Having a conversation with Jason Somerville is about as far removed from what most people consider ‘normal’. Words come flying out of his mouth at warp speed; his analogies are sharp, to the point, but also all over the map.
The host and creator of the successful YouTube video series ‘‘Run it Up’’ has uncanny energy levels when he talks about his passion and his wit remains unmatched during our conversation that lasted almost three hours.
In the four parts of this interview with Somerville, you’ll get a unique perspective on what drives this young poker professional to putting countless hours into his passion: making poker fun again.
Poker is Not Fun
Phralad Friedman once rapped, “Poker is fun, for every one,” and both professionals as well as serious amateurs probably agreed with him. Over the last couple of years the fun in poker, for the casual amateur and enthusiast has not been brought to the forefront too much, as the emphasis was on the strategy aspect of the game. Somerville, who’s also very big on the strategy of poker, thinks that in order for the game to have a bright future he needs to make it more fun. Fun is the key word when it comes to Somerville’s YouTube show ‘Run it Up’, and it’s safe to say there’s nothing like it out there.
“I don’t think there are too many things that exist like ‘Run it Up’, nobody has really tried to make poker more entertaining and try to incorporate the things that really made poker fun,” Somerville stated.
“I feel that poker programming and poker content, as an industry, was put together 10-years ago on the fly. ‘Oh we have hole-card cameras, these guys are playing poker, they are playing for a lot of money, let’s do it.’ That was what the idea, that was the formula and that worked. It was awesome and I loved it, and everybody else loved it. That was all very sweet, but it never really evolved much from there, in America at least,” Somerville judged the current state of poker on TV.
“I watched High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark and I loved all of it. I’ve seen every episode of both of those shows. We, as an audience, didn’t really see anything happen beyond that. We saw more and more poker training content, serious content, but I wonder, where is the fun part?” Somerville questioned poker content.
“As someone who consumed a lot of poker content, it would always drive me crazy when I would watch a poker video and a guy would say, ‘Ok so I have ace-jack here so I’m going to call.’ And that was the end of the sentence,” Somerville spurted out.
“What?!?! What if you had ace ten? What if you have ace queen? What if he bet twice as much? Give me some other variables here,” Somerville yelled off the top of his lungs to ad more power to his argument. “On that level it frustrated me very much and that’s what initially got me into making content myself. From there on it was just a matter of ‘I’m bored out of my mind watching most of these guys. Why do these people have to be so dry? Why can’t we lighten it up a little bit? Let’s have some fun,’” Somerville said.
Eating Cake and Following Negreanu’s Example
Somerville’s operation, ‘Run it Up’, started with a small following but grew quickly, as the long-time poker pro put emphasis on making sure his fans were having a good time. Somerville keeps his videos light hearted, entertaining while also keeping an eye on the poker action.
“There definitely was not an ideology behind it whatsoever when I started. It was an idea I had always wanted to do back in 2011. I did a YouTube show called ‘Eating Cake’ where I tried to spin up my 400 dollars on Cake Poker to some goal higher than that,” Somerville said about the origins of his video-casting career.
“I enjoyed it but I had never done anything like that before really, never on YouTube. I had done videos on Poker VT before, but again I found I didn’t like some of the restrictions on Poker VT. I didn’t like not being my own boss and I felt like I had to stick to poker content. ‘Eating Cake’ was my first experiment that was more than just regular poker casting,” Somerville said.
“From there it was a long and winding journey of meeting certain people who convinced me that it was possible to do something like ‘Run it Up’. Seeing the Rise of E-Sports, and League of Legends in particular, was a big influence on me as well. These kids are so excited about playing League of Legends. It’s a video game for no money at all. They have so little chance of making it and making a lot of money. Why can’t poker be as fun, as viewable, as exciting as E-Sports? I believe that it can be and will be once you have it in the hands of the right lord protectors who can really make that happen,” Somerville said in his characteristic jovial and energetic manner.
Daniel Negreanu, a long time friend, has been a big inspiration for Somerville from both a personal and poker perspective. The two became friends when Somerville was just 20-years old, and we all know there’s no better person to learn from when it comes to interacting with poker fans.
“Having him as a friend was never prearranged. He wasn’t’ like, ‘Yep I’ll show you the ropes kid.’ We were just friends hanging out and I was like every other poker fan boy, happy to spend time with Daniel. I guess he didn’t mind having me along for some of his adventures. I got to witness him with so many fans over the years. Every single time he would see a fan, it’s like ‘Hey how you doing? What’s going on? You’re here to play a tournament? Where are you from? Oh you’re from this random country?’ And he goes to the language of the place that he somehow knows,” Somerville said, with much admiration for his good friend and mentor.
