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Gay poker player nears $5 million in winnings
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Jason Somerville started playing poker with friends as a teen, in basements and garages, and by age 16 was playing online.

A decade later, Somerville is quite the card shark.

He's now 26 and approaching $5 million in winnings.

"Kinda weird, huh?" he said, laughing.

"I just found a passion for [poker], the game, the psychology of the game, the math and logic too. I'm really focused on not just succeeding in poker, but continuing to prove myself as one of the elite players in poker. To do that, it's something that requires a lot of work. I have a lot of ambitions in poker. People pretty much judge you [as a poker player] by how many World Series of Poker bracelets you have. I'm lucky to have one."

Somerville, over the course of his nine-year career, has shone on the global poker spotlight, including The World Series of Poker, World Poker Tour, Spring Championship Of Online Poker (SCOOP) and others.

He also is poker's first openly gay male professional competitor.

"There certainly is an element of luck in poker," he said. "In poker, it's also really important that you focus on the decisions that you make, and not necessarily the outcome of those decisions. There are many aspects of poker that are skills, things you can work on, such as, just watching your opponent and gathering information from what they're doing.

"There are so many elements of things you have to work on to really be successful at the top, at the top level [of poker players,] so I'll never stop learning."

To that, he's regularly reading poker-related books and watching related videos.

"I know how lucky I am to play a game for a living, no matter how difficult it is. And I'm very appreciative of that. I'm also very appreciative of the ability to compete in an environment where you can actually make money and make a good living," Somerville said. "To compete against the best in the world in anything is something I do not take for granted, and am very appreciative to be able to do so."

Especially since his parents, Marilee and Scott, were not supportive of his poker ambitions … until the money started rolling in.

In fact, he first had to play free promotion tournaments, which attract 5,000 players and only rewarded the top 10 competitors with, oh, $5. Luckily for Somerville, he won that small reward.

Somerville then snowballed that initial stake of $5 into $100 in one month, $1,000 in three months, $10,000 after six months, and $100,000 after one year.

"I think it took the checks actually clearing in the bank before my parents thought it was cool, that it was actual real money," he said, laughing.

The first thing Somerville purchased with money won playing poker was a big-screen TV—for his tiny bedroom inside his parent's house.

And at 19, he purchased a cherry-red convertible.

"I never really considered poker to be a career until a few years later, when I really started having success," Somerville said. "As for my parents, they've come a long way."

Somerville, at 17, walked into his parents' room one night, just to tell them that he had won about $20,000 playing poker online.

His mom's reaction: "Real money?"

Somerville laughed and said, "Like I'm going to wake you up for fake money?!"

Other times, Somerville left notes for his parents about his success.

"I just won a tournament, won $42,000," one note said.

Somerville admitted his mom always wanted him to go to college, get a job, get married and have kids—the traditional life. She was not very embracing of the poker world, he said.

But, when he was in Las Vegas once, and won his first $100,000 in a night, he called his mom to share the news. She was so happy and excited. "I think that was the turning point for when she really started embracing poker as a potential source of income," Somerville said.

Today, he's set to top the $5 million mark in earnings, with no sign of stopping anytime soon.

"Kinda crazy," he said, laughing. "It's an insane number to even hear."

Somerville's parents always pushed him toward earning a business degree, or becoming a doctor or lawyer. But he was never interested in any of those fields.

"I did go to college for a little for business, but found it very boring and honestly was spending most of my time playing online poker while in class," he said.

Somerville will be playing countless poker tournaments this summer and, for the first time, was invited to participate in the premiere 64-person 2013 National Heads-Up Poker Championship on NBC.

Somerville came out in early 2012, joining Vanessa Selbst, the top-earning female tournament player of all time, under the rainbow flag.

"I had always battled with [coming-out], especially as I became more known in poker," Somerville said. "If I had gone to college like most and had a 'normal childhood,' I probably would have come out at, oh, 21.

"But [instead], I graduated high school at 17 and left college at 19. Almost every day from [age] 17 to 22, I woke up and tried to make the most money I could that day. I wouldn't change that, but it certainly wasn't balanced. Though I thought at the time it would make me happiest, it didn't.

"As I got older, I realized that I would have to take certain steps, if I truly wanted to be happy."

Somerville wanted to date, but knew there would, or could, be risks. If his sexual orientation became known, Somerville knew he could land on poker gossip forums online—and he didn't know those consequences.

"I didn't want to be ashamed of it, and didn't want to hide it," he said. "I wanted to handle it the right way, eventually, once I came to terms with the fact that I needed to come out to be happy, which took me a long time, but I eventually did."

The catalyst for coming out came in December, 2011, when he met Vincent Newland.

They met for their first date on a Friday after talking online, and the relationship has blossomed ever since.

"We fell in love quickly and I felt disrespectful to introduce him to people as my friend, [not my boyfriend]. To truly honor our relationship, I needed to come out," Somerville said.

So, for six weeks, he wrote, rewrote, edited and revised his coming-out blog.

He came out on Valentine's Day 2012.

"I [came out] because it was best for me, but am amazingly moved and touched by the fact that people were touched, moved, inspired because of it," said Somerville, selected one of Out Magazine's "Out 100," as one of last year's most prominent gay activists, ambassadors and personalities.

"I thought [my coming-out blog] would be read by 200 poker players [and fans], maybe 1,000—and I'd get mixed responses, positive and negative. Instead, it was really well read in the poker and the gay communities—and I got several thousand positive messages, just within the first 48 hours after coming out.

"It was unlike anything I expected.

"All these years of anxiety, fears and worrying that people would not accept me, and that I never would feel that connection, to instead have the reaction from around the world be super, super positive and overwhelming loving, it was unbelievable.

"That coming-out day was, perhaps, the best day of my life."

Newland had no clue who Somerville was professionally before their first in-person meeting. In fact, Somerville just told Newland that he works in business, and he wouldn't give his last name or exactly what he did professionally because he quickly could and would be found with an online search."

Newland was, and still is, OK with Somerville—and Somerville's parents are more than OK with their son's career card.

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