Editor's note: Jason Somerville's main event journey will be featured on ESPN on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET.
The difference in skill level of the top poker players in the world is measured by percentile to the far right of the decimal point. Where in sports we see distinct and measurable advantages in speed, strength, coordination and build, the causes of poker success are far subtler. When a player's chosen instrument of battle (the brain) suffers the cerebral equivalent of chronic knee pain, the signs aren't quite so obvious. This is why life balance is so often cited as crucial to poker.
Jason Somerville has never lacked results. The 25-year-old professional scored a pair of final table appearances at the 2009 World Series of Poker and hasn't looked back since. Over the course of the past three years, he's put together eight six-figure cashes, one bracelet win and winnings exceeding $2.4 million in live tournament play despite the burden of a massive secret he'd carried for longer than even he had realized. That burden has now been lifted, which should be a scary thing for those who face him across the table. The version of Somerville they see now -- which you'll see on Tuesday's ESPN broadcast of the WSOP main event -- is really only experiencing life balance and peace of mind for the first time.
While Somerville has been on the poker community's radar since 2009, his stature within shifted dramatically when he made a definitive mouse click on Feb. 14 of this year. It was on that day that he published a blog in which he spoke about his love for the poker world and his appreciation for its no-questions offering of opportunity.
"It doesn't matter if you're white, black, Christian, Jewish, a woman, physically disabled, a foreigner, a felon, or smell terrible, we'll make room for you at the not-necessarily-proverbial table and let you play," wrote Somerville. With that confidence in tow, he then proceeded to write about the odyssey through which he'd come to grips with his own homosexuality and the lack of a gay male presence in this otherwise-multi-faceted community. In doing so, he changed that paradigm. It was a remarkable moment made all the more so by Somerville's own confusion about his sexuality as recently as a year ago.
As Somerville told it in his blog, the truth had always lurked, but the pressures that came with that truth loomed larger. The potential (imagined or otherwise) for negative feedback from those closest to him caused him to suppress the truth, but through a slow, steady progression of conversations with friends and family, he found confidence in the realities of his world. In the months leading up to his blog post, he began to dip his toe in gay culture, went out on his first dates with men and eventually found the first fulfilling relationship of his life. The blog was about sharing the contentment he'd found through the process, about shedding his secrets and about moving forward. It wasn't so much about being gay as it was about Somerville finally feeling comfortable being who he is.
The response was overwhelmingly positive, more than anything he'd expected. Somerville received more than 1,000 responses from a range of players including (but not limited to) his fellow pros and other gay players who saw his action as inspiration. He received attention from media outlets he never expected. Two weeks later, when he went to his first post-blog live tournament (the World Poker Tour's L.A. Poker Classic), he found more of the same. Maybe more importantly, once there, he found nothing had really changed. It allowed him a metaphorical exhale. He finished in sixth place, winning $202,910.
"I got a lot of different people that would say something positive, which made me feel really comfortable in a situation I'd been worried about," Somerville recalled. "Joe Hachem, Daniel Negreanu, Kathy Leibert, Vanessa Selbst … everyone. … It really never came up. No one seemed to play different against me or treat me differently. Over the course of the six days, people really didn't feel any different. I was always worried that after I came out, I'd be labeled as 'the gay poker player' and that would be my title for life, that I [wouldn't be able to] shake it. In the end though, there is no difference between me now and then. I thought it would affect things in that way, but it didn't.
"We were all just playing poker. That's what we were there to do, that's our common bond. If I had to put one word on it, it was liberating. Things were pretty much the same, just better. The arms were still open, my friends were still my friends, but now they actually knew who I was and the friendships felt more real."
"I've seen Jason grow a lot during our relationship," said Vincent Newland, Somerville's partner since late 2011. "… When he decided to write the blog, I think he made a commitment to himself to never revert back to passively accepting unhappiness. Since then, he's become a lot more comfortable with who he is as an individual."
"I think the combination of increased focus and off-table support have led to the success this year," Somerville insisted. "I've never had someone who had my back like Vincent. I had all of the talent but none of the drive because I was distracted, worried, depressed, lonely. … I've had all of those affecting me in the last five years and having that all gone from my life thanks to a great relationship? That's awesome. It's going to be a benefit to [my game] for sure."
Somerville's results support that notion. In addition to the LAPC, he finished third in the $25,000 satellite to The Big One for One Drop, earning $400,000. That was followed by a deep run in the main event, which you can follow each week on ESPN.
"Generally, happiness is a good thing," Somerville said, musing on how his revelation has affected his game. "If you look at my results in the last six months, they're pretty ridiculous. I've cashed for $750,000 since I wrote my blog. It's not significantly higher than past years, but it's really solid."
Actually, as far as live tournament winnings go, 2012 is already the highest-grossing year of Somerville's career with more than four months remaining.
"Between One Drop, LAPC and the main event, there have been a lot of good results since I came out and I think part of that is because I did write the blog and I've taken this big issue that was probably hindering me and taken it off the table," he continued. "It's been resolved. I think that as time moves forward, people will focus on the poker results and not so much the gay thing. As time goes on, it'll be less and less of a deal and they'll worry more about the results, as it should be. I think it was an important part of my career, getting that situation developed and handled and I think we've done that."
Now, Somerville is looking forward to a time when he'll be celebrated more for his tournament results than anything else, but he continues to enjoy life by being true to himself, secure in the community that's make him feel it's OK to be himself.
"I think people, even if they don't necessarily understand what it's like to be gay, I think they understand and appreciate what it's like to be just who you are, not to fight that, to embrace who you are," Somerville said of the broader implications of his experience. "I think that's the message people can appreciate regardless of their personal experience. I think people appreciate that more than I ever understood. Everything I've gotten has been neutral or positive. I couldn't have asked for a better experience. 'Just be who you are' isn't something you can prescribe, but I think the world being more accepting of people finding their own happiness is a good thing. For me personally, I've finally stopped denying, stopped fighting, stopped resisting and come to terms with who I am."
For the awareness and acceptance Somerville has inspired, he should be lauded. At the same time, his renewed focus should be feared. You'll see why Tuesday night on ESPN.