Flushdraw Talks to Jason Somerville
Many of you will already know the name Jason Somerville, whether from his Run it UP streams on Twitch.tv or his recent appearances on the PokerStars EPT Live broadcast from the PCA earlier this month. Jason is currently the biggest online streamer of poker using the Twitch service, and as such was part of a panel at the PCA which debated the future of poker media and new avenues for players to create content.
I reached out to Jason to grab some of his time amid his ongoing relocation in order to play on international sites, and he graciously spent the best part of an hour talking to me on Skype.
Flushdraw: Congratulations on your nomination for the GPI Poker Media Content of the year award. I’m a little bit jealous as I’d quite like that myself! You are a frontrunner in the poker streaming community, and have a massive following in your Run it UP Legion. So, how did you get into streaming poker?
Jason Somerville: I’ve had a pretty long career in poker content creation, and I feel pretty confident that there is no other human being on the planet that has made as many hours of poker content as I have. I started making videos when I was 18 or 19 years old for the poker forum that I started out on, the same poker forum that gave birth to Steve O’Dwyer, Max Silver, Alex Venovski and Leo Wolpert. From there, I got an opportunity at PokerVT to work with Daniel Negreanu and after that, I did my own thing on YouTube for a few years, eventually culminating in “Run it UP” beginning in July 2013. I made daily episodes for Run it UP for like 18 months straight. That really helped ready me for streaming because it gave me an insane amount of experience.
When Twitch got bought by Amazon and they were looking for other verticals to get into beside just video gaming, poker made a lot of sense. The guy they brought in to run poker happened to be a big fan of Run It Up and he told me that they were going to get into poker. I had always thought Twitch would be an amazing platform for poker, and I naturally already consumed a lot of content on Twitch, a lot of e-sports and gaming content. It was an amazing opportunity for me and I took it very seriously.
I don’t think we’ve seen the tip of the iceberg yet when it comes to poker streaming. We’re just getting started on Twitch, and this year is going to be tremendous for Twitch’s impact on poker.
Flushdraw: To what do you attribute your fantastic success with Run It UP?
Jason Somerville: I think that the biggest thing I’ve always tried to accomplish with Run it UP is that I’ve attempted to incorporate an element of entertainment into a poker show. For me, it’s not about starting with good poker content and then trying to squeak it out to be tolerably watchable. I start out with the approach of saying “Ok, I want this to be enjoyable content that anybody can watch. It’s not just built for a hardcore audience.” I want to make it mainstream, you know? It’s not the majority of my viewership, but there is a section of my audience that didn’t know prior to watching me what a button was or what an ante is. To draw those types of people in you have to be entertaining and have broad content. That being said, it is important to me that I am usually playing my best poker. I basically am making the same decisions that I would make playing in a $100K in a $10 buy-in tournament on stream.
People watch the show for different reasons of course, and I try to appeal to those different segments of the fan base without making it too simplified or too silly so I don’t drive away those varying segments. To me, I feel I’m competing for people’s entertainment minutes. You could either watch me, or you could go and watch Breaking Bad, or you could go play League of Legends, or go and do whatever. I don’t think I’m competing against CardRunners in terms of people’s time. With that perspective in mind, you have to keep it entertaining.
Flushdraw: Do you watch any other streamers? Are there other poker streamers you’d recommend people to watch?
Jason Somerville: I have not watched a ton of content from other poker streamers. Not because I think what they are doing isn’t good or valuable, I just don’t have the time to consume much content outside of my scope of work.
I do think that streamers should try to find their own unique style that works for them. Some guys do multiple tables, they do different games, they target different audiences. I think that’s totally cool. It’s a big jungle out there and there is plenty of room for people to take a machete and hack away. This is a new thing being pioneered right now, still in its infancy. When I started on Twitch people weren’t even sure about the basics: “Are you going to do hole cards or no hole cards? If you’re doing no hole cards, how are you going to show the cards at the end of the hand? How are you going to do this, how are you going to do that?”
I don’t think that the “formula” for optimal success has been figured out yet. I like my stream to be very interactive with only one table, while other people may want to do more tables and make it more of a grind session and talk less with the chat. That’s totally cool with me; it’s not what I think is the best way to do it for my skill set and goals, anyway. There are many ways to skin the Twitch cat.
Flushdraw: Where do you see the future of poker media?
Jason Somerville: I feel like we have had the blueprint for what poker can be laid out for us by e-sports, and for me in particular, League of Legends. If I were to tell you that a game existed that cost no money to play and has, basically, no financial rewards ever, and that hundreds of thousands of people were watching this game in any given minute of the day. Their marquee events get hundreds of thousands concurrently watching with a million plus viewers for their world championships. League has this whole amazing ecosystem figured out and is printing billions. Isn’t there likely to be a lot of lessons there that poker could learn from?
