Jason Somerville … Running it up

Bankroll, profile, fanbase

As the online poker market in the United States fights to establish a new identity in a post-Black Friday world, the number of sponsored American players has shrunk considerably. Outside of a handful of long-term Team PokerStars pros, there are only a few American players fortunate enough to represent one of the three major sites in New Jersey and Nevada.

Jason SomervileUltimate Poker has the largest stable of players in the U.S. with 10, led by 2012 WSOP Big One for One Drop champion Antonio Esfandiari. The rest of the roster is filled out by a group of talented young players who promote the brand to varying degrees in addition to playing online, but one member of Team U stands out for the sheer level of his dedication to promoting the game.

There aren’t as many opportunities for poker players to get screen time on American airwaves as there were during the boom, but Jason Somerville has found a different way to get himself in front of an engaged audience. He’s using rapidly improving Internet video streaming technology to reach out and interact with poker players and fans in real time during his sessions, and in the process Somerville has infused a new energy into a content model that desperately needs it.

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When Somerville signed with Ultimate Poker at the start of the 2013 World Series of Poker, he was already a well-established tournament pro. Somerville won a WSOP bracelet in 2011, and six of his seven live cashes of over $100,000 have come on poker’s biggest stage. His lifetime live tournament earnings exceed $2.1 million, but like many other successful players of his generation Somerville’s exploits in online poker are what made it all possible.

Somerville falls squarely in the sweet spot of the Moneymaker era. When the coverage of the 2003 WSOP started airing on ESPN in July of that year, Somerville was a 16-year-old kid living on Long Island. Between the explosion of home games and the dawn of online poker, it was all too easy for Somerville to fall in love with the game of poker.

Under aliases like “JCarver,” which is a nickname that’s stuck with Somerville, he grinded his way up the ranks through high school graduation and into college. By the time he was 19, Somerville felt comfortable enough with his abilities and success in poker to drop out of college and play full time.

Somerville truly established himself as an online superstar in 2008 with three signature wins. It started with a the biggest victory of his career, a $204,000 score in the then $530 Sunday Million on PokerStars, and continued with more than $100,000 in cashes in the UB $200K Guaranteed and the PokerStars $100 rebuy.

He had his share of successes both live and online over the next few years, until Black Friday hit (on his birthday, no less) and changed the entire landscape of the industry. Somerville elected to stay in the United States in the short term, and what followed were three transformative years in both his life and his career.

2011 brought Somerville his first WSOP bracelet and biggest career cash to date, but 2012 was arguably an even bigger year for him. That February, Somerville came out as the first openly gay male poker player to almost unanimous support from the community. He ended that month with his first career WPT final table at the LAPC, and made a deep run in the WSOP Main Event that summer.

The call of online poker was too great for Somerville, though, and he headed outside of the U.S. for several major series in late 2012 and early 2013. In April of that year, Ultimate Poker launched the first legal online poker platform in the United States, and by the time the 2013 WSOP was underway Team U was starting to build out its roster of sponsored pros — for which Somerville was a natural fit.

“The last year has been just like an unbelievable whirlwind of small opportunities that became medium opportunities, that became lifetime dream fulfillment opportunities,” said Somerville of his time so far as a member of Team U. “It’s unbelievable how many cool things that I’ve gotten to do with Ultimate Poker.”

The partnership with Ultimate seems almost too perfect. Somerville is seriously into mixed martial arts, so as he plays as a sponsored pro for an online site he believes in, he gets to reap the benefits of being owned by the same parent company

“As a huge UFC fan, it’s been absolutely incredible to not only fulfill one of passions in helping bring poker back to America, but to also do so with the guys that run the UFC,” said Somerville. “Man, it’s been a dream for sure. I would have never believed that was going to happen, it’s crazy.”

One event in November helped Somerville crystalize just how much he was enjoying being a part of the team at Ultimate.

“Launching online poker in New Jersey with Frankie Edgar, Dana White, and JWOWW. What?” recalled Somerville. “How is that a thing that I got to do? There’s been so much — we hosted a Hall of Fame poker game where I got to meet Bruce Buffer and Royce Gracie, all of these legends.”

First and foremost, however, Somerville has gone out of his way to earn every bit of his status as a sponsored player. His YouTube channel has more than 270 videos so far, and it all started out with a relatively simple idea he had for a series.

“A few years ago, I had this idea to do a show where I took my balance on a poker site and just tried to make it into a bigger amount of money,” said Somerville. “It’s really not anything too crazy, but I had this idea to just document your journey as you try to spin up a bank roll.”

