Greg Merson said it wasn't about the money. Really.
But one million dollars isn't bad . Especially for a guy from Maryland who dropped out of college twice, a guy who threw all of his chips into professional poker only to reach the top of the sport after only a few years. Merson's win in Event 57 of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, put the promising 24-year-old in elite company.
During the first hand last Friday, Merson sat at a long oval table with green felt and brown suede trim. Just in case Merson forgot where he was , the organizers splashed "WSOP.com" all around the perimeter.
He held king-nine blind for the first hand of the day last Friday and bet 280,000 chips. Keith Lehr, the only other player remaining of the original 474, raised to 915,000.
Merson controlled about 9.5 million chips. Lehr roughly 5 million. Merson went all in.
Lehr and Merson both knew what was at stake: $1,136,197 to the winner. That and a WSOP gold bracelet, one of the most coveted pieces of jewelry .
"It's not so much the money," Merson said three days later. "It's winning a prestigious event that's highly regarded as one of the hardest events of the summer. That was the most important thing to me."
Lehr called. Both players flipped. Lehr had an ace-queen.
Merson knew the odds. His were 40 percent.
The flop came 10-9-10. Merson paired his nine. Suddenly, his odds jumped to 75 percent.
The turn revealed a queen. Lehr had the higher pair. Merson's odds: 20 percent.
The river came out. Jack. Merson pulled an inside straight. He won.
On the East Coast, his family followed the action on the Internet from the Mersons' home in Laurel. Merson's parents and brother had been up late the night before following what they thought was the third and final day of the event until it was called at 5 a.m. Eastern Standard Time .
"It's given me a lot of gray hairs, watching the ups and downs," said Merson's mother, Donna. "It's difficult to choose the lifestyle that he did."
Like a generation of young poker players, Merson got his start in basement card games following poker's popularity explosion in 2003. Merson and his friends would tote snacks and drinks into a neighborhood basement and play cards every time they had a day off from school.
"Back then he worked harder than a lot of people," said Matthew Pecker, Merson's childhood friend. "No one really took it seriously. Everyone took it for fun, but then he saw that it was a good way to make money, and he was good at it."
Merson's basement tournaments turned into online competitions in his first year at the University of Maryland, where one of Merson's hall-mates was an avid online poker player.
After just a few semesters, Merson dropped out of school to play poker full-time. His parents, ultimately supportive, thought he was crazy.
"I thought I had it all figured out when I was 18," Merson said. "I was just really naive and didn't understand how difficult it was going to be to handle a downswing when you also have expenses."
Merson struggled to separate his seed money from his living money, and when his luck turned sour, he went back to community college. After just one semester, he dropped out again.
"I actually had way less money to my name than the first time I dropped out," Merson said.
Pecker, Merson's friend, recalled that he went broke after dropping out of Maryland and owed a few thousand dollars. The experience taught him how to budget and bankroll.
Merson started winning and as soon as he was old enough, he entered live tournaments, at one point moving to Atlantic City. After online gambling became illegal in the United States he bought a place in Toronto played five or six days a week.
"Greg has endured a career that most players dream of, and he's only 24," said Harry Hammel, a spokesman for the World Series of Poker. "To win a tournament that features a prize of over a million dollars at his age is incredible."
Merson also entered this year's WSOP main event, and as of day three, he had 16,200 chips, 950th overall.
But after the hand last Friday, the gold bracelet in front of him, Merson began to cry. He was embarrassed by the tears but he cried anyway, and he swore it wasn't about the money.