If you were forced to slap a label on Jason Somerville, it would be easy simply to call him a poker player. After all, he's won millions of dollars playing cards. You and most other regular folks could be forgiven if that's all you know about the man online poker players call "JCarver."
As it turns out, by age 27, Somerville has turned himself into much more than a guy who plays cards very well, and because of that PokerStars slapped a new label on him. It comes in the form of a coveted embroidered patch.
"A partnership with PokerStars is like the holy grail," Somerville said.
Somerville is in Beverly Hills as one of four nominees for the American Poker Awards Poker Media Content of the Year honor. It will be the first place he will wear his Team Pro patch in public. While that might seem like a glitzy way to introduce himself as a Team Pro, the ceremony will mark his final hours of relaxation before the beginning of an epic grind.
"One of things I've learned in the last few years is that these kinds of relationships are co-promotion partnerships," he said. "They're not like the old days where a poker site would put a patch on a player, and they would be a walking billboard. That no longer has a return on the investment for the poker site."
That's where the grind comes in.
Beginning March 1, Somerville plans to play on PokerStars every day for 70 days in a row and broadcast his exploits on Twitch. He will do it for an average of four hours per day for more than two months, racking up more than 16,000 minutes of poker content.
Why Jason Somerville? If you are among the three million people who tuned into his Twitch channel in the third quarter of last year, you probably don't have to ask that question. If you're not, you might appreciate an introduction to one of poker's most innovative young stars.
Born under a bad sign
You can't ask an American to think of April 15 without wincing. It is, by almost every piece of evidence, a terrible day in history. That square on the calendar marks the death of President Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, American tax deadline day, the day the Boston Marathon was bombed, and--something special for you poker players--Black Friday.
It also happens to be Jason Somerville's birthday. When he started off, he had a goal to turn a few bucks into $10,000 by that fateful day. He did it with money to spare. One year into his poker career, he became very ill and spent weeks trying to recover. When he finally did, he made decision.
"I didn't want to waste my time doing something I didn't love," he said.
He loved poker, and that's where he put every waking hour.
Over the next few years, he turned his $10,000 birthday into millions. He won a Spring Championship of Online Poker title. He earned a gold WSOP bracelet. He found legions of fans on the internet. Even if there isn't much to love about April 15, it gave poker Jason Somerville, and there are a great many people who are happy about that.
That's all well and good, but let's be honest: who expected Jason Somerville to make Team Pro in 2015?
The bard of Team Pro
Jason Somerville is a well-known player but not a household name. In fact, he's a professional poker player who doesn't really consider himself a pro anymore. No matter how you slice it, a signing like Somerville's doesn't just happen in this day and age. The signing is as innovative as Somerville himself.
"It's funny," he said. "Now I'm a Team Pro even though I'm less of a professional poker player than ever. I was recently talking to some other top professionals who were kind of making fun of me. They were like, 'I don't know how you are in this much of a media spotlight despite you playing less poker than ever the past two years.' And it's true."
So, how does it happen?
To answer that, you have to go back a few years to when Somerville was grinding out the millions.
"When I was in the poker world as a poker pro, I always felt like there were so many stories, so many characters that were not being properly showcased," he said.
Even before he had a gigantic bankroll, Somerville was fascinated with the people he came across: brutes and bullies, clowns and Kill-Phil'ers, sinners and saints. He wrote about them in online forums, and the more he did, the more he came to realize the early days of poker storytelling were being co-opted by other kinds of reporting that focused less on the fun tales. More to the point, he realized that even the old kind of myth-making wasn't relevant to the new kind of poker audience.
"When I look at the world of video games and how it's grown over the last few years, it's become this tremendous, amazing thing," he said. "I look at mixed martial arts which also tells these amazing storylines and has these other elements to it. Then I come back to my world, which is poker, and I want to take some of these elements from these other passions of mine and bring them back to poker. I feel like poker can do better. Poker can be better."
It all led Somerville to the newest soapboxes he could find. He wrote in forums. He created hundreds of YouTube videos. He told his origin story in six long episodes in the "Life and Times of JCarver." It was just one of several series he created before landing on Run It UP! The series aimed to, again, take a penance and "run it up" to $10,000. This time, he would do it all while broadcasting online for everyone to see. It started on YouTube, moved to Twitch, and became a sensation.
"I was always the kind of kid that loved telling stories," he said. "I always loved reading. I loved movies and TV. To me, it just felt like the time was right, that I actually had the ability to try to make the poker the poker world a little bit different."
Now, as the newest Team Pro, Somerville has a chance to do just that with the backing of the world's biggest online poker company. Together Somerville and PokerStars are launching the official PokerStars Twitch channel, on which you will be able to watch all of Somerville's 70-day grind under his new screen name "'jcarverpoker."
While he will be the star in the early days, the channel will also feature host a wide variety of both entertainment and education broadcasts from Somerville's fellow Team Pros.
"At this point, it has been a tremendous ride already and something I'm so grateful and appreciative for," Somerville said. "I feel like we're just getting started. This is a whole new world, and I'm so excited for the next step of the journey."
Before heading out to Beverly Hills, Somerville took an opportunity to talk to the PokerStars Blog about himself, his plans, and what he sees for the future of the game. He even talked a bit about the first time he met Daniel Negreanu and what that meeting turned into. Our full conversation is below.
Congratulations, Jason, and welcome to the Team.
Brad Willis: I know you had a sponsorship deal before, and I know I'm biased here, but getting signed to Team Pro is actually a pretty big deal. What do you think is significant about you getting the patch at this time in poker?
Jason Somerville: You know, I think that to me, a partnership with PokerStars is like the holy grail. One of things I've learned in the last few years is that these kinds of relationships are co-promotion partnerships. They're not like the old days where a poker site would put a patch on a player, and they would be a walking billboard. That no longer has a return on the investment for the poker site. I've kind of learned that lesson over the last few years, which is why I'm so excited to finally have made this partnership with PokerStars. The things we can do together, it's going to exponentially increase the power and capability of what I have been able to do on my own. I really look forward to all those different opportunities that we can tackle together.
I think that the last few years--especially in the last six months--where I have been focusing on Twitch streaming, I think that I am doing something that is new and innovative and bringing in new players, players who are looking at poker who have been disillusioned with poker in the last few years. I'm bringing those players back into the game and bringing new players who have more experience in the video gaming generation. I think it's very interesting to combine the power what I'm doing--the innovative platform on Twitch--along with the power of PokerStars to create this amazing recipe of awesomeness that I just can't wait to explore and develop together.
BW: You actually have a lot of plans for your role as a Team Pro that maybe other Team Pros don't have the experience or energy to do. Can you talk about your plans for the coming year?
JS: Right off the bat, I'm starting off March 1st with ten straight weeks of poker streams. So, I'll be streaming every single day for 70 days in a row for probably four hours minimum per show with me playing on PokerStars. I'm doing a full season. I had done two seasons of Run It Up content on YouTube. This will be the first season to live fully on Twitch. Last fall, I did 50 shows in a row on YouTube that were 30 minutes each. That's 1,500 minutes of content. This time, I'm doing 70 days for an average of four hours per show, which is about 16,000-17,000 minutes of shows. So, I'm doing like eleven times more content in this season than I did last season. So, if you're a Run It Up fan, you're going to have a lot of content coming your way.
It's funny. Now I'm a Team Pro even though I'm less of a professional poker player than ever. I was recently talking to some other top professionals who were kind of making fun of me. They were like, 'I don't know how you are in this much of a media spotlight despite you playing less poker than ever the past two years.' And it's true. I feel like I stopped being a professional poker player basically when I started Run It Up. I started working on my broadcasting abilities and trying to master and learn that craft. I feel like I still have so much more to go there before I have any kind of mastery. But to me, that's what I have this relationship and this opportunity with PokerStars.
I've made hundreds of YouTube videos over the last few years, and all these Twitch streams--it's been investing in a community, and my time into the community. That experience has been so helpful in making me comfortable on camera and comfortable in interviews. I will be able to kind of liaise between the poker community I know and love and the general public that might not be as familiar with the nuances of the world.