“Having him as a role model to look up to is like ‘Wow’. Every time he sees a fan he makes them fans for life because he’s so energetic, dynamic, enthusiastic and he has this legitimate zest. I felt like we had that in common to some degree. He brought that out in me and showed me how I could be, indirectly. Not until the last couple years has he explicitly given me direct advice. For years he was just leading by example and I think that was a major impact for how I’ve become,” Somerville thankfully said.
“I’m not sure if that made me want to do this, because that’s a longer conversation, but he definitely gave me a blueprint on how to do this.”
Partnership with Ultimate Poker
Somerville has been an Ultimate Poker sponsored pro almost from the start of its legitimacy in Nevada, but ‘Run it Up’ remains his own. Even though the two are partners, the videos on YouTube are completely Somerville’s idea.
“’Run it Up’ is my baby and my project alone. Nobody has any say or direction or anything about ‘Run it Up’ and I’m always going to keep it that way. Ultimate Poker is a partner, and one that has been great to me over the course of our relationship. Our goals, targets and ideologies are not necessarily entirely aligned. I have almost the same, if not more, fans in Europe than in America. Over the last year and a half I had about 1.8 million views, of which 700k in America, 700k in Europe and 400k in the rest of the world. It’s very close for me between Europe and America, most of that being from the UK. If the UK were a state, it would be bigger than California, so that’s pretty big. Obviously Ultimate Poker doesn’t care at all about my European audience,” Somerville said, as his sponsor’s not available outside of the United States.
From a business perspective Ultimate Poker might not get the direct crossover into new sign ups, but they do get a lot of brand familiarity among the poker industry across the world. As poker makes small steps forward in the United States, so does Ultimate Poker with Somerville as its most prominent pro on the biggest video platform in the world.
“I feel like the value that I bring to Ultimate Poker is that when you watch a ‘Run it Up’ video, you’re going to watch for a pretty long time. My average view is something like 13 and a half minutes, which is a really long time given that my videos are around 30 min. Getting the average view to be like 33% of the video is awesome. You’re not going to get too many people that are going to actively watch anything for 12 or 13 minutes. For Ultimate it makes sense that I’m showing people how to use the software, giving them confidence in the brand and showing them that their money is safe and secure,” Somerville said.
Jason Somerville with Scott Seiver during one of the Run it Up videos. (Video link)
“If anyone has a problem I’ve tried to make sure that I am there to facilitate them, but there haven’t been too many, at least that I’ve heard from players’ point of view. I’m also there to give them guidance and help. I feel like it’s a tough industry that they’re in. Ultimate Poker is in a tough battle,” Somerville said, as online poker in Nevada hasn’t been a great success so far.
While many people interested in poker will already have heard of ‘Run it Up’, there’s still a good chance you haven’t actually watched an episode. In the first season Somerville produced an impressive 113 episodes, and one of the issues he ran into was creating a way for people to jump in at a later stage. Somerville said he was “winging it,” the entire season with a lack of an onramp for new viewers. In the second season this will change, as Somerville explains.
“The solution that I thought we were going to try for this season to try to do ‘Run it Up’ into season blocks. To do on times and off times, clear schedules of this is when content is coming out, this is when we’re in active ‘go mode’ and then we’re going to stop and then there will be a break. During those breaks I get to do other things, disconnect my mind and take care of other projects, focus on those, recharge and plan for the next season. Everyone else can catch up, watch, talk about it and share it with their friends. And then we start again fresh with the next season. Everybody who hasn’t seen the episodes before can start fresh on season 3 and if you’ve been a fan all along, welcome back,” Somerville said.
“That to me was something that I definitely did think about; viewer experience. There has never been a show like this on YouTube, which I am aware of, for me to learn from. I feel like we are trying to not make the same mistakes this season or just make things better,” Somerville excitedly said about the second season.
E-Sports versus Poker Broadcasting
While Somerville’s inspiration for ‘Run it Up’ comes partly from the hugely popular E-Sports videocasts, it’s also hard to pull a comparison between the two.
“‘Run it Up’ doesn’t really compare to E-Sports broadcasts, but the World Series of Poker does. There are certain things that are being done that I feel are better in E-Sports than in poker. One being that the schedule of content makes a lot of sense for League of Legends, while it doesn’t for poker,” Somerville said.
