Front page photo: Jason with one of his best friends in poker, Vivek Rajkumar. More about him later in Part 2.
This is the second of a four-part interview in which Jason Somerville tells us his life story. The highly successful poker player hosts his own YouTube show called ‘Run it Up’ that just debuted its second season, which can be found right here. In case you missed the first part where Somerville talks at length about his idea behind ‘Run it Up’ and how to make poker fun again on TV, here’s a link.
Today Somerville tells the story about his childhood, becoming a karate teacher at a very young age and his first contact with poker at 16. The now 27-year old also tells us about a more trying time in his life when a, at first, mysterious illness put him in a very tough situation both physically and mentally. Somerville ultimately defeated the sickness that he in retrospect refers to as one of the best things that ever happened to him. Falling sick turned out to be a trigger for Somerville, who thereafter chased his dreams to constantly do what he enjoyed most.
While the remains of Black Friday are still clearly visible for poker players in the United States, many have decided to move on. Some moved to foreign lands to pursue dreams of winning big online tournaments, while others had their eyes opened to try new ventures. Somerville, while at heart still a poker pro, lives in Las Vegas where he currently uses his apartment more as a recording studio than a grind station.
A Life Filled with People
When Somerville describes his day-to-day operation you realize that during days of his constant online poker playing, this could not have further from the current situation. The sometimes-recluse lifestyle poker players find themselves in no longer fits into the picture Somerville paints. A cast of friends and newfound colleagues fill up the bedrooms, kitchen table and couches to help out with producing and turning ‘Run it Up’ into the present and future of poker broadcasting.
“The people that I have around me are actually a lot of people that I have known for a long time and some of my closest friends are helping me with the whole ‘Run it Up’ industry that I’ve kind of whipped up around here. I also have a lot of support from Ultimate Poker, my friend Dustin (Iannotti) and John (Erminio), who help making this whole ‘Run it Up’ season come to fruition,” Somerville said.
“My boyfriend is obviously also a big part of the support network I have around me. I’ve been with him now for three years almost, as crazy as that is to say,” Somerville added.
Somerville’s steady relationship and coming out have been very important for the personal development of the man who once preferred the life of a lone online grinder. The contrast between the closeted online poker player and the outspoken ambassador of the game of poker is clear, but in a way they are also still part of the same person even today.
Becoming a Karate Teacher
“I grew up in a relatively normal household. My mom was a physical therapist and my dad was an architect. I have one younger sister and I don’t think there was anything too notable about the first 15 years of my life. I was very much involved in the martial arts though; as I started karate when I was five and by the time I was 13 I started working at that karate school where I became a teacher,” Somerville said.
“I think teaching karate was a tremendously beneficial experience for me. Not just from being able to work with kids and to have that dynamic teaching experience as a growth mechanism, but also because I learned a lot about communication and I gained a lot of self-confidence from being able to teach in front of a group. I taught from 3-5 year olds, all the way to adults. Looking back, that experience was great to give me the ability to explain myself to people no matter their age or background,” Somerville said.
“I found that teaching poker actually was very easy because I was so used to teaching karate to three year olds who are similar to poker players in many ways, with low attention spans and a mentality of wanting to have fun. I took a lot of those lessons and applied them to poker and that was a reason why I had initial success in poker. Not too many people that make poker videos had any experience teaching, or had seven years of teaching experience before the age of 20,” Somerville said, referring to his advantage from an experience perspective.
The karate lessons shaped Somerville, as it would any young boy with such tremendous responsibility. The young boy from Long Island started teaching at the age of 13 and just two years later he was given the opportunity to run the school’s three-to-six year old program, “The tigers they were called,” Somerville recalls.
“The person that was running that whole division was leaving and there were nine or ten kids in the program. I put in a lot of work. I was one of those kids that worked really hard and I was obviously getting paid almost nothing. They were like ‘sure let’s put a flyer on this kid, there’s only 9 or 10 kids in there anyways’ and they gave me the responsibility of doing everything.”
Somerville ended up teaching every class, making the curriculum and schedule while he was also in charge of calling the kids' parents, take retention, marketing and promotional decisions.
“The owner left it to me and said basically ‘good luck.’ I had an amazing time doing that and it was basically my little business that I was able to try to put a lot of time into. I loved it and that was arguably still, to this day, the most satisfied I’ve been as a human being,” Somerville said.
The success of Somerville’s teaching and managerial skills was evident, as he turned the small 10-kid program into a flourishing 100-kid strong karate program.
“All of that on the back on my minimum wage teaching job,” Somerville recalls, and he continued, “I think, of all the things I did in my youth to middle teens, the impact of karate, both teaching and the general lifestyle, the discipline and the desire not to quit, that ability to put in the time and put in the grind, has been the biggest. It’s the only place that I ever really worked in my life prior to poker was at the karate school. I put in the time there. I grinded like crazy. That’s the only place that I ever scrubbed the toilets and washed the floors. I treated that place like it was my own place basically. It was a really good way for me to learn a lot of skills and have a lot of experiences that I wouldn’t have gotten any other way,” Somerville said.
The karate days turned out to be a social highlight of Somerville’s life, as he was involved in the lives of lots of kids from his city. While karate, and the social aspect of it, were a major part of his happiness during his teenage years he eventually turned to playing online poker. The big difference however was not just a result of being less involved in karate.
“I have always had a struggle between my desire for personal privacy and introversion with an ability to be extroverted and social. I still feel like I would rather spend my time by myself or with a couple of close friends than in a large group. I’m not really sure what happened along the way to let me be as comfortable as I am in a group setting. One of my close friends believes it’s psychosis and that something is wrong with me to be able to do that,” Somerville jokingly said.
The karate teaching and managing ended in ‘a bunch of drama’ and it turned out to be a difficult time for Somerville.
“I didn’t have as many people that I was able to really openly confide in at that time. You have to realize that I was completely closeted at the time back in those days. I had a lot of growth left to do in my life at that era. I’m sure at some point in my life I dramatically felt like I was alone. I think everybody feels that way from time to time. I’ve certainly had my share of being sad, depressed, lonely and feeling like I was going to have to make some concessions in my life generally in order to be satisfied and make things work. I wasn’t very exposed to the world at that point. I had never really left Long Island or my local area,” Somerville said.
While things didn’t go so well on a personal level, his parents were always there for him. Somerville accredits the split in his personality to each one of his parents, as his dad’s the friendly and diplomatic one, compared to his fiery and competitive mother.
“I remember very distinctly driving around with my dad and he was always the type of guy who would wave at people, not that he knows them but wave and say hello to everybody. He would always make small talk at the grocery check out stands. He was always that kind of guy, very chatty, very nice, genial, warm and caring. I really admired my dad. He’s a better person than I will ever be as far as that sense of patience and loving and caring and concern.”
“My dad was a really great role model for me, while in opposition to that my mother who was a fiery Italian, the second oldest of 7, the cheerleader in high school and very aggressive and stubborn. She was always the fighter and competitor. She was a very strong and tough woman. They were very different as people. I took a lot and the best from both of my parents and that really helped forge me into the person I am today and I am extremely grateful to both of them for that,” Somerville said.
Less School, More Poker
Up until his 17th Somerville had quite a normal life, but lots changed when his parents moved out of his district. Not only did he move to a new house, Somerville also found himself in a situation where he had to choose between schools. This decision turned out to be a factor for his future development, as he ultimately dropped out of community college at a very young age.
“My collegiate and school life was very weird. I was forced to decide whether I was going to stay in the high school in just that year and graduate, or I had the option to move to a new school and go there for the full final two years. Once I graduated 11TH grade in the school I was initially in, because I didn’t want to go to a new school for two years, my social life was never the same after that and that was also when my karate era pretty much ended.”
While Somerville’s high school friends were busy being in school every day, the youngest kid in college was attending community college classes.
“I made literally one friend in all of the three years I spent in college. I wasn’t outgoing at all. I was focused completely on poker. I basically only spent time with people that understood poker,” Somerville said about this huge transition in his life.
“It was the timeframe around when I was about 17 or 18 that I started to make my core poker friends who really contributed to me being who I am today as a poker player. I look back on my life as having ran incredibly well to meet certain people that were able to impact me, teach me certain lessons and give me certain skills. I could easily think of a dozen people who, without their influence, I don’t know if I ever would have had the right tools to be in this situation to even have a chance at where I am today.”
The players Somerville refers to are Leo Wolpert, Vivek Rajkumar, Alex Venovski and Steve O’Dwyer. These core poker friends from back in the day are still among Somerville’s best friends, and they coincidentally all turned out to be highly skilled and successful.
Jason with some of his closest poker friends, including Leo Wolpert and Alex Venovski, during Russell Thomas' November Nine preperation. Full video series on this prep can be found here.
“Especially without Vivek I don’t think I ever would even have had the chance to be as successful as I was,” Somerville says, about one of the more mysterious but very successful people in the world of poker.
Rajkumar has over $4.3 million in live tournament earnings, played in the first Big One for One Drop and is known as a big winner in live cash games. Rajkumar however never sought out the limelight, and he was similarly cautious with his bankroll management back in the day.
“You have to realize that Vivek graduated college at the age of 18. He is beyond super genius wizard,” Somerville excitedly said before continuing, “and when I first met him we both had the same bankroll of around $30,000.”
“He is a brilliant mind and probably the smartest person that I have ever got to spend time with. To have him as my best friend for 10 years is like an absolutely insane asset. I remember talking to him about what he was playing the first time we ever met at Turning Stone back in the day. We talked a bit online before then, but that was the first time we officially met.”
“He was like ‘Oh yeah, I got like 30k in my bankroll,’ and I was like ‘That’s awesome, so do I!’ I asked him what do you play? He goes ‘I play $30 SNGs’ and I remember being stunned,” Somerville laughed, before continuing to paraphrase the conversation from almost a decade ago.
“’Wow oh my god, you’re such a nit, $30 sit and gos with a 30k roll, that’s incredible! To use that as your average game is incredibly nitty.’ He said, ‘Well what do you play?’ I said ‘I like to play $10/$20 No Limit,’ which was incredibly aggressive bankroll management,” Somerville laughed thinking back of this conversation.
“That’s how we first met, and from that minute on we forged this close friendship. Again, we were very different; he was very logical, mathematically oriented. I wasn’t, I was a lot like more like ‘this guy doesn’t have shit’ while he said, ‘This doesn’t make sense because of that, and that doesn’t make sense because of this.’”
“The combination of having him introduce his logical platform and foundation and approach to not just poker but to life in general, having him insert that in my mind purely by just soaking it in and spending time with him, being able to have that happen was a tremendous asset to me and without that I surely wouldn’t have been nearly as successful, if successful at all, at poker,” Somerville thanked his friend.
Choosing Poker and Getting Sick
Since the moment Somerville met his closest poker friends, and dove into becoming a professional, there was no turning back. While dropping out of college sounds like a bad thing, Somerville did not give up on a regular career path without trying. A career in business had always been the route he was expected to take, as his mom pushed him to pursue going to a school like Cornell University or Wharton. Somerville was a good student, but ‘a symphony of coincidences’ made for it not being the right thing at that time.
“It all started when I graduated a year early and college was forced on me. I didn’t have a normal like going through 11th and 12th grade, finding a real college, applying normally. I was put in to like an accelerated position of ‘where can I go immediately, like two months from now?’ So I had to pick a school closer to me and that didn’t turn out to be a good idea.”
“Once I started doing that, everything started changing because I found poker at that point and poker started dominating my time. By the time I was going to college a little bit, at this point I was 18 or so, my second year of college, it was November or October, eight or so years ago, I was going to school still commuting when I started getting sick with ulcerative colitis. As that got worse and worse and I became more and more bed ridden. It was the first and only time in my life that I was really, truly, miserably, in pain, sick and actually felt like there was a chance that I was not going to make it somehow,” Somerville said, as the story took a dramatic turn.
“I lost 30 pounds in a month after getting sick. None of the memories of that time, while I was being sick with the colitis, are pleasant that’s for sure. Also, not knowing what it was that I was sick with was very hard, I didn’t know if it was some sort of cancer,” Somerville said.
Understandably Somerville’s parents were distraught, as their son was unable to do even the most basic things during this trying time.
“I remember the day I was going for the colonoscopy, as I needed my mom to help my down the stairs. I was so weak that I wasn’t even able to get down the stairs. It really impacted me to be sick the first time. And when I recovered the first time, I remember being very happy to just be able to walk again on my own unassisted. I gained a little appreciation for normal human life, as we know it, and as we take it for granted. It really wasn’t until next year that I got sick again, and had another miserable two months, that it really hit me that you can't take things for granted,” Somerville said.
