Greg Merson started playing poker to get money for drugs. ” I just have a really addictive personality. I’m just an all-or-nothing type of person,” the Laurel native told ESPN earlier this year. Lucky for him, the draw of poker was more compelling than that of cocaine; in 2007 he got clean and started getting serious — seriously serious — about poker. Last night, Merson triumphed at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, coming away with $8.5 million, a gold championship bracelet, and lifetime bragging rights. (He also won me over by wearing an Orioles jersey, so it’s kind of like the Os did win a world series this year — just not the one they expected.)

After getting clean, Merson honed his game playing online poker. After the U.S. outlawed online gambling, he started living half the year in Toronto, where he could play legally — sometimes as many as 80 hours a week. He’s played an estimated 7 million hands of online poker. Last year, when things were at the peak of intensity, he relapsed — and saw his game take a sharp downturn. That crisis forced Merson to rearrange his life in a way that clearly worked:  “Now it’s like a normal job, 30-50 hours a week on average. I do yoga, I have a personal trainer, I go to sporting events, just keep busy. I never let myself get bored. If I do, my mind can wonder, and that’s a scary thing sometimes… My brain has been trained from all this treatment, therapy and meetings. I’m reading and studying on this stuff, constantly reminding myself of what I need in certain situations. If I’m in a [bad] mood, I’ll surround myself with friends, get in the hot tub, be as healthy as I can. I’ve lost 22 pounds this year, but if I need a pizza to replace using drugs, I will. I’m still addicted to sugar, but if I’m having one of those days, I gorge on candy a bit.”

Merson, a former straight A student, disappointed his parents when he dropped out of the University of Maryland to play poker full time. But his choice was vindicated last night. “We didn’t say a lot,” Merson’s father, Stan, said, according to the Washington Post. “We were both crying. Greg was crying. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was just one incredibly emotional minute.”