“When I finally signed with Ultimate, I just was like, ‘Wow, this is a perfect opportunity to try to do a bankroll challenge’ — start with a certain amount of money, aim for an end goal, and just see what I can do,” said Somerville. “It was entirely my idea — nobody at Ultimate ever told me to do it or ever insisted that I do anything. I just thought it would be an awesome, fun idea, and started out doing traditional poker videos.”

The Run it Up series started with a bankroll of $50, which Somerville eventually hoped to spin up to $10,000 by the end of the challenge. The first video in the series, which has now reached over 100 episodes, shows Somerville sitting in front of a single static webcam in his apartment in front of a window, playing Sit & Gos.

“I think the start of Run it Up, [there] was really nothing that incredible or special to it,” said Somerville, “But as time went on, I got more and more comfortable as a broadcaster, and noticed that the things that people reacted to most wasn’t the poker hands — it was the fun stuff. It was the stuff that was a little bit more engaging, or interesting, or entertaining.”

Somerville’s poker skills are undeniable, but he really stumbled onto something by bringing his overwhelming enthusiasm and personality into the videos he makes. He’s always been a student of the game as well, and the combination of all these factors helped Somerville to synthesize his experiences into an organically entertaining product.

“I’ve always been an enormous fan of poker,” said Somerville. “I love the game of poker. I’ve always loved watching poker videos whether it’s the World Poker Tour, or EPTs, or High Stakes Poker. I consumed a ton of poker content, but in the last few years it’s become hard to find consistently good, interesting poker content in America.”

“I think I’ve just seen so much of it that I know what I would like to watch as a viewer,” continued Somerville, “And I think that I’ve just found that I have a passion for video making. I can connect what I want to see as a viewer and what I am capable of creating as a video maker/broadcaster, put the two together, and come up with fun, entertaining and interesting poker shows and [other] ideas for poker stuff.”

Part of the difficulty in making poker videos that people will enjoy is the generally dense mathematical concepts that those videos discuss. For Somerville, it’s all about the presentation.

“I don’t know who decided that all poker videos had to be the most boring things ever created in the history of humanity, but it seems that if you watch a poker video, you know what you’re going to get it — it’s going to be like a lecture most of the time,” said Somerville. “With me I always want to say, let’s start out by trying to make it as fun and entertaining as we can get, and then do the serious poker.”

While Run it Up was the genesis and the driver for Somerville’s video content, it became a lot more than that as he expanded beyond his bankroll challenge. He had fun and continues to do so with the Run it Up series, but Somerville’s energy could not be confined to a single project.

“Run it Up evolved into being a platform for my creativity,” said Somerville, “If I had an idea to do this kind of video, or do an interview, or do a live stream, or do a video on a Hand History that I had played years ago, or my Apprentice series. Run it Up evolved to be a platform or a canvass for all of my creative video ideas.”

The audience for Somerville’s videos continues to grow, and his excitement for the future of his YouTube channel only grows stronger as he gets feedback from the fans.

Jason Somerville“It’s been awesome — not only that it succeeded, but the fact that I started this journey in July of last year, and I’ve made pretty much five videos of the week for the majority of the 10 months that followed. It’s been great to have so many people that are excited to see new content, excited to see poker content. I think it’s a great thing, and I know how rare that is in poker. I have a lot of appreciation for that enthusiasm.

It’s not easy work, by any means, and Somerville has dedicated an unbelievable amount of time to producing and improving the product that he puts out.

“Every week is different, of course, but I’ll spend anywhere from four to 10 hours on a workday on Run it Up stuff,” said Somerville. “Between casting, production, promotion, social media, creative work and planning for upcoming events, it takes a lot of time.”

The quality of the production has increased by several orders of magnitude as well. The setup that Somerville currently uses for his videos looks like a professional studio, but that’s not exactly what it is.

“We built it out of my apartment’s living room,” said Somerville. “It evolved several times over the course of the last nine months, but our most major upgrade — the desk, the fireplace, the art — took only a few days of work to put together.”

In addition to dual microphones and improved streaming technology, along with a whiteboard listing the current status of the Run it Up challenge (it sits at around $850 as of mid-April), there’s a delay server. That piece of equipment is part of a relatively new wrinkle to Somerville’s videos — the inclusion of livestreaming.

While the videos on Somerville’s YouTube channel are well-produced and feature hole cards throughout, he’s also utilizing a site called Twitch to give players and fans real-time interaction with the content he’s producing.

“Twitch is an online streaming service that just allows you to stream video games,” said Somerville. “There hasn’t really been anybody that’s used it before for poker, but I think poker is one of the best games for it. I think Twitch is the future, I truly believe that.”

In Somerville’s estimation, it’s just the next step in the presentation of a game that’s changed dramatically with the advent of new technologies. Somerville’s had an interest in adopting new strategies and innovations for the last few years, and he’s turned to many different sources for inspiration.

