It’s been four years now since Jason Somerville and a few dozen streamers and friends got together at the Peppermill Casino for the first Run It Up Reno.
In some respects not much has changed since then — it’s still a gathering of poker players and fans playing in an eclectic mix of tournaments with buy-in levels you just can’t find anywhere else. In other ways it’s the same gathering it was back in 2015, just with bigger attendance numbers: many of the people who showed up for that first instalment still make Reno a priority, the tournaments are still affordable and fun, and Jason Somerville is still the event’s beating heart.
Somerville graciously agreed to let me follow along as he started his day this past Thursday. Here’s what I saw.
We start the day at 12 p.m. sharp. Late registration for the $1,100 Thursday Thrilla has begun and Somerville is talking with his friend, Survivor winner Tyson Apostol, whom he’s staking in the event. He hands Apostol a stack of cash and tells him it’s enough for two bullets. “I’m only going to need one, my man!” says Apostol. His strategy is straightforward. In tough spots he asks himself a simple question: what would Jason do?
“Whenever I’m in a hand where I just want to fire even though I know I shouldn’t, I stop for a second and think,” he says. “If Jason were over my shoulder and saw this hand, would I be embarrassed of the move I’m about to make? And if the answer is yes, then I don’t make the move. When I forget to do that I end up running good and then just like — boom.”
Somerville has been watching Survivor for a decade and worked his love of the show into Run It Up Reno early on.
“When we first started building the Run It Up Reno schedule, I literally said, ‘What am I going to be doing that week?’ Survivor was on, so I said let’s do a Survivor viewing party. For the first one we ever did, I reached out to Rob Cesternino, who has a very successful podcast called ‘Rob Has A Podcast.’ He sent me to Tyson and Boston Rob Mariano, who are two of the most well-known Survivors ever. They came here and had a great time, and later Rob came and did a podcast like three or four times. Once he started doing that, all the Survivors started coming, they started hearing it was a thing and wanted to come hang out and be a part of it.”
It’s become such a thing among cast members, in fact, that Run It Up Reno made it into an Entertainment Weekly recap of the first episode of the show’s latest season. Poker pro Ronnie Bardah ended up being the first player voted off, but not before irking EW‘s blogger with his frequent mentions of his favorite Reno poker tournament series.
“I saw that,” Somerville says. “It’s so funny. Now we’re to the point where yesterday we had Tyson, Ronnie, Shirin, Coach, and Dom — five awesome Survivors — and they’re just hanging out answering questions at the viewing party, playing cash, playing the tourneys. If you’re a fan of Survivor, like me, how do you not have an awesome time meeting these guys and hanging out with them? It’s awesome and so cool to me as a fan.
(For more with Tyson Apostol, check out the latest episode of the Poker In The Ears podcast, where he talks all about Run It Up Reno with Joe Stapleton and James Hartigan.)
It’s Thursday so, with Apostol properly funded and ready to employ his unsinkable strategy, we head off to the escalators on a mission to place a few sports bets. Somerville has a few fat stacks of cash to drop on the Denver Broncos in this week’s Thursday Night Football matchup and the Houston Astros in their American League Championship Series showdown with the New York Yankees.
“The Peppermill sports book has always been great to me, so I give them a bunch of action,” he says. “And they somehow accept it, so…”
Somerville doesn’t finish the thought, but it’s clear that he takes +EV opportunities wherever he can find them. It’s that mentality that led him to begin streaming on Twitch, to start the Run It Up Reno series, and to continue growing it by expanding his company’s staff.
“For many years Run It Up Reno was the most stressful event on my calendar,” he says. “That’s not the case anymore because I have an amazing team that takes a lot of the burden off my shoulders, but for a while I was doing the structures, the schedules, the VIP invites, and the negotiations with Peppermill. All of that stuff was on me, with a little bit on [Run It Up Director of Operations] Andre Hengchua and the three or four people who worked for me.”
In the old days, the events were announced about three weeks in advance. Now the Run It Up team starts planning the events months ahead of time.
“I have a marketing team and people that can actually plan these things out now,” says Somerville. “Kristalina [Houston], my Chief Marketing Officer, and her team make sure the schedule is smooth and all the graphics are in place — our brochures look amazing, fine art if I may say so myself. So all that stuff gets done months in advance. Plus we have to do all the planning around stream schedules, broadcast graphics, what the chips are going to look like, figure out the commentary schedules, who we’re inviting from an influencer point of view, hotel, any structure changes or new promotions. Almost all of these things now I’m more or less approving rather than doing myself, which is nice and is why we can do this stuff months in advance.