In poker, we are playing for significantly higher stakes and the characters are just as interesting. The stories of the world we live in are not, in my opinion, told very well. I don’t mean even just the individual stories, but the grand stories of the epic events like the story of the WSOP every summer. There are many things that I feel like that have not really modernized for the current generation that say, “I want to be immersed and consume my content right now, live, every day.” I don’t think poker has really even begun to optimize itself yet in that way.
That being said, I hardly feel I’ve figured it all out, I look at Run it UP streams today and feel I still have a long way to grow. I just truly got started a few months ago, and I think this year is going to be big for the evolution of what my show feels like. I look back to my shows of a year ago and I’m appalled at how bad they are compared to now. I hope a year from now, I’ll feel the same about my shows from January of this year. I think that there is a long process of evolution ahead, and I think poker on Twitch has even further to go to really get to a place like where League of Legends exists. I’m very excited that people are beginning to believe in my vision enough to give me the chance to experiment and try to get us there in some way. I’m excited. I really do believe the Twitch platform is going to impact poker in some way. Whether it’s a small bump, a long sustained growth or a shorter spike I don’t know, but I feel it’s going to impact how the poker world works in significant, multiple ways.
Flushdraw: You were sponsored by Ultimate Poker. How do you feel about the way the company ended? It was obviously a big letdown for the US poker industry. Do you feel it was handled correctly, and do you still talk to anyone from the company?
Jason Somerville: I had the best 16 months of my life living in Las Vegas, working with Ultimate Poker. I learned an incredible amount from the team there, especially from the elite industry guys like Terrence Chan and Joe Versaci. Many people had been working on different sides of poker than I ever had and were able to teach me things by an awesome blend of osmosis and direct teaching.
I grew up a lot working with Ultimate Poker, most of all in being able to see poker from the operator’s point of view. I really gained an appreciation for how difficult their task was, especially when it came to all the regulatory hurdles. It was a Herculean task to some extent.
That being said, I definitely think mistakes were made. I feel like issues were not prioritized correctly, certain things got overruled that shouldn’t have been, and that the strategy was perhaps too grand. Throughout my time at Ultimate Poker, the goal was never to create a sustainable poker site that lived happily in Nevada and New Jersey, even though those were the only two states we could operate out of. The goal was always more rabid than that. “We’re going to set up in Nevada and learn some lessons,” and then it was “We’re going to set up in New Jersey to learn some lessons so we’re ready to go in California.”
Not only did they have trouble in New Jersey and had to pull out, which was the beginning of the end for them, but the California market isn’t realistically on the radar even now! The business itself may have been a little too ambitious, too quick to spend money. It wasn’t really set up for “survive and scratch out an existence mode.” It was set for “Let’s fire lots of money so we’re ready to expand to new markets like California!” They likely never could have sustained life in New Jersey and Nevada alone. That just wasn’t the way the business was engineered to be.
I have a lot of good memories and feel a lot of gratitude towards Ultimate Poker for giving me the chances they gave me, and they gave me so many cool opportunities! I’m sad that they weren’t able to keep it together, but I wasn’t super surprised given their strategy and what they were aiming for.
Flushdraw: Following your departure from Ultimate Poker, you’ve said you are planning to leave the US and play on the international sites. How are the moving plans going?
Jason Somerville: If there is one thing I’ve learned in the last couple of years, it’s that people don’t always work at the speed that I do. If I had my way, I’d have already been out of here in like a day, but there are things that need to happen before I can do that. I’m still in New York right now. I am very excited to get out of the country and to be able to stream basically 24/7. Okay, maybe 24/7 is too much, but four hours a day, six days a week for a long time. I am super excited about that.
We did six streams while I was in the Bahamas and I just loved every single one of them, getting to play on Stars all those times. On PokerStars there are like 222,239 players online in any given minute. On WSOP in Nevada I’m not sure there’s even 239 players at peak. It’s a whole new world for me. “What should I do now? Ahh, Zoom PLO, a hyper turbo, okay; now a Spin & Go, okay, a tournament!” It’s absolute Candyland compared to the rations I’m used to while playing in Nevada. I’m really excited and people seemed to really enjoy the PCA shows. We had something like 300,000 unique viewers over the six shows that I did at the PCA. People are really excited about it, and I am as well. I think we are going to have a lot of fun this year over at Team Run It UP.
Flushdraw: Have you decided where you’re going yet?
Jason Somerville: I have not. I will have news on that imminently. I’m not quite ready to disclose that yet.
Flushdraw: On your Wiki page there are some rather amusing “facts” about you. It’s stated that you are known in some communities as “The King of the Grocery Store.” Is this true, and if so, where did it come from?
Jason Somerville: (*Bursts out laughing*) That is not true as far as I’m aware. There might be a joke about the fact that I have never been to the grocery store in the two years I’ve lived in Las Vegas! I went to the grocery store ZERO times; I was very proud of that accomplishment. I eat the same six or seven foods on rotation and have for my entire life. I have a very boring food life. I think people just enjoy minorly defacing my Wiki page, so I really don’t know what that’s all about.
Flushdraw: Do you think your fan base essentially trolls you by doing things like that, or is it just the standard internet fame thing?
Jason Somerville: I think it’s very important not to take yourself too seriously, and I think it’s important to stay humble and hungry in every arena. Maybe not every arena, when you are playing high-stakes poker, the nosebleeds, you have to have an ego. You just have to. It’s impossible to consistently do well and not have some ego to help you compete and survive the variance. But when you’re doing things like I’m doing, I believe it’s very important to have no overindulgent sense of ego whatsoever, and when you look at the guys I really respect in content creation, Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, Craig Ferguson, David Letterman, Johnny Carson, these guys are “casters” who did regular content five days a week, and all of them have hilarious self-effacing demeanors, and they make fun of themselves almost more than anything else. I feel like that’s the way forward for me. It’s all cool to me, as long as people are hanging out and enjoying themselves, what do I care?
Flushdraw: You are one of a very small number of openly gay professional poker players, and you came out after your career started. Do you think people’s attitudes changed to you after your announcement?
Jason Somerville: It will actually be three years ago exactly in like two weeks that I came out. I came out Valentine’s Day of 2012. I feel like people’s attitudes didn’t really change towards me, but I feel like my perception of the universe changed massively. I don’t know how people who are completely straight and open with their identities can relate to this, but for 20-odd years, I basically walked around with the expectation that if I was truly myself that I would be rejected by the universe as a whole. The fact that I came out and the universe was actually like “That’s cool with us, we don’t really care!” was incredible. It was like an amazing cosmic hug that allowed me to really start to grow as a person and truly become myself. There is exactly zero percent chance that I could’ve done all that I’ve done while still having this massive anxiety and repression of such a crucial portion of who I am. The things that I had forever feared would occur if and when I came out didn’t really ever happen. Thankfully.
Flushdraw: Lets lighten it up a little, and bring it back to the poker. What are your plans for 2015. Obviously you are going to be streaming a lot, but any plans for live poker?
Jason Somerville: Honestly, my entire being just wants to stream. My Run it UP warriors seem to love the hashtag #LetsJustStream and I really do believe that’s going to be my anthem for the year. I just want to get myself set up, put a fireplace on the wall, and then just stream all day every day until I can’t stream any more! That is my goal, and I don’t have any other secondary goals.
Would I like to win an EPT, a WPT or another WSOP bracelet? I would love to do all of those things, but I don’t think that’s who I am right now. I don’t feel that I’m a professional poker player any more, and I don’t feel I have been for the past two years because I haven’t been playing seriously, I haven’t been playing tournaments, I haven’t been traveling. I feel that I’ve primarily become a caster over the last two years, and I want to continue towards that set of goals. My dream is to make Run it UP better and better, continue to improve and grow. If you look back at the episodes even from season two of Run it UP and compare it to one of the streams that I did in December or January, I feel that the streams are so much better than the shows from only a few months ago. Let’s continue that trend.
I want to become the best broadcaster I can be, there is still so much room left for me to grow and improve, both personally and with the show. We are just beginning to see Twitch poker grow, and the fact I can have a role in building that tent is something that I take very seriously. That’s my goal this year. Winning another bracelet, EPT or particularly a Super High Roller would be awesome, though. One of my biggest regrets from 2014 was not insisting that we played out the $100K from the Bellagio. I know it’s super #FirstWorldProblems, “I only chopped a $100K!” But honestly, how many chances am I going to get to be at the final four of a $100K? The fact that we didn’t put aside like $50,000 to play for and we just called it a day at seven in the morning, I really kind of regret that and it was up to me to insist as I was the one getting fourth. I really wish we’d played that one out, just so I can say I might have had a chance to win a $100K event! That being said, I’ll take chopping a $100K this year too!
Flushdraw: Thank you for your time, Jason. We wish you all the best in the rest of 2015, and look forward to seeing you Run it UP some more.