“Some tables are streamed, some aren’t, there is nonexistent sideline coverage, and no real interviews with players after they bust. There is not like that level of intimacy and understanding, a day-to-day tracking of The World Series: here we are, looking at the field today, these are the events going on, come on down and play!” Somerville said about the live streaming part in particular.
“At the WSOP there’s no integrated social media like there is at the EPT for instance, which I think is the closest thing we have to an E-Sports situation, the set up they have on the EPT. There is nothing in poker that has that same live events feel,” Somerville said, referring to the EPT Live broadcasts.
“I feel like the ESPN November Nine was the 1990s solution of trying to make this cool. Everything else is going towards super live streaming, next day, same day, same second, let’s push it out, make it fun, make everybody watch worldwide, let’s make it into spectacle. ESPN is like no ‘No, no, we’ll just record it and release it once a week on broadcast television and we’ll make them play it out in 3 months and that will be cool,’” Somerville said in frustration about this concept.
“It’s just not cool,” Somerville continued, “To me it’s a solution that at this point is not the best one. The summer could be more special; there are so many things we could do. I could go on a long time about this subject, I feel like there is a lot that could be done.”
The ‘documentary style’ of portraying the WSOP was in place for many years, but has been replaced by a much more strategy based broadcast for the hardcore poker fans. Somerville believes that there’s not one right way to show poker, but improvements needs to be made to enhance to viewer’s experience.
“It’s not an easy solution or an easy task by any means, to broadcast poker the right way. I know the guys at ESPN, and I know they work hard, and I know it’s a tough task. To me, part of the problem is that people don’t really understand that there is a middle ground. The solution we have tried to put in, kind of tries to hit both worlds. Now the broadcasts are trying to cater to the hardcore players by taking out some of the stories and including things like the VPIP and PFR. There are some segments, some features that feel like they are directed for the serious poker fan, and the 12-hour live stream certainly was one of them. There have been many things that have been catered to the hardcore fans but those haven’t been smashing successes,” Somerville said.
“Then on the other side of things, when production companies have done poker in the super most bottom common denominator, like when they have done it for the FOX broadcast out here for all those poker game shows type of things. It hasn’t done well either. I think people aren’t really sure how to treat poker. Do you treat it like golf? How do you really cover it? Nobody has really figured out what the exact recipe is for that. I’m not claiming that I have figured it out either. I just feel like there is a better solution there. There is some solution that incorporates an element of fun and understanding and it’s a matter of packaging it a certain way. You can’t just spit out a 12-hour live stream of just a poker table and let it roll,” Somerville said about the complexity of broadcasting the game.
In Somerville’s passionate, but sometimes ranty, style he continues to rattle off ideas that could make poker on TV, and the WSOP in particular, more exciting.
“You have to figure out a way, what makes this fun, what makes this compelling, let’s design this around what people like these days, what do they want? They want to interact, they want to see it, and they want to be able to interact with the players. They want to Q and A with the players on break. ‘While the players are on break, we are going to do a 15 min Q and A get your questions in live, and when we get back we’re going to do an interaction with the fans, you’ll have a chance to win a seat on the WSOP poker site’. And I don’t even work for them. I’m giving them free ideas,” Somerville joked.
The first ever Run it Up episode, followed by the one of the latest episodes.
Make Poker Broadcasting Fun Again
In all seriousness, Somerville’s passion about the game of poker and the way it’s being portrayed in broadcast media can be infectious.
“There are so many ways to package it, making it fun, making it entertaining, thinking of it as entertainment property first and then telling the stories, showing why poker is fun, why poker is beautiful, the interesting ups and downs, the competition and the stories. And then you include some of the stuff about the poker hands that were interesting,” Somerville advised.
In the current format of poker broadcasting during the WSOP there’s a lot of leeway in a sense that if you’re a professional player you’re likely to get a chance to do some commentary on the live stream. Somerville’s no fan of this laidback approach, and he thinks that the commentary is a much more important aspect than it may seem like.
“Another thing I feel like is a major difference between the World Series and the League of Legends is that you never ever see a player put in the position of co-hosting during League of Legends or really in any other professional activities. You don’t ever see just a random guy in another sport walk in and all of a sudden be put in a co-hosting position that is basically the premier position of the industry. So here we are in the World Series of Poker and you put guys in the booth who are not commentators, which is something that requires special skill and expertise. Tuchman is great, I like Tuchman, I’m talking about the poker pros that are put in the situation to basically play co-host instead of put in a situation where they are being interviewed or directly given questions,” Somerville said.