When I was in the poker world as a poker pro, I always felt like there were so many stories, so many characters that were not being properly showcased. I just felt like as I started doing Run It Up and telling stories from my past--about meeting Negreanu for the first time, who became one of my poker mentors--all of the things I've seen in my life, to be able to share those stories with people and kind of tell the tales of the poker world as I've seen it, it was something that really connected with me. As time went on, I enjoyed it more and more. It was really the reason I got other sponsorships and other opportunities. As I got I got more experience and stronger at it, I eventually got this opportunity to work with Twitch, and that blew up. We had three million views in the last quarter of last year. For a poker show! On the internet! At this point, it has been a tremendous ride already and something I'm so grateful and appreciative for. I feel like we're just getting started. This is a whole new world and I'm so excited for the next step of the journey.
BW: I go back and think about how you were writing online even before the advent of YouTube channels and Twitch and everything else. I'm sure some of that was establishing yourself and your identity within the poker community, but I sort of get the sense that even if you hadn't become as big of a success that you still would've been telling these stories. What drove you and what drives you to continue to tell stories?
JS: It's tough to say if there is one that that particularly drives me. I'm a big fan of e-sports and professional video games. When I look at the world of video games and how it's grown over the last few years, it's become this tremendous, amazing thing. I look at mixed martial arts which also tells these amazing storylines and has these other elements to it. Then I come back to my world, which is poker, and I want to take some of these elements from these other passions of mine and bring them back to poker. I feel like poker can do better. Poker can be better.
I feel like in many ways poker has been stuck in the 1990s, in terms of how it treats players, how it presents poker. There hasn't been too much innovation. For so long, I was the kind of guy who sat back and thought, "It can't get any better. Why doesn't somebody do something about this?" It's so easy to talk and say, "You could do this or you could do that." It's so much harder to actually go out and try and take the chance of failure and to put yourself out there.
As I started doing that and started getting positive feedback from the community I was building around me, people really responded very quickly. I started creating poker videos for my home forum when I was 18 years old. That's nine years ago at this point. Ever since then I just kept creating videos and developing an ability to broadcast. I got more and more confident.
I was always the kind of kid that loved telling stories. I always loved reading. I loved movies and TV. To me, it just felt like the time was right, that I actually had the ability to try to make the poker world a little bit different. Not to tell people this is the way it should be, but just to offer something that was different, just to try new things to make poker more entertaining, to try to take different elements from the storytelling of mixed martial arts and the combat world, the feel of the e-sports events and how they've taken the best of the broadcasting world but modernized it for a younger 2015 audience, to take those thing and combine it for a platform that is just a little bit different than what we're used to seeing.
The fact that I've had such an amazing response to these things is absolutely incredible and something that I find incredibly empowering and also incredibly humbling. We're just getting started here. All those things were true prior to me making this partnership with PokerStars, and at this point, I feel like the world is my oyster. There is close to an unlimited amount of potential as far as what we can do together with the power of PokerStars behind me.
BW: You're a really likable guy and very outgoing, but a lot of the guys who came up with you, especially some of the ones even more recently, can be sort of robotic. It's hard sometimes to find stories among them. There are people like Daniel Negreanu who feel like the attributes that you have and you share with him are vital to the growth of the game. Where do come down on what a player's responsibility is to help grow the game?
JS: I honestly don't believe that anybody has to do anything that they don't want to do in poker. If you just want to go and play and not say a word, I don't there is anything wrong with that. I don't think there should be any sense of responsibility. Poker allows you to take and give whatever you want. If you want to play one day a year and play for the highest stakes possible, great. If you want to play every single day and be negative about, okay, great. You can do whatever you want. That independence in poker is one of the beautiful elements of it. To me, I feel like, at some point, you can actually try to make change and actually try and do things.
There have been few people in my life more crucial to my development as a human being as Daniel. I became friends with Daniel when I was 20 years old. I sat next to him at a World Series of Poker Europe event. He had his headphones on. As soon as I sat next to him, I was like, "There ain't no way I'm going to leave this table without saying hello to Negreanu." He was my idol, you know. I was just like a little dorky kid. I remember almost poking him on the shoulder, being like, "Hey! Hey! Hey! I'm Jason. Nice to meet you! I've read every single blog, watched every single video blog, watched every single episode of every single poker show you've ever been on!"
He was like, "Sure. Whatever, kid."
He'd just written a blog on some controversial topic or another. I remembered it. I talked to him about it. He was like, "Oh! Okay, this kid knows a little bit. Okay, whatever." Back to the headphones on.
We started to play some hands. I was like, "I'm going to try to beat him in these hands." Not to beat him up, but just to keep a memory of me.