Now with 14 employees in Las Vegas and a handful of others working remotely around the world, Somerville’s role has been simplified. “They want me just to show up, shake some people’s hands, and play some poker,” he says with an easy smile. “I can do that. That’s easy!”
Bets successfully placed, we head back to the room and Somerville gets his seat assignment. He invites me to do something that probably wouldn’t be possible at another tournament series: to sit alongside him and chat as he plays the tournament. It’s an excellent opportunity to witness firsthand just how much of a social event Run It Up Reno is — even when the poker game is in full swing.
We arrive at Table 42 where he’ll play with five other late registrants, including Stanley Wang two spots to his left. Wang takes his first pot from Somerville, but it’s not long before they tangle in a pot that ends up going exactly to Somerville’s plan.
Wang’s set of aces is no good, but he survives the hand with a few big blinds still in hand. “The bounty was on the line,” says Wang, mostly to himself as he shakes his head. “But he always has it!”
Just then Ricky “ratedGTO” Guan arrives at the table behind them. Somerville lets him know what just happened and needles Wang gently, the way you would your friends at a home game. Wang takes it gracefully — and he will rebuild his stack soon enough.
The social aspect of Run It Up Reno is undoubtedly part of its core appeal, but a poker tournament series can’t survive on hangouts alone. That’s why Somerville and his team constantly strive to improve every aspect of the event.
“One of the things we try to do with the schedule in Reno is to try to offer tournaments you can’t find anywhere else, especially with the price points that they’re at,” he says. That includes new games that are rarely spread outside of home games, like Taiwanese Poker.
“We use the live streams to show people what a fun experience it is, and to me one of the coolest things that I can hear is, ‘This is my first time playing live poker and I chose to play here.’ We have a fellow here who’s a professional golfer, from New Zealand and lives in Canada, and he chose to come here to play his first poker tournament. That kind of story is why we do this.
“On the other side of the coin, having players like Matt Stout, who could pick any place in the world and still come here to play — that to me is awesome. We’re serving the whole gamut of poker players.”
Then there are technical innovations, like the dynamic delay employed on the Run It Up Reno streams. By starting the broadcasts later and skipping all of the breaks, the team is able to prevent the normal hemorrhage of viewers that occurs when tournaments leave their stream empty for long stretches.
“Often a poker broadcast will lose between 20 and 40 percent of their audience as they go on dinner breaks, especially if it’s late at night,” Somerville says. “If it’s three in the morning and the show goes on break, you’re like, ‘All right, time to go to sleep.’ Not that people are never going to go to sleep anyway, but you don’t want to give them a reason to tune out.”
Even the social events get an overhaul from time to time. Board game nights, Magic: The Gathering gatherings, and morning workouts with UFC stars have featured on past schedules, while open mic comedy night, Werewolf, and other events have been added lately. (Survivor Night and Karaoke Night, on the other hand, are fixtures.)
“I’ve always tried to think about what would I enjoy and hope others will also enjoy it,” says Somerville. “Some have stuck and some haven’t. I try to keep it fresh. If you do it a few times and it isn’t growing, you try something else.”
Nearly two hours into the tournament, with the first break in the Thursday Thrilla closes in, the day is coming into focus.
A new record for entries seems highly likely since the field is only a few dozen off of last year’s total of 183. The Main Event lurks just over the horizon and, given the number of people still rolling into town, seems like it will soon set a new record for attendance, too. (In fact, it will top Run It Up Reno VII’s 687-player Main Event field by more than 10 percent.) And tomorrow the marketing team will announce that Run It Up Reno X will be held April 3-13, 2020.
I ask Somerville whether this sort of success ever makes him think about expanding the brand to other locations. He says he could be open to it if he were to find the right partner, but the fit would have to be perfect.
“We’ve done a few events in other places, but to be honest, fundamentally I’ve never been convinced that I want to run many live tournament series, just because it’s a lot of work,” he says. “And really, we’ve kind of been spoiled here at the Peppermill. We have this beautiful room, Mike Nelson and his team are amazing, and we’re relatively close to Las Vegas. So we’ve built something where I’m very comfortable here and we’re going to be here for a while to come. ”
Read more from Run It Up Reno IX:
• Moneymaker In Reno, or, “The Greatest Ambassador”
• Drew Gonzalez wins Platinum Pass in Moneymaker Tour event
• Karaoke Night hits the high notes
• Out of Position at Run It Up Reno
• Friends, family, and laughs at Run It Up Reno Comedy Night