Poker pro and MMA aficionado Jason Somerville is the spokesperson, ambassador, liason, and content creator for Ultimate Poker ("Play for Real Money today"), the new online venture from UFC owners the Fertitta Brothers. Essentially his job is to help cultivate the overlap between the worlds of professional gambling and professional fighting. "Our primary demographic is pretty much identical," he says. "21- to 35-year-old males with a bit of disposable income."
In addition to being a people's champ, a prodigy born from the world of online tournaments, Jason is also poker's first and only openly gay high-stakes male player. We spoke to him about his new venture, what it's like being an openly gay athlete, and the way forward for MMA, a sport still struggling with the whole sexual politics thing.
Fightland: How long have you been an MMA fan?
Jason Somerville: I’ve always been involved with the martial arts. I started karate at five years old, began teaching at 13, and dedicated most of my time to training or teaching until I was 19. My first time watching a UFC fight was accidental: I went over a friend’s house just as Royce Gracie was about to fight Matt Hughes at UFC 60. Despite having never even heard of the UFC before, I was captivated by the event and so intrigued by the matchup of styles. I couldn’t take my eyes off the fight, completely loved it, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Even before NBA player Jason Collins came out, Dana White went on the record as stating that he’d welcome an openly gay UFC fighter. Do you think that’s something that we’ll see soon?
Well, we do have an openly gay fighter in the UFC, Liz Carmouche, who fought Ronda Rousey for the women’s bantamweight title back in February. I’m really not sure, though, I think it may take a little while for us to see the first openly gay male UFC fighter. It’s a tough door to open and a difficult path to walk through, especially since MMA is such a physical, close-quarters sport. I wish it was different, but I can definitely understand why an athlete would choose to remain closeted.
What sort of response did you receive from the poker community when you came out? How do you think your experience might be different or similar to that of Jason Collins or other future openly gay athletes?
I’ve had almost zero bad experiences as a gay professional poker player. Even playing on the biggest stage poker has to offer, in the highest-stakes tournaments, people have been completely accepting. Poker is inherently such an inclusive game filled with a diversity of people. If you’ve got the money to play with us, we’ve got a seat for you. We all get the same cards, the same chips, and are left to make our own decisions. It’s extremely democratic, and the community was incredibly warm towards me after I came out. After all the years I grappled with massive anxiety over my sexuality, to finally have a 24-hour period where my entire universe pretty much told me, “Yep, you’re still cool with us,” was pretty awesome.
You wrote one of the few thoughtful and measured responses to the Fallon Fox situation. Why do you think that story struck such a negative chord with both fans and fighters?
In my opinion, the decision whether or not Fallon Fox should be allowed to fight women was one that needed to be left to scientific and medical experts. Discussion and discourse is, of course, perfectly acceptable, but some of the wide-reaching platforms given to various celebrity and non-expert opinions on this topic are just sensationalizing things and are unproductive.
Do you think that more awareness and education around the issues will help future transgender athletes face less scrutiny and backlash?
If there is truly no significant advantage, and from what I’ve read there doesn’t seem to be, then I think awareness and education will absolutely help. Just like every other civil rights or discrimination issue, every additional person who steps through the door makes it easier for the next person to step through that same doorway.
While Dana White has encouraged and incentivized UFC fighters to use Twitter and Facebook, some of them have received suspensions for inappropriate comments. And , obviously, Matt Mitrione got in hot water for his comments about Fox. Do you have to adhere to any online code of conduct from poker’s governing bodies?
There really isn’t a governing body of poker. That being said, while you definitely see a few ugly rants from time to time from pros, most of us are fairly well behaved. In my opinion, those who have been lucky enough to make a living as professional game players of any type really ought to use their platform positively and build the game that built them. It’s important for the health of the industry for our professionals to be ambassadors on Twitter and Facebook and to keep your mind present in what you’re saying and how you’re representing yourself, and more importantly, poker.
Are you aware of any professional players getting into trouble for online behavior?
There have been instances of players being banned from live venues for cheating online, but to be honest, that’s very uncommon and in my opinion poker rooms/tours don’t work nearly as well together as they could on eliminating known scammers or cheats from the game. And as far as punishment for things said on social media, well, the absolute worst that happens is you get made fun of and embarrassed a bit on gossip forums. Not exactly a scary prospect.
Lastly, what MMA fighters do you think would make good poker players and what poker players do you think would fare best in a fight?
There’s been a few MMA fighters that have come across to poker, like Bruce Buffer, George St-Pierre, Dan Henderson, and Mike Swick. I think the fighters who are patient and good at understanding the fundamentals would crush poker. Jon Fitch would be a beast of a poker player, but if I had to pick one person I would love to teach poker to, it would be Nick Diaz. Now that would be fun.
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