“Those broadcasts suffer because you get people in there who have only made poker training videos lifetime, being asked to try to make an entertaining broadcast and of course they don’t really know how, because they have never been taught, or trained or told or anything. It just creates this hardcore universe, the poker training video universe infects these live-streams, not necessarily in a bad way but still. It’s impacted regular poker videos and I’m not sure that was for the best. That’s how ‘Run it Up’ really took an impact, as ‘Run it Up’ started rolling and last year in August, people really started responding to me. I noticed people were responding to the parts that were fun and funny. That was what got people energized and excited to play. It’s the best thing you can do to sell the game of poker is to show that I’m having fun no matter what, winning or losing. We are just in there having fun, trying to think and make the best decisions possible but we are also going to have fun doing it because why not, why shouldn’t we have fun while we are doing anything,” Somerville said.
“Let’s try to learn, crush and win but let’s also have fun while doing it!” Somerville passionately said. “We’ll just make it fun for everyone around us and stay positive. I can’t run poker, I can’t do anything, and I’m not the lord protector of the realm as far as poker goes. I can only do so much on my little YouTube channel. That’s the impact. That’s the correlation,” Somerville said.
“In the last year I’ve done a whole bunch of things that I don’t think many other people have done before. The Heartland Poker Tour sent me a DVD of the final table that I made over there, back in 2008, and I re-casted that for my YouTube channel. I don’t think any player has ever done anything like that before. I have really tried to experiment with different kinds of content. I have really tried to make ‘Run it Up’ as interesting and entertaining and still as fun, but still including the good solid poker content in there as well. I haven’t always got the formula right but I feel like I’ve done pretty good with the formula that we’ve got right now,” Somerville said.
Run it Up Season 2
As we look ahead into the second season, that’s already on episode 12 after a great mini-series with fellow Ultimate Poker pro Danielle ‘dmoongirl’ Andersen, Somerville points out some of the small, and bigger, changes to the show.
“When I started doing ‘Run it Up’ season one last year, I barely knew anything when it came to editing or production. I had to learn all of it on the go while I was casting and I was basically casting the night before every single day. As you know poker players don’t like to work very much in advance and so I basically was making videos the night before, trying to edit it, produce it, post it, schedule the tweets, get everything ready to go and do everything the next day. I never really stopped my day job at the time. I was still doing a lot of backing work and I was still very involved in poker and other business things back then. My attention was split and I was still taking this crazy schedule on.”
“I haven’t done something five days a week or regularly since I was in college really. Even getting used to the scheduling of things, five days a week plus all the production lessons and general casting lessons. If you watch the first episode of ‘Run it Up’ and compare it to today’s episode of ‘Run it Up’, it’s a complete another ball park. I feel I have learned a lot of lessons and that has come from purposely surrounding myself with people who I looked up to in the casting world and trying to learn from them. My friend Quinton, Huskymudkipz on YouTube, has like 2 million subscribers and makes mine craft videos, all by just having fun with it. I’ve learned a lot from him over this past year,” Somerville said.
“One of the things I did in Season 1 that I didn’t really understand was video length. I never really thought a lot about what was the ideal video length or schedule. I have thought a lot about that in this season so every episode is basically going to be 30 min. Having it that way allows the people that want to have longer video, they get their way by having the videos come out consistently. We are putting videos out seven days a week this season, which is more than I was doing last season for the majority of it. It still satisfies people who are more on the casual side since it’s only 30; it’s not an hour or 45 min. Now obviously 30 min every day is still a lot but it’s not meant for the most casual of casual players. My mom is not watching them, I’m not trying to target that wide of a base here,” Somerville laughed.
“‘Run it Up’ season 2 is worth watching because I’ve taken the lessons I have learned from season 1, as far as trying to get that balance between entertainment and poker, trying to walk that line between trying to explain myself and my thought process seriously, being more communicative and expressing why I am doing what I’m doing, I think my poker game is better than ever. I just came off the best summer of my life with five World Series cashes plus the 100k at Bellagio.”
“I feel like I really focused hard on my poker game these last few months and I have been taking them to the tables here for ‘Run it Up’. Not only do I feel like I’m at towards the peak of my poker game, but I also feel I’m near the top of my peak of my casting game. I have been working really hard, trying to practice and study. I spent a lot of time in preparation and I feel like the battles are always won in the preparation stage and not in the actual battlefield itself. I have had time to prepare for season 2. I have been thinking about my plans for Season 2 since before the World Series started. Now here we are and you guys now get to see the results of all the work of all the evolution of all the plans I’ve put into this. I’m really excited to finally get to share that with the fans.”