“You never know when it’s going to be the last time that you’re going to do something, or the last time that you’re going to see someone. With that perspective in mind, I didn’t want to spend my time doing something that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. Once I recovered the second time, I wasn’t enjoying going to school, I found it to be tedious and it was just busy work and nonsense.”
“When I did go to classes I ended up playing poker on the fucking computers anyway. So I was going to class and played on Party, made like 2 or 3k, while they were trying to teach me things I felt like I already knew. I didn’t quite understand what the purpose of it was to go. It was hard for me to drive for an hour with my stomach as bad as it was, even when I was feeling really good,” Somerville said.
“Eventually I said, it was just not what I wanted to do with myself, not how I wanted to spend my time. I look back on being sick as one of the best things that ever happened to me because it gave me an appreciation of my health and my time when I was 19 and 18.”
“I feel like most people in life learn that lesson when they are 40, 50 or even 55. I was lucky enough to learn that when I was 19. When I was 19 I said fuck it, I’m not going to waste my time doing all this nonsense that other people want me to do. It really empowered me to do what I wanted to do right then and there. I always kept track mentally of, ‘Am I doing right now, today, what I want to do with myself?’ If that answer hasn’t been ‘yes’, then I’ve done something else and I have tried to change that. I think that perspective has really served me well in my career and in my life,” Somerville said.
"Right after I recovered from being sick the second time I spent nearly half my bankrol on this silly cherry red convertible. It was some sort of decision stemming from an optimistic and slightly irrational manifestation of wanting to do 'exactly what I wanted.'"
A Love for Poker
From the moment he found poker it has basically been the only constant in Somerville’s life so it seems, and his love for the game is still enormous. With ‘doing what he wanted’ Somerville meant poker, and to this day he’s still very passionate about the game.
“I have always loved poker since the very first time that I saw poker being played on TV. I have been always entranced by the idea of playing a game for money. I have been a gamer all my life ever since I was a kid I was always into computer games and gaming. My house was very competitive, Italian, game playing household. My parents played games every week with their friends when I was growing up. To me, the idea of being able to use my mind and try to outwit and outplay my opponents, it was fascinating.”
“The whole world was so compelling, it was so mystifying, watching the broadcasts and seeing these people and this world. It was so fascinating to me. It was so alluring. I’ve never lost my passion for poker, ever. I have been very lucky that when I really needed to win, I have won. I’ve had plenty of tough times and plenty of times where I have lost a lot.”
“I am very grateful for poker and ever since I got into it, I’ve been basically drawn to poker and it’s held for all these ten years. I feel like I’m always learning more. Ten years in, I am now learning PLO and more about no-limit, and there are still things that are blowing my mind, there are always new hands, there’s always more to learn, I think that’s what’s fascinating.”
“There are new situations all the time even though the game seems relatively simple on the surface. The complexion of the game, the dynamics of everything, it changes, I don’t know, to me it’s so fascinating. To me I feel like I’ll always play poker to some degree. I really do love the game. I haven’t found anything else like it in the world. Nothing in the world like it, no game like it, it’s beautiful. I really do believe that.”
Giving Poker Enthusiasts Advice
To tie it all back to Run it Up, Somerville talks about the thousands of people that watch his videos but keep poker as a hobby. For most people who play poker and watch training videos the goal is to keep moving up the ranks, but there’s only a small percentage who’s actually capable enough to fulfill the dream of being a professional player.
“I feel like there are many games that people play, or are invested in, or are fans in that they have no shot of ever playing or making anything out of. Obviously in any major sport that’s the case, I’m never going to be inside the UFC octagon but I still love it and watch it intensely. There are so many things like that in the world. People can be big fans of chess, or Magic or whatever it is they like and never be able to compete on the highest level. To me it feels like that doesn’t mean people want to be terrible, people just don’t want to suck at the games they are playing,” Somerville said.
“Even if they know that there is not a chance to become a top professional, you can still be better and measuring success up against, ‘well I’ll never be Phil Ivey so why even try’, seems to be a bad logical thought process. You measure your success on your own goal stick. To me that is the appeal poker has to some casual players, and that is specifically how I relate to it.”
“I really try to play the role of guide because I know many players are casual and don’t understand much of the serious poker stuff. People find the game of poker fascinating, they want to better understand it, they want to get better at it and even hearing a breakdown of a hand can be very beneficial to them.”
“I am on YouTube, which is the broadest platform in the world, and I feel like you have to hold your hand a little bit to show people what means what. I think people like that. Whether you are a new player, or a relatively mid-level player, speaking specifically about the casual players, combining that mix of fun and you can always get better, there’s always an upside, maybe you will get good enough to make a bunch of money.”
“To most people, if I told them that I was going to give them a hobby and that hobby was going to give them a 20% chance of making an extra $1000 a fucking month, how would you say no to that? It’s a hobby you love, it’s great, it’s awesome and there’s a chance that you’ll make some money out of it in the long run. Even if you lose $1000 a month, people decided to spend that sort of money and more on plnty of other hobbies with zero potential upside. I don't believe that simply because you can lose money at poker that it's inherently bad, it's just a danger to be aware of similar to with everything else in life."
Run it Up #11, a live stream with Dan O'Brien
There are of course people that will be totally fine with keeping poker as a hobby, but Somerville also has to deal with people who think they can easily jump into being a professional.
“I feel like I’ve had many people who have said, ‘oh man I’m doing great, I’m going to quit my job, or leave school’. And then it turns out they have made like 5k and they think they are crushing the world right now.”
“Those people don’t understand you need so much more money than that! I always caution people that poker is not for everyone and I really do believe that famous line that ‘if you’re smart enough to succeed in poker, you’re smart enough to succeed in something else’. It’s not for most people.”
“There are friends of mine who I love dearly who have been professional poker players for years that are not suited for it. They don’t like the swings, the swings affect them emotionally, they get angry when they lose, they are not happy when they win, they are not satisfied, they wish they had done something else, they wish they’d spent their time differently. Poker is not for you as a profession if that’s the case. It takes a lot of ingredients to come together for a poker career to be successful and one of those elements is luck.”
“It’s not an easy thing, taking that leap to being a professional poker player, especially these days in America. It’s something that I heavily caution people on. If you are not sure, you should definitely slow down, pump the brakes a little bit because the game is not going anywhere. A lot of people feel like they have to make some big jump, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case for the majority of people. You can still play and keep your life going.”
Somerville definitely has what it takes to be a poker player, as he attributes a part of his success to having played games all his life. The competitive nature helped him to evolve his game to a very high level.
“I feel like a lot of the mechanical elements of poker, and comparative decision making, you know you and I both get aces under the gun, what are you doing, you’re raising, what am I doing, I am raising too, that’s awesome, we are playing exactly the same. But then they give me ‘the 8-4 suited’ under the gun and you’ve just folded and I’m like alright let’s get in there,” Somerville jovially said.
“I feel like my mind has a good capacity for understanding those logical comparatives, ‘well the person did this, so they probably didn’t do that’. I feel like I was trained in my life very often to have a very logical mindset so poker fit always fit in very well from there. I really believe in the Outliers-esque bunch of coincidences that turned into positive traits that were then reinforced by other situations and all of a sudden I was in the right place, at the right time, at the right moment, right when poker was getting big. So that’s how my career came together in some beautiful cosmic crossroads of fortuitousness,” Somerville said, referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success.’
Somerville continues on the specific traits that make a poker player successful, and one of them is to be able to deal with adversity.
“I’m not the type to get angry if I lose, I’m not the type to cry over spilt milk. I get that from my dad, who was always the kind of guy that said, ‘let’s take your lessons from it and move on to the next thing’ and that’s a great attitude to have in poker. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, just don’t get on the emotional rollercoaster when you do. Just focus on making the best decision you can make with the information you have, that’s all. That idea resonated very well with me and that primarily was what made me successful in poker.”
“Furthermore I also have a good ability to read people live, and I have a good memory for betting patterns. They are specific things that I feel like I do better than my opponents, but at my core I think it’s that logical foundation paired with that optimistic ability to reset. Whether I win or lose, I was always like, ‘Ok on to the next one, let’s just reset and do the next thing and get in there and try to do better. Let’s make better decisions next time.’ That attitude, combined with that ability to actually win, is enough to let you succeed in poker. It’s just that question of whether you can or cannot win, that difficult battle between confidence and denial. It’s that battle that constantly waivers in casual and many professional players as well, that’s the tricky part,” Somerville said.
Read the third part of this series of conversations with Jason Somerville. In the third part Somerville talks in-depth about the highs and lows of his poker career, buying a house at a very young age and all his pre-Black Friday playing days.
The fourth part is available right here.