.
He stood at the poker table at center stage of the Rio's Penn & Teller Theater, behind stacks of bundled $100 bills that simulated his first-place prize of more than $8.53 million, and let the tears flow.
At age 24, Merson, a professional poker player from Laurel, Md., was at the top of the poker world early Wednesday morning. He captured the Main Event of the 2012 World Series of Poker, topping a field of 6,598 players.
The final table of nine was a strenuous three-day stretch of poker that began Monday afternoon and included almost 11 straight hours of three-handed, back-and-forth, high-stakes, no-limit hold'em competition between 6 p.m. Tuesday and nearly 5 a.m. Wednesday.
Merson was supported by several hundred family members and friends, which included poker standouts Phil Ivey and Jennifer Harmon, as well as supportive text messages and tweets from his close friend, Olympic gold medal winning swimmer Michael Phelps. Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones also expressed his support for Merson via Twitter. Merson wore Jones's orange and black replica jerseys during the poker completion.
But all of the above, when taken into account, was just a small reason why Merson let his emotions flow. He considered where his life was a year ago.
"I could possibly not be alive right now, and that's no exaggeration," Merson said.
Merson has been sober for almost a year, having kicked an addiction to illicit prescription drugs and other substances. Merson had already beaten an addiction to cocaine. In September, Merson opened up about his inner demons in several interviews with ESPN, which broadcast the World Series of Poker.
That's also why Merson felt comfortable on stage Wednesday morning, in a sleep-deprived state, to address the issue while surrounded by media members covering the tournament.
He thought his experiences with addiction might help save other poker players, who live in a profession that can breed particular habits.
"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."
Winning the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold'em World Championship might have seemed like a minor task compared to how Merson had turned his life around.
Merson entered the final table third in the chip count. By the end of play Monday, which stretched into early Tuesday morning, he had taken over the chip lead from now second-seeded Jesse Sylvia, 26, who splits his time between Las Vegas and Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
Jake Balsiger, 21, of Tempe, Ariz., a senior at Arizona State University, was the third member of the three-handed starting field Tuesday afternoon, and seemed outmatched to Merson and Sylvia.
That wasn't the case.
Merson jumped out and quickly extended his chip lead, winning seven of the first eight hands, including six in a row. Within the first hour of play, Merson had more than 110 million in chips and was seemingly controlling the game.
However, 11 hours later, the three had played more than 250 hands of no limit hold'em poker, trading chip leads. Both Sylvia and Balsiger survived several potential bust-out hands on the final card.
The most explosive came at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday. Balsiger survived elimination and doubled-up his chip stack over Sylvia by collecting a pair of 10s on the turn card.
On the next hand, Sylvia was all-in, with his ace-king trailing Merson's pair of kings. The flop was 3, 5, 2 off-suit, leaving Sylvia options. The turn card was an 8 but the river brought a 4, giving Sylvia a straight and mixing up the leader board once again.
Merson and Sylvia often traded the top spot, but shortly after 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, Balsiger finally was first on the board. It lasted about five minutes and the three were almost in a statistical dead heat.
"That was crazy. There is no way to explain it," Merson said.
Finally, at 4:45 a.m., Sylvia busted out Balsiger in third place.
Both Merson and Sylvia had kind words for Balsiger.
"That was nuts," Sylvia said. "Jake really put up a fight. It was an incredible experience playing that long three-handed. It really went back and forth with me and Greg battling for pots."
Balsiger earned almost $3.8 million and Merson said he was proud of how the college student played.
"A year ago, I was playing 25 cent-50 cent online, so to make more than $3 million, that's about all I can say about that," Balsiger said. "There are not a lot of plays I regret, no regrets here."
Heads-up was almost like a sprint compared to the marathon three-handed session. Merson began with almost 40 million more chips than Sylvia. Some 35 minutes in, the lead increased to almost 70 million and Sylvia took a chance.
However, his queen-10 didn't survive Merson, whose king-queen held after the community cards were overturned.
"It seemed like my best play," said Sylvia, who earned almost $5.3 million.
Merson said he understands that he will have the attention of the poker world for next year. His initial plans are to go to Macau for some high-stakes poker games.
As he was surrounded by the media following his victory, an overly enthusiastic poker fan tried to hand Merson a celebratory beer.
"Thanks, but I don't drink," Merson said as some of his supporters tried to rush the fan off. ""I never want to do any of that, literally ever."
Merson also smiled, realizing his life had changed once again.
"I guess I'm going to have to get used to that," he said.
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