Somerville’s amazing summer included cashing in the $100,000 event at the Bellagio for $1.3 million, a result that’s about as far removed from the financial reward ‘Run it Up’ brings to the table. His motivation for ‘Run it Up’ however, is quite far removed from looking for instant profit like in poker.
“I have been lucky in the last 10 years that I’ve been able to do pretty much exactly what I wanted to do. That’s the same thing these days. If I didn’t want to do ‘Run it Up’, we wouldn’t do ‘Run it Up’. I want to do ‘Run it Up’ because it’s something I feel passion for and it’s something that I want to build. There is a space that people will enjoy and it will be a good thing for poker. I feel a lot of passion towards ‘Run it Up’ as a project. But let’s be clear, I have not profited one hot dollar from ‘Run it Up’ in the last year. As far as hourly rate goes, this is terrible.”
“I don’t think about it like that. I feel like I’ve learned a ton of lessons, I’ve been able to do so many amazing things, I’m so much better as far as a broadcaster goes. I feel like I could do so many things these days and not be the slightest bit nervous. I feel that I have only gained that by doing 150 episodes plus all the streams that I did in the last year. I think of them as almost entirely different things. I have been pretty much off the circuit. I was telling people I was retired during season 1. I basically took off from the poker circuit for a year. Basically didn’t go to anything outside of Vegas. I’ll get back more into poker eventually but for the time being I am focused on this. I want to build ‘Run it Up’. I have a vision for ‘Run it Up’. I feel like I know where I want to be. I feel like I can make this a reality.”
Poker will Always Be There
“Poker is not going anywhere, I can always resume that poker career if somehow this doesn’t work out or I lose my passion for it. Right now I am dedicated to building ‘Run it Up’. I am happy to be here in Vegas and spending most of my time in one place working on this, helping out Ultimate Poker, try to make them successful as well and just really trying to build this thing here. I am completely and 100% motivated towards that right now. Even the Florida $10 million guaranteed I skipped to work on ‘Run it Up’ stuff. I felt that that was way more important and honestly more +EV in the long term,” Somerville said, as poker for him is no longer all that’s on hid mind.
For most people if poker doesn’t work out, they go back to their real jobs. But for Somerville if this doesn’t work out, then he’ll go back to poker. The situation he’s in is very rare, as many successful poker players would be very reluctant to step away from what they’re good at. Somerville challenges himself, the industry he works in and its people.
While Somerville clearly has a financial buffer it’s still far from common to be this dedicated to something without a clear financial return along the way, especially when there’s this other thing lingering you know you excel at. However, creating a follower base and widespread attention is not something you can take for granted.
“I’m 27, I could do ‘Run it Up’ for the next year, never made another video again, play poker for the next 30 years and I would be very happy with that, if that was what you told me my life situation was. I don’t think that’s how it’s going to go but I will make the most of whatever happens. It will be fine. You can always make more money,” Somerville said.
“As far as pro poker players go, they have an overinflated sense of worth and value and I had that myself for a long time as well. You have to work really hard to connect with fans, or to even get a follower base in the first place. It’s not just about winning a tournament somewhere in Indiana anymore that’s going to make your career. It’s doing something else, something unique, something different, showing your value, working hard. The people that really get out there and bust their asses are the ones that are successful. You want an easy example, Daniel Negreanu responded to almost every single fan email personally for years!”
“I don’t think he does it anymore so don’t try, but for years he did. It’s a herculean task. It’s that kind of drive and vision and sense of respect for the fans. It’s that kind of that I feel like is really lacking in a lot of poker professionals that don’t understand,” Somerville said.
“I have a very clear vision with ‘Run it Up’ but I have to think about how much I want to tell you and the world and how much I want to keep to myself. I really believe there is something special there with what we are doing, the community we have built and the following that we have made. I feel that there is a spark here. I have been lucky enough to be in a position and time where people are excited, especially the American fans, are particularly antsy, they want to play poker and have fun, they miss poker.”
“We have hit one of those fortuitous crossroads again, those cosmic crossroads of opportunities. Somehow I have been lucky enough to be successful enough in poker, that people want to watch me play poker, through some other luck, I have been trained and have had the experiences enough to be comfortable and able to introduce poker to a wide variety of people and I can take that and really build it into this community that is very unique in poker. We can take that and do some big things with it,” a very inspired Somerville said.
Make sure to check back in with us on Monday when Somerville’s story continues. In the second part we dive into Somerville’s childhood, days of Karate teaching and his early dabbling in poker. Reach out to Somerville via Twitter using this link, or subscribe to Ultimate Poker’s YouTube channel to follow all his latest videos.