He’s been experimenting with live streaming poker since late 2012, and with the technology currently available to him, Somerville has the ability to present a show in numerous different ways.

“I’ve done live shows over there with delays, delays with hole cards, or no delay with no hole cards,” said Somerville. “Even with no hole cards, I think that with a player-caster in today’s poker environment, I think that it becomes a really interesting show if you have somebody who can talk it out.”

“It’s so much fun,” said Somerville, “And I really think that for those player-casters that exist in poker, those guys who are both true players and true broadcasters — and there’s not a ton of us — but I think there are a lot of opportunities on platforms such as Twitch in the future. I really do believe it’s the next evolution in poker content.”

Things got particularly interesting in early April, when Somerville decided to livestream his run in the $10,000 Sunday on Ultimate Poker, the biggest online event of the week on UP in Nevada.

“With no delay, I started to stream from the beginning of the tournament,” said Somerville, “From the first hand I was dealt, and I went through the entire way with no breaks for the full five hours, until I busted in eighth. It’s an amazing journey, because you’re doing it live — I peaked at 700 viewers, which I was pretty happy with. For the second time I’d ever done that, I was very happy with it.”

It was a boost in the Run it Up bankroll challenge, too, but the most exciting elements for Somerville involved the potential for altering the course of the tournament.

“To get people that are just watching, interested in every time we’re all in,” said Somerville. “Obviously, I am showing the cards every time we bluff somebody or after the hands are over. I’m showing the cards, and there’s an interesting dynamic in terms of who I think is watching at the table, who I think isn’t watching at the table.”

“There is a really interesting dynamic because it’s like I am playing live poker while everybody else is playing online poker, because I have the camera on,” said Somerville. “I’m doing it live.”

Somerville’s run in that tournament and other experiences in producing the show can only lead to a more diverse set of offerings in the future.

“There are so many interesting different variations that I’m excited to try as a broadcaster, like doing these live tournament shows with a guest,” said Somerville. “I still haven’t done a live tournament with a guest before. I think there are so many awesome potential ideas for streamed content for poker — what about battleship-style matches? I am so excited to do things on Twitch for poker. I think it’s an amazing platform, and I think there is a lot of potential there for sure.”

There have already been a few guests on Somerville’s YouTube channel, including a number of fellow Team U members and even UFC welterweight Martin Kampmann.

“It’s always interesting to bring in the guest dynamic,” said Somerville. “I’ve done maybe a dozen of guests now on Run it Up, and I have no professional interviewing experience, I have no collegiate experience.”

The interviews Somerville is doing now are worlds apart from where he was a year ago, but that inexperience was apparent when Antonio Esfandiari stopped by as his first guest ever.

“I got through it when I had that first interview with Antonio,” said Somerville. “I was a little nervous, because not only am I managing all of the production elements — making sure everything is working, and recording, and then editing, and producing, and promoting it — but then I’m also hosting it for the first time.”

After shaking off the early jitters, Somerville has had entertaining visits with guests Dan O’Brien and Danielle Anderson in recent weeks.

“I definitely felt the pressure in the first few, but it’s so awesome to have that dynamic,” said Somerville, “To be able to go, ‘OK, so what’s it like when I do a stream with Dan versus when I do a stream with Danielle?’ For me, I’ve always found it to be a really interesting puzzle of where my role should fit.”

“With Dan, I was reading questions and helping him with interaction because he didn’t seem too comfortable with interaction,” said Somerville, “But with Danielle, Danielle was doing interaction like crazy. I felt like I had to almost steer the conversation a little bit, and I was more just trying to help her with different elements of how to get the show right.”

It’s still a work in progress for Somerville, but he doesn’t simply draw from his own experiences on the air. He also finds inspiration for his broadcasting style in two comedic geniuses who do it all the time.

“I look up to Joe Rogan and Stephen Colbert, and those types of guys who do shows all the time so smoothly,” said Somerville. “So easily, like it’s nothing. I’ve gained so much appreciation for all of the guys who do these [interviews] consistently.”

By channeling all of his influences and experiences in poker, Somerville hopes to be a driver of player interest as the industry rebuilds itself. He’s dedicated hundreds, if not thousands of hours over the last year to improve the videos he puts out, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

“I just think it’s an exciting time to be in poker content. I know it sucks to be a poker player in the most of America right now, I know it’s not the best thing but I really feel like times are turning and, eventually, we’ll get to a point where poker is restored to its glorious popularity again, I believe. Maybe not quite max peak glory, but at least restored.”

It’s not something that Somerville can do by himself, though.

“I feel like there aren’t a lot of people, whether young or old, that really try to build the game or bring in new people,” said Somerville. “I think that there is a very easy route doing that through content — and not just any content, but entertaining content.”

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May 2014