In 2003, an accountant with little poker expertise and the auspicious name of Chris Moneymaker won the main event at the World Series of Poker, in Las Vegas, taking home two and a half million dollars in prize money. His path to victory was televised on ESPN, which had revamped its coverage of the competition that year to create a sleek and accessible package that resembled the network’s major-league sports broadcasts. Hordes of amateur players witnessed one of their own vanquishing a field that included many of the world’s top professionals, and when the final hand was complete, many suddenly wondered whether, with a bit of luck, they, too, could do the same.
The poker boom that followed Moneymaker’s victory played out in cardrooms across the country, but mostly it took place online. Lured by simple cash-transfer mechanisms and convenient access to games, millions of players flooded onto sites like PartyPoker, Full Tilt Poker, and UltimateBet. According to estimates Nate Silver compiled on the Times’s Web site, the number of Internet-poker accounts doubled every year from 2003 to 2006, turning several sites into billion-dollar enterprises and inflating winnings. But then, on April 15, 2011, the Justice Department unsealed an indictment that accused the three largest Internet-poker companies serving American customers of violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The government alleged that PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker, all of which were based outside of the U.S., had conspired to commit bank fraud and wire fraud in order to evade restrictions on the processing of deposits originating Stateside. The indictment led the three companies to abandon the U.S. market, effectively ending Americans’ ability to play online poker easily and relatively securely.
Practically overnight, the poker economy began to unravel. Other popular sites, wary of legal action, stopped offering real-money games for U.S. players. (A few such sites remain, but with greatly reduced player bases and scant regulatory oversight.) Networks cut back on televised poker competitions, which had relied heavily on Internet-poker companies for advertising. Player pools and profits dwindled. According to data compiled by PokerScout, which tracks online-poker traffic, the global market has fallen off by more than half since the day of the indictment, which the gambling community dubbed “Black Friday.” The industry was left limping along uncertainly, searching for ways to reignite interest in a game that now exists on the cultural and legal fringes of society.
Recently, however, poker has found an unlikely glimmer of hope: the live-video-streaming service Twitch. When Amazon acquired the company, last year, for nearly a billion dollars, the site was regarded as a platform used almost exclusively for people to watch other people play video games. But in the past few months, a share of Twitch’s massive audience—a hundred million users visit the site every month—has been gravitating rapidly toward online-poker broadcasts.
The catalyst for this movement is Jason Somerville, a twenty-eight-year-old professional player from Long Island. Last October, under the moniker jcarverpoker, he began broadcasting his real-money Internet-poker sessions on Twitch, shooting them, in order to avoid legal restrictions, from an outpost in Toronto. So far, his channel has attracted close to nine million views and almost a hundred and forty thousand followers. On September 7th, nearly forty thousand concurrent users watched him compete for a prize pool of 1.2 million dollars during the World Championship of Online Poker, making him for a time the most viewed streamer across the entire platform.
Like many of today’s poker professionals, Somerville became seriously interested in the game during the post-Moneymaker boom, when he stumbled across a televised tournament. “I was instantly transfixed by the possibility of playing a game for money,” he told me. “I had never really considered the prospect of out-deciding people for cash.” He soon immersed himself in strategy and online play, eventually deciding to leave school and pursue his passion full time. He now plays in many of the biggest tournaments and cash games in the world, both live and online. In 2011, he placed first in a thousand-dollar buy-in event at the World Series of Poker, winning nearly half a million dollars. To date, he has amassed earnings of more than six million dollars in tournament play.
Somerville began making poker videos as a way of giving back to his peers, posting the clips in an online forum for a small audience of enthusiasts. In 2013, he launched “Run It UP!,” a YouTube series depicting his attempts to parlay fifty dollars into ten thousand. Playful and instructive, the videos soon developed an avid fan base. The following year—as part of an effort, perhaps, to diversify its content in advance of the entry by YouTube and other tech giants to the video-game-streaming market—Twitch asked him to become its flagship poker streamer.
The appeal of sitting down in front of a computer to watch someone else sit in front of a computer and play cards is not immediately obvious. Somerville himself describes most poker videos as “sedative alternatives.” On his stream, a portion of the screen shows what he’s seeing on his computer, while another, smaller portion shows him looking at his monitor and giving commentary. TV networks generally create dramatic poker-game narratives in post-production—mostly by editing out all but the most exciting action. With live streams, the burden rests almost entirely on the player’s abilities and personality.
“As someone who watched a ton of poker videos, particularly poker-training videos, I was always shocked at how bad they were from a performance point of view,” Somerville said. On Twitch, he plays the consummate host-cum-tour-guide: inclusive, knowledgeable, and relentlessly entertaining. The key element of his broadcasts, which regularly run longer than seven hours, are his inexhaustible monologues, during which he cheerfully expounds on everything from basic poker strategy to his social life to the opaque world of professional gambling. He also responds candidly to questions that viewers submit via Twitch’s chat box. This interactivity, Somerville said, “allows you to get more inside my head. From both a learning point of view and an entertainment point of view, that’s so much better.”
If the market is to return to any semblance of its pre-2011 levels, the change is likely to occur slowly. More than half of Somerville’s audience is in the U.S., but it still represents only a tiny fraction of Twitch traffic. A number of big industry players are intrigued, though. Since his stream’s debut, Somerville has signed partnership deals with PokerStars, the world’s largest online cardroom, and DraftKings, the hugely popular (and controversial) daily fantasy-sports site. Meanwhile, Poker Central, a new streaming service dedicated exclusively to poker coverage, which also has a cable-television network in the works, has started to host original content on Twitch. Some see a future in which the platform replicates, albeit to a lesser degree, what traditional media did for poker a decade ago. “The first poker boom came, in part, from television teaching the game to people,” Eric Hollreiser, the head of corporate communications for PokerStars, told me. “Twitch represents the next-generation opportunity to have that channel of communication with consumers.”
Much will depend, too, on the tortuous journey of Internet-poker legislation. Currently, only players in Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey have access to state-licensed, real-money Internet-poker sites. But I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School and an expert on gambling laws, told me that it’s only a matter of time before other states, particularly those facing troublesome deficits, begin to embrace online poker as a source of tax revenue. “There is now so much legal gambling in this country that legalizing one more form, like Internet poker, is no big deal politically,” Rose said. If legal online poker were to arrive broadly in the U.S., Twitch’s poker brand could expand rapidly, attracting a slew of advertisers eager to reach a new generation of potential players.
And if that came pass, Twitch stands to help Somerville play the same popularizing role that Moneymaker did, but with the added degree of relatability that the platform promotes. As Chris Grove, a gaming-industry analyst, told me, streamers on Twitch “occupy a weird space between friend and celebrity.” When Somerville broadcasts his triumphs at the poker table, he is, to many, simultaneously a peer and an icon. “People who watch that want to go out and try to do that, too,” Grove said. “And the fact that they can be so close to the person that they’re emulating only makes them want to do it even more.”
Of course, they can only get so close. “Most people aren’t going to know what it’s like to lose a hundred thousand dollars in a day,” Somerville told me. “I’ve been there, done that a bunch of times.”
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