Good For The Game: Jason Somerville - Online Poker Lobbyist
For the media, it's always easy to focus on negativity and controversy. Writing about these things draws traffic, increases hits and can help a writer build a following. But the truth is, controversy and negativity are low hanging fruit for a columnist and I think it's time I personally reach for something higher.
In an effort to highlight positivity in the poker community, PokerNews now presents Good For The Game, a column that will look at the people, places and things in poker that are exactly that.
With all due respect to Chris Moneymaker, the poker boom was about more than just his 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event win. The World Poker Tour had kicked off a year earlier, using hole-card cams to present the game to a whole new audience in a brand new way.
Plus, what really made the whole thing go was the fact that the millions of TV viewers who were exposed to the game through coverage of both Moneymaker's historic win and the fledgling WPT didn't have to fly to Las Vegas or visit their local casino to start playing. If they had Internet access, they were in.
If poker boomed anywhere, it was online first. In fact, while the gray market and offshore status of much of the early players in the industry makes it tough to quantify, according to Christiansen Capital Advisors, online poker revenues grew from $82.7 million in 2001 to $2.4 billion in 2005. That's a boom.
Of course, things started to go downhill in the United States with the passage of The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA) and online poker was all but obliterated on April 15, 2011 when the U.S. Department of Justice shut down the biggest operators left in the U.S. market. A billion dollar segment of the poker industry was shattered overnight, but somehow the game survived.
The online market in Europe continued to flourish. A new online market in Asia began to emerge. And while a crop of gray market operators willing to test the resolve of the U.S. government continued to attract some U.S. players, most kept the game afloat playing more live poker than ever before.
The fight for online poker went to the state level, and now more than five years later, online poker is regulated in Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey. Plus, the possibility of legal and regulated online poker is at least being talked about in heavily populated states like New York and California.
It almost goes without saying that legal and regulated online poker across the United States would be good for the game. Any portion of the billions in annual revenue being returned to the industry would be a windfall, and since the availability of online poker in millions of American homes has been a conduit for the growth and health of the game in the past, it certainly could be again.
That's why the campaign for legal and regulated online poker across the United States is so important and why I think it's important to recognize the efforts of at least one of its leaders.
Poker is such an individual game that the community itself is a little dysfunctional. Lobbying efforts made by the Poker Players Alliance often seem stale and ineffectual. But one of the game's brightest young stars has made the fight for legal and regulated online poker a personal mission and that has to be considered good for the game.
Jason Somerville is a pretty busy guy. He's in the midst of turning his Run It Up webcast into an empire, leading the way towards the future of poker broadcasting on Twitch, playing the role of a Team PokerStars Pro and even playing a little poker himself. Yet he still finds time to do his part for the fight to bring legal and regulated online poker to the United States.
In fact, whether it was his aim or not, Somerville has become a de facto-lobbyist and leader for the movement.
"I don't really see myself as a lobbyist as much as I am a tour guide for what's happening and I take that responsibility seriously," Somerville said. "I have, on average, somewhere between 300,000 to 350,000 unique visitors every month, of which a third or more are Americans. So let's just say 100,000 Americans watch my shows every month. That's a lot of people that are probably playing online poker on unsafe and unregulated sites."
Somerville wants people to change that by acting after watching his shows, instead of just being passive observers.
"People who would probably prefer to play on regulated, secure online poker sites," he said. "So I definitely try, at least once a stream, to tell people to contact their local representatives, contact their legislators and let them know they want to see online poker taxed and regulated in America."
Somerville's efforts have gone beyond just plugging the fight on his stream. He was a big part of a PokerStars sponsored tour of California card clubs trying to drum up grassroots support for the movement after the 2015 WSOP. He even appeared on CNBC earlier this year as a talking head debating the issue.
This is a particularly important time for poker, and if we need someone to make the case for regulated online poker in America, I'm happy to do it.
"Instead of being on the couch screaming at this guy saying these crazy things about our industry, being the one in the seat fighting the fight was awesome," he said. "The truth is, nobody is really fighting this fight as an American. As I was streaming more and more, and began realizing how many Americans we have watching, I kind of felt like this is my responsibility."
Somerville's experience and the hours he's put into the game put him in a position to help at this time.
"No one in poker has been on camera more than me," Somerville said. "I've put in 2,500 hours of broadcasting in the past two years. The numbers are absolutely astronomical. I feel like I'm able to relatively eloquently articulate an argument. I don't get nervous one bit on camera. I feel like I have one of the best skill sets in poker to make this case, so yes, I take that responsibility seriously. If there's no one better, I'm your guy. Do I love it? I don't see myself doing it forever, but this is a particularly important time for poker and if we need someone to make the case for regulated online poker in America, I'm happy to do it."
It's a simple argument really. In the land of the free, Somerville feels like the right to play online poker in the privacy of your own home is something every American should have.
"There are many things Americans can do that may not be the best things for them," he explained. "They can smoke, drink, sky dive, any number of things that may not be the best for their health, but we don't tell them they can't do it. We just tax it, regulate it and try to make it as safe as possible. Why is poker not the exact same thing?"
After all, as far as Somerville is concerned, the U.S. government didn't exactly follow the proper legislative process and come to the conclusion that playing poker is bad for anyone.
"There wasn't a debate in the House or Senate that ultimately decided poker was no good," he said. "We had the UIGEA passed in the middle of the night attached to a Port Securities Act. It was a joke of a process. There was no real vetting of the issue and here we are 10 years later, in a place where the industry has been hurt in many ways in America and we are finally, maybe, starting to see the tide shift a little bit."
Somerville maintains that the best way to join the fight and make sure legislators in your state are at least considering regulating online poker is to contact your local representatives and the best way to do that is usually through the PPA at ThePPA.org website. He also says following the latest news in the fight for regulated online poker on sites that specialize in it, like onlinepokerreport.com, is paramount.
"It helps," he said. "Whether you're in state that is close to getting online poker, like Michigan or Pennsylvania, or even if you're in a state like Texas, where it isn't, it can only help to contact your local representation and express your feelings."
Promoting that idea is a responsibility Somerville takes seriously.
"I feel like I won't be able to rest until online poker legislation has come to the majority of U.S. states," he said. "Particularly to places like my home state of New York or California. We have to get some of those big states on board and then I feel like it will be a snowball effect. Once we get a couple of those states down, others will follow quickly."
But whether it happens quickly or not, having an energized soul like Somerville on the side of taxed and regulated online poker has to be considered good for the fight, and ultimately, that's good for the game.
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