There isn't a bad time to win $8 million, but for Laurel's Greg Merson, the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event champion, there was a downside to the timing.
His world championship, with an $8.53 million payday, came in October 2012, about 1.5 years after a federal crackdown on online poker. One of the consequences of that enforcement of federal gaming laws was that the advertising dried up for some poker TV shows, especially ones that featured high-stakes cash games. The advertisers for those shows had mostly been the online poker sites that were driven out of business in the United States.
So, it was something of a thrill for Merson to be able to take a seat in front of the cameras for a new poker TV show, "Poker Night in America," which filmed at Maryland Live! Casino in Hanover March 24 and 25.
"I was really happy that they asked me," Merson said during a break from a cash game with other pro players March 24. "With the drop-off in high-stakes cash games on TV, I haven't been able to show off my skills in that type of game."
Merson's win at the World Series of Poker has been shown repeatedly on ESPN, but tournament play is different from cash games. For "Poker Night in America," the required buy-in was a minimum of $5,000 and a maximum of $20,000. The game was the one familiar to viewers from the World Series of Poker -- no-limit hold'em.
As another poker pro, Tom Schneider, put it, "The stakes are reasonable enough that the players can play loose and have some fun, but the money being bet will still be meaningful to the audience."
Indeed, one pro poker player, Scott Baumstein from New York, lost his entire $7,000 buy-in on the first hand he played when he ran his pocket ace-king into another player's ace-ace. Baumstein then dug into his wallet for another $7,000.
The TV cash game also included some local amateurs, such as Johns Hopkins University computer science professor Avi Rubin, who seemed to hold his own against the pros.
"Poker Night in America" has filmed shows in four casinos so far, and the producers hope to announce a deal soon with a national cable network to broadcast the series. The show aims to feature a more lively version of poker playing than is generally seen on tournament broadcasts.
Merson, who wore an Orioles jersey during his run to the WSOP Main Event title in 2012, continued to sport local athletic fashion. This time, it was a University of Maryland hockey jersey with a retro Terps logo on the shoulder.
The difference that viewers are likely to see in the cash-game Merson, in contrast with the WSOP Merson, is a more relaxed and animated player.
"It's nice to be able to splash around a lot," Merson said, referring to the looser betting during the cash game.
On March 24, Merson was joined by fellow Marylander Steve Dannenmann, the WSOP Main Event runner-up in 2005. Along with Merson -- who has two World Series of Poker championships -- other WSOP bracelet winners were Schneider (four), Gavin Smith (one), Jason Somerville (one) and David Baker (two).
Lately, Merson has been spending time in Toronto -- where playing online against international competition has remained legal -- working on a new game for him, Pot-limit Omaha.
In no-limit hold'em, each player receives two hole cards and also gets to use five common cards dealt in the middle of the table to make the best five-card poker hand. Omaha differs in that each player gets four cards, still sees five common cards, but has to use two and only two of his own cards to make the best five-card hand.
If it sounds slightly more complicated, it is. And it has bigger ups and downs.
"You can find yourself winning in that game and think you're better than you really are," Merson said.
He conceded that he's not as good at Omaha as he is at no-limit hold'em -- not yet, anyway -- but he considered the time and money he had been spending to refine his Omaha skills a good investment.
"I want to diversify my game," he said. "Players are beginning to specialize now, so I want to able to be good at more than one thing. Plus, there's a lot more action in Omaha."