I’m a poker player. Above anything else that I could identify as, no single label could better describe my life, my personality, my outlook, my desires. In no community do I feel more at home, and I only have a handful of friends who don’t come from the poker world. Reality, and life in general is just…different with poker as your foundation. Our culture, our norms and our experiences as professional poker players are unique, and to various degrees, define us as individuals. I don’t shy away from that label of “poker player” at all – I love the game, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to play poker – a game! – for a living, and being able to compete on the highest levels in tournaments is something I’ve derived a ton of pleasure and pride from in my life.
One of the things that I think is universally liked about poker is that the game is open to anyone. If you’ve got the cash, we’ve got a seat open. 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. Everyone comes in on an equal playing field, getting the same cards, the same chips, and left alone to make their own decisions. It’s a cutthroat world, but the waters are open to anyone who wants to swim. This universal acceptance/open invitation is sort of the centerpiece of poker – it’s a major reason we had a boom in 2003 after Moneymaker’s win at the WSOP ‘proved’ “anyone can do it, all you have to do is play.” Maybe it’s because of that cornerstone of acceptance, maybe it isn’t, but our community is pretty tolerant overall (maybe it’s more indifferent than tolerant). Bottom line, it really doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do; barring some truly awful behavior that usually has to do with a long-time abuse of the community’s trust, you’ll be accepted, or at worst, begrudgingly allowed in. It takes something pretty messed up to be truly ostracized from the poker community as a whole (the only person I can think of is Russ Hamilton of UB superuser fame, and the Full Tilt top guys will definitely make the list if players don’t get repaid).
Of all the diversity and variety that the poker world contains, though, there is a noticeable lack of openly gay poker professionals. Vanessa Selbst is a top tier player, a brilliant woman and an amazing person, but other than her, I’ve never met a single gay professional poker player, nevermind a high profile one. There’s plenty of speculation – Daniel Negreanu, Tom Dwan, and a few other big name players who are actually very straight have received plenty of attention from the gossip forums as being potentially gay for having a few mannerisms simply perceived that way.
They’re not gay, though, and no man who is a well-known pro in poker is open about it. I’m not quite sure why exactly that is, and of course everyone is entitled to be as open as they want to be about their personal lives, but for there to be zero high-profile openly not-straight men in poker seems…bad. Archaