In the fourth and final part of this series Jason Somerville speaks passionately about how he views the landscape of live poker tournaments. Somerville, a long time professional himself, has seen many poker tournaments all over the world and feels they all lack, in one way or another, an emphasized element of fun. With Run it UP and the Run it UP community Somerville looks to dive into that particular niche and make live poker a fun experience.
In case you missed the previous parts, here are the links:
When you bring up whether or not he has a vision with his YouTube show, the 27-year old is reluctant to offer a direct answer, as he goes back and forth on what may or may not happen with ‘his baby’.
“If you put your vision out there and it doesn’t deliver somehow, people I feel like can be overly harsh and critical, saying ‘oh why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that, what happened to this thing,’” Somerville said as he was holding back on explaining his exact vision, for now.
“In truth it’s an evolving target, it’s a moving target and the only way you know where you’re going to be and what you’re going to hit and how you’re going to get there is by shooting arrows in the first place,” Somerville said, basically emphasizing that ‘‘Run it UP’’ is far from its definitive form.
One of the ways Somerville’s looking to expand the ‘Run it UP’ enterprise is with live events for fans and interested players. One of those events was already hosted in Reno last May and the turnout was great. These events will ultimately, if it’s up to Somerville, be part of something much bigger, but what that will be is still up in the air.
Run it UP Live Events
“I feel that ‘Run it UP’ is different because everything comes down to free, fun content. I create videos that are broad, unique, and open to anybody. They are all on YouTube or Twitch and anyone can find, watch, and enjoy them. They are not meant for only poker players that understand what ‘VPIP’ and ‘PFR’ means,” Somerville said.
Somerville rarely talks about stats in their purest form during the Run it UP broadcasts. Fun and entertainment are constantly emphasized and blended in with great poker action. The community aspect of Run it UP is a big part of its success, and going forward it will even be a bigger factor.
“The ‘Run it UP Legion’ as our community is called is absolutely incredible; there is so much fan made content, spin-offs, parodies, things are being posted to my Facebook page nonstop. It’s unbelievably motivating to see all that love and support. The community is a self-growing snowball. I haven’t ever spent a dollar on advertising. We at Run it Up just keep challenging ourselves to design innovative fun content and continue to improve what we are already doing. The next step is to create a live poker event that has never been done before.”
Somerville spoke passionately about the first event hosted in Reno at Peppermill Casino. This ‘Run it UP Live’ event was unlike any other poker tournament as it was partially a hang out with top poker pros, partially a training opportunity, and partially a traditional poker tournament series all combined on the basis of having fun with likeminded people who have a common interest in poker.
“We had a great time in Reno, everybody played tournaments, we played some cash games, we did an awesome seminar and we had group dinners nearly every night. We had this tremendously fun, fulfilling poker experience. It was one of the most enjoyable trips I’ve ever had in poker. I feel that we haven’t, as a poker industry, really tried to target the people who just want to have fun. And that’s where I think the difference can be made. We can design these compelling, value-laden live events that have interesting, fun mechanisms built into them.”
Somerville is already speaking at a lightning pace and keeps picking up speed as he describes these new live events. It’s clear that Reno wasn’t a one-off experience, but more so the start of something refreshing and successful that Somerville was the brainchild of.
“We have great ideas to make live poker events different, unique and special. To be able to reach out to the Run it UP community and say ‘Come on down to this place, we are going to have this awesome series of events, we are going to have seminars and all these people that are going to be there that want to hang out too, DMoongirl and me and maybe some UFC guys, you can come down and hang out with us, none of us have egos or anything at all, you have full access to sit and talk to anyone and everyone you want to talk to,” Somerville rattled off.
“Run it UP Live offers poker fans a chance to be included and involved in the game. You want to come learn poker? We’re doing training in a way that won’t put you to sleep faster than an Ambien. You want to just come play cash with me every day? Come play cash with me every day, I’ll buy you a drink. In my opinion, this is the vision, we are going to offer these events that I feel like will appeal to not just the ‘Run it UP’ community but hopefully to the public at large. And then we take these events, increase and refine and strengthen the template and take it to any casino in the world. Obviously there are a lot of ingredients and steps that I skipped, but that is basically the vision I have. And I really feel like I have a good shot at making it happen,” Somerville said, as he gave us a little glimpse of the bigger picture.
The video shows that Somerville’s concept of hosting a poker event differs a lot from all the EPT, WPT and WSOP events we’ve become accustomed to. In addition to the traditional option of paying your way to Reno, Somerville offered an option to qualify for the event by sending in creative pieces ranging from a song, a video a poem or a story. The targeted demographic was therefore already a lot different from your everyday online grinder.
The demographic Somerville is targeting might be an untapped resource for companies and sites looking to host live events. Not everyone in the world wants to slip on their sunglasses, hoodie and hit shuffle on their mobile device to disengage for the next 12 hours and focus on playing cards.
The discussion about creating a fun environment for amateur players flared up over the summer when events like the Monster Stack and the Millionaire Maker drew huge crowds. The majority of players in those events came out to play their one event of the summer and looked for a fun poker experience with a chance at the end to win big. While the chance of winning big should never be taken away, there is something to be said for trying to make the experience better.
The players in Reno weren’t about talking what three-bet ranges they were using against certain opponents and they weren’t there to brag about their latest success 24-tabling mid stakes. These people were there because of their love for the game and the ‘Run it UP’ community. It’s these people that drive Somerville and lead him down an undiscovered path filled with possible success.
“It blows my mind that something similar hasn’t been done prior to this that has really been built for that demographic. Even the tours that do smaller buy-ins, the HPT, the World Series Circuit and Deep Stacks all have the same sort of idea, but none of them really seem to emphasize; ‘Let’s just have fun, let’s make sure that no matter what, bottom line, people come and they enjoy themselves. What can we offer to make sure this experience is as fun as possible no matter what your experience level is?’” Somerville said as if he almost wanted to point out that the smaller tours should not always try to focus on being a place for serious poker, but more so for a seriously good time.
“It almost seems obvious, but to the majority of the poker industry, fun and entertainment have never entered into the equation. To me, that’s the missing ingredient,” Somerville said.
The Player’s Contribution to Making Poker Fun
Somerville keeps emphasizing that poker, the game itself, isn’t necessarily a fun game to play in the current environment.
“There are situations where poker is not fun at all. For instance when you’re at a table of people who are not talking all day and you’re playing ten-handed. There are plenty of ways that poker can be unfun. That’s partially a consequence of the people that are designing the games that are being played who aren’t thinking of fun as a metric. Does anyone really think that ten-handed poker is going to be a lot of fun? Have you ever heard anybody in your life say ‘Oh boy, can’t wait to play some ten-handed poker without antes today?’”
“Logistical reasons aside, why are you organizing such a thing? That’s not fun for anybody. Nobody likes that,” Somerville said before he continued to explain how the players, in the end, are the most important factor when it comes to whether or not everyone is having a good time at the tables.
“I’ll use an analogy from my karate teaching days for this one, ‘black holes’ and ‘firestarters’. The kids that were energetic, always paying attention, first on the line, ready to go, those kids were the firestarters. Then there were kids that were off in the corner, distracting other kids, not paying attention, those kids were the black holes. They were tough to deal with and made it less fun for everyone. At the poker table, you have a similar divide.”
“There are people like Jason Koon, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth to some degree, the Tony Dunsts of the world, they are the people who bring energy to the table, they sprout energy. Think of the guys who you watch sit down and they’re just positive, they bring something to the table. Some players just flower energy, they have an aura about them that they bring to the table and it makes the game more fun. It’s the exact same game that people were playing a second ago but now there’s a player here who is making it more enjoyable to play,” Somerville said, almost pointing a finger to selfish poker pros.
“It’s not a thing that only Jason Koon can do. Anybody can sit down at a poker table and be a positive influence. You can bring that positive aura, no matter win or lose; you can have a good time and approach it simply like that. It’s a matter of prioritizing, thinking logically, and realizing that it’s better for everybody when it’s fun. When it’s a quiet, nasty, snippy, hyper-focused, or berating kind of game where people are not fostering that environment of positivity, that not only in my opinion is less fun but it’s quite likely less profitable as well,” Somerville said.
“Think about this: say you’ve never played poker before and I go ‘Hey, come over to my house and we’ll play some poker.’ You come over and I’m sitting there with my hoodie and my sunglasses on and ruthlessly and efficiently proceed to take all your money. You’re probably not going to come back and play poker with me the next day are you? But if you come over to my house and I have beautiful array of chips and dip laid out for you and there’s great music playing, people are laughing and having a good time, and everything is just happy go lucky over here. That’s great! You might lose even more in the second scenario and STILL you’re way more likely to come back. Presentation and packaging matter.”
“I think that’s one of the things that many poker players are just not great at; especially my generation that had things handed to them on a silver platter with online poker. You just sit down and just shuffle up and deal, let’s go, let’s win some money now. That wasn’t the case for the Negreanus and the Doyles and the Phil Iveys, who had to be nice and learn some social skills and be chatty and interactive.”
“By the time my generation showed up, we could just sit down and play. Put on headphones, put on a hoodie, you’re good to gamble. But you’re not helping the game really, you’re not fundamentally growing the game, in fact you’re probably taking away from the game when the guys who never played before sit down, lose to you, hate the experience and never come back. But meanwhile in an alternate universe the same guy comes, sits down, plays, loses, but he’s sitting next to Negreanu. He laughs his ass off for six hours and even though he might be busted he doesn’t go home empty-handed – he’s got a great story to tell! That guy may play poker for the next fifty years of his life. He’ll go home and play online. He’ll go home and try to find another home game. He may sign up for a training site or make an online deposit. People don’t seem to grasp the profound long-term effects of positivity in poker. That’s one of the big things I’m trying to help change,” Somerville said.
Balancing Fun and Profitability
The statements Somerville’s making attack the current attitude of poker players all over the world, but he’s quick to admit that he also wasn’t always a fun guy to play against.
“There have been many times in my career that I sat at the table, put headphones on and not said a word. I am not the perfect paragon of fun. I hardly take claim to being the most fun person. I’m not even the most fun person on my floor, and I only have one neighbor,” Somerville laughed, as he referred to his apartment building.
“I am hardly the arbiter of all things fun and pleasurable. If people want to come and play and be serious, that’s fine, it’s not everyone’s responsibility to make poker more fun. It really isn’t. In my opinion it’s on the professionals. It’s on us pros to do it. It’s on to us to set that example for the community as a whole. When we behave badly or treat amateurs either poorly or invisibly, this has a real impact. When we see other pros doing it and say ‘well they’re doing it, so I’m going to do it too’, you really start to see a negative snowball effect that cannot be healthy for poker.”
“At some point it has to start somewhere. Many poker players don’t even think about this as a thing they could be doing that would impact their bottom line. They don’t even understand the power of the positivity that they could be bringing or the negative outcomes that they may be inducing with their behavior. I feel like we need to do better as a professional community to avoid those things. If people want to just come and play, sure thing, that’s the beauty of poker, nobody has to do anything. But I just feel like if everybody is ok with putting their hands in their pockets and shuffling around, then nothing will change,” Somerville said passionately.
Daniel Colman’s Non-Statement and the Positives of Poker
This year poker has definitely seen some extremes when it comes to its public perception. Daniel Colman won the biggest poker tournament of the year and refused to give a winner interview. Colman later stated that he didn’t want to do anything to help poker as he believed it’s a bad game for society.
“I think that Dan Colman’s opinion was a bit unrefined and not quite wholly encompassing of the whole picture of poker. When you look at things like One Drop itself as a charitable vehicle, you look at what REG (Raising for Effective Giving) is doing with poker. There are many ways you can turn poker into a positive. And to say that poker inherently is always a dirty game, or always a negative game is not right. Has there been a time where I have been disgusted at something that I have seen inside of poker? Of course. Poker is not 100% a beautiful game, as far as like every element of it is perfectly shiny and beautiful and pretty. But to be fair I don’t think they are many activities or sports that are.”
“You look at all the scandals of cheating in all the different major athletics. There are always going to be a dark side of things. That’s just the unavoidable nature of the universe, you can always focus on the negative sides. The people that focus on the positive sides, you are drawn to that, if you focus on the negative, you are drawn to the negative. I wish he had represented the game differently, but it’s up to him to do what he wants.”
“That again is the beauty of poker. There is no governing body, there is no player’s union, there’s not even anything remotely close to that. There’s no singular player community council, and the players’ council at the World Series doesn’t even exist anymore. If we had a singular game structure like E-Sports has for League or Legends and DOTA, those guys are able to engineer a top-level marketing plan, a PR plan, event schedule, they are able to really develop these things and say ‘This is our packaged product we want you to consume. We’ve designed this packaged product for you, we have thought about what the consumer will typically feel about this experience.’ If you sit down at a poker table, you have no clue what you’re in for, based on where you are in the world, who you are playing with that day, how you’re feeling, there’s few guarantees what your experience will be like at a poker table,” Somerville said.
The Power of Run it UP
“Nobody told me that I should make poker fun, nobody told me that I should do these things, that anything needs to happen, and if I stopped tomorrow, nobody would call me and crack a whip and make me do it. That being said, I feel that there is an opportunity here to step up and show people how I think things could be done better. If people agree with me, they can join me on what I’m trying to do. Check out one of my ‘Run it UP’ episodes, be a part of our community, join our live events and adopt the ‘let’s just have fun, bottom line’ mindset. Let’s emphasize the good and the positive. That to me is the vision of ‘Run it UP’. It’s the counter balance to the negative nonsense, a counter to the suits who don’t love or know the game but get to decide what’s suitable for everyone who truly does.”
Currently a good Run it UP video sits at around 10,000 views, which is still quite distant from other popular YouTube shows. Somerville’s not sure if his show, and other poker related shows, can ever attain such viral heights, but he offers some interesting off-the-cuff insights on what he sees possible.
“There are several different avenues that are unexplored in poker as far as content or content delivery. The question to me is how do you do it? What could you do to make 100,000 people watch poker?” Somerville mused. “Would people watch a live poker stream where Phil Ivey played me heads up for $10,000? If we give people a time, announce that we’re going to play heads up, hole cards included, on a live stream without delay, no paywall whatsoever, how many viewers could that get?” Somerville asked out loud.
“I believe it could get 100,000 views, especially if you did a series of them and you produced them really well. And if you could do that much, well, what could you do to make that better? Could you make Ivey a permanent fixture, do something king of the hill style? Could you offer fans an opportunity to qualify to play against him? If you have the right venue, paired with an online site, maybe you can qualify people to come and take their shot at Ivey every week or whatever.”
“Say you run a live stream in a big studio, like an E-Sports level studio where the set is gorgeous, with perfect production, great announcers, professional casting, sharp graphics, sideline interviews, tight production and you put it out and promote it. You run a good, solid promotion around it, and make that whole thing work. That would get 100,000 views easy. If I can sit here and in a minute dream up that plan, then there have to be a million other ways that you could make watching poker in 2014 not just viable but compelling,” Somerville said.
“It’s very easy to dismiss people who try and fail. But to me, that’s the only way you learn, that’s the only way you grow. I used to get excited and talk openly about every project I was looking forward to, but I’ve learned that it’s better to just focus on delivery. It’s cool to talk about stuff, to dream about it and imagine it – but the real trick is in the execution. Having the potential to do something is basically meaningless unless you do it. My dad always said ‘the worst thing in life is wasted potential,’ and I really believe it. I feel that way about ideas, about people and about myself.”“As I’ve gotten older I came around to the idea that telling people ‘wait and see’ with a little wink is the best way to do things. Mark Cuban said something like, ‘Customers don’t know what they want. It’s up to the business to tell the customer what they want. You don’t give them the options. You’re the one that’s supposed to say, this is what it is, we’ve figured it out, and this is what you want! And then the consumer goes ah yes, that IS what I want!’ That’s not a thing you figure out overnight, and I feel like that’s just one of many lessons I’ve learned in the last year.”
“There is nothing that guarantees the success of ‘Run it UP’, or really anything I suppose, but I feel like finally I have learned enough lessons that I can finally see the entire puzzle, and great news, I think I have all the pieces. To be honest, I feel like I have pieces to spare.”
A Jason Somerville fan made statue
Corporate Sponsorship and Interest
One of the things poker lacks is corporate sponsorship, but it has always seemed like the logical next step for such a hugely popular game. Somerville thinks it’s possible for poker to attract that type of sponsorship and interest, but not right now.
“The environment has to change, the general perspective has to change. A lot of the general people look at poker as gambling or something that’s a little bit on the dirty side of things, and they don’t want to get involved. Truly it comes down to a math decision for most of these companies. Does this mathematically make sense? ‘We invest $10K in this guy to wear our brand, is this going to show an actual return?’ Too often it doesn’t make mathematical sense for a company to make any investment. The way that we have structured poker so far isn’t really conducive for that.”
“Let’s say you look at Nike, the gold standard for sponsorships. What did it take the UFC to get Nike on their fighters? It look them 12 years, having a superstar like Jon Jones, to finally get that kind of attention. It took that mainstream appeal to make sense for them as a brand. What would it take Nike to get involved in poker? It has to be somebody who’s ahead of the curve; it has to be like a Phil Ivey kind of a special guy. But it couldn’t be Phil Ivey, because Ivey wouldn’t put the time in to really make it worthwhile for Nike. It has to be somebody that could command a following but did something different and unique. I think that we have a ways to go to make it to that level. The day that we see a Phil Hellmuth or a Negreanu wearing a Microsoft shirt or an Xbox sponsorship, I think those days are pretty far off as things are now.”
“That being said, I actually think that we will see more mainstream sponsors show up sporadically even by the next World Series. Things will continue to evolve and grow and there are more and more businesses starting to put their toe in the poker waters. As we see that expand, I think we will see a slow march to bigger opportunity, eventually,” Somerville said.
Poker in the US
Poker’s legality in the United States is of course a big factor to the game’s nationwide popularity and potential corporate interest. As of right now, just a few states have accepted legal gambling, but the first steps have been taken. Ultimate Poker is one of the few companies offering legal poker in the state of Nevada, but for now it hasn’t been a smashing success.
“As far as Ultimate goes, I think that people are not really sure what to think. It’s been a difficult journey the last year. There have been so many lessons learned and so many hurdles they had to climb over. Regulation was a double-edged sword to some degree because there were so many things that had to be learned for the first time for Nevada, lessons that PokerStars learned 10 years ago. There were a lot of frustrations. People are optimistic that we are going to see some markets open up here in America and hopefully be able to reach a sustainable poker economy, but if you’re an American and you want to play online poker, your situation is definitely not great right now.”
“I feel for everybody out there who wants to play and can’t, because I feel the same way, even here in Nevada. Ultimate Poker is great but I want to play $25/$50 PLO, I can’t play $25/$50 anything online here in Nevada. I can’t play the Sunday Million here in Nevada. Even though we do have online poker, it’s still not great. It’s not how it was for all those years back before Black Friday. I understand people’s frustrations. I don’t know when it will all get better here in America, but I do think there are things we can do to make it better in the meantime. Doing things like rebranding poker a little bit, making it more fun, more democratic, more inclusive, trying to push away some of the negatives that have been connoted with poker in the past is a good step. Energizing people to play and love the game is crucial.”
“I think 10 years from now, it would blow my mind if there was no legal online poker here in America on a widespread level. But that being said, I don’t know when in the next 10 years that will actually happen. It’s annoying. It’s very silly. We give people the option to smoke and do all sorts of things that are bad for them, and you can bet on horses online but you can’t play poker online. It’s absurd logically and with any luck logic will prevail, ultimately, but we all know that money will forever rule the day,” Somerville closed out with.