Then he had started to work on a poker training site, and I had a little experience in making poker videos, and I was like, "If you're looking for a poker content creator, I would love to work with you on this stuff."
And, he was like, "Sure, okay, whatever, kid."
He gave me the number of the guy who was doing it. A few months later, I flew out to Vegas and started working with them. The next thing you know Daniel was there as well. I got to spend time. And, oh my God, the memories of those early years when I got some tutelage from Daniel were tremendous. Daniel taught me so much about live poker. Never ever did he explicitly teach me about how to be an ambassador for the game. But he did through example.
I've taken more pictures of Daniel and fans than any other picture I've taken in my life combined. Every single time Daniel would meet with a fan, it would be a unique experience. It would be a unique story. Daniel would never repeat the same content twice. It would be something catered to the person and the context he was meeting them in. Every single time, he would give them some energy. He could play poker for 12 hours, have just busted out, and he'll still have sometime to give a fan who wanted an autograph. It was an amazing influence on me and one that I can never understate the value of, to have such a front-row seat to, in my opinion, the most important player to ever play the game. I don't think you can understate Daniel's value as an ambassador in poker. To have someone like that take any interest in me was a tremendous impact.
One of the cool things about this partnership with PokerStars is that I get to follow in his footsteps to some degree and be a part of the team that he has been on proudly for seven or eight years.
BW: You're about ten years into this, give or take. You have made such a transformation over the years. How has this business changed you personally since you were 17 years old?
JS: Poker has been a tremendous forge for me. There is nothing like poker to give someone confidence. When anybody is young, you can think certain things and have no idea how to validate whether you're right or wrong. Over the course of time when you're playing poker, over the course of hundreds, and thousands, and millions of hands, the game itself can confirm to you that you are right about certain things. As my confidence grew and as my results grew, I was able to say that I was, at one point in time, one of the best tournament players in the world.
Having that confidence to be able to say, "Look, I've done the work, I've put the time in, I've spent every day of my waking hours from when I was 18 to when I was 23 trying to learn and study the game." The results are there to say, "Yeah, you are right about these things." That was a tremendous boost I confidence because I was able to take that confidence and say, "Now I can tackle these other issues."
Poker was able to give me the financial independence to see a lot of things and meet so many people and to be able to draw in all these different sources of inspiration and people who I look up to, and become a much stronger version of myself than I would've ever been if I hadn't found poker. Without poker, I don't even know where I would be today. I would never had been able to get into broadcasting like this. I would never have been able to take many of the steps I was able to take to become the person I am today. Poker is a tremendous validator. What's a more pure validation than you're given some money, you're given some cards, and you've been told, "Good luck?" Over the course my ten-year career, I've had tremendous success. I'm very proud of the things I managed to accomplish at the table, and that's enabled me to take all these other steps after that. So, I'm very grateful to poker. I've always looked at the poker content I created as a way to give back to the poker community for allowing me to even exist within it.
BW: I know it's hard to predict anything in this business, but you're obviously sticking with it now. Think of yourself as 38-year-old Jason. How do you see yourself and the game growing in the next ten years?
JS: It's an interesting time in the world of poker. From point of view as an American, I hope ten years from now, we'll have a robust federal regulated online poker ecosystem that works and makes sense and has all the protections and regulations that we have always wanted as American players.
We'll see the decline of poker on television continue to the point it won't even be on TV, or not very often be on TV. We're going to see the growth of internet as the platform for poker. It's such a much clearer route and more correct partnership to have internet streams. If you look at how EPT Live is done, I think that's the closest to the next generation of what poker content is going to look like.
If we take our cues from the e-sports world, we're going to have more of those shows living on sites like Twitch and less of the stuff living in pre-edited time slots on TV. We're going to see an evolution in poker content. We're hopefully going to see an evolution in the regulatory framework. We're going to see some other shifts in the poker industry as far as people focusing on the more social elements of poker and the more fun elements of gaming, and less so on the multi-tabling grinders. Those multi-tabler grinder glory days are in the past, honestly. Not that they are going to be gone, but I think we're going to see a shift in the poker industry much more toward focusing on the recreational players and keeping it a fun, friendly environment. I think PokerStars is on the ball for all of those things, and I'm excited to be a part of that history that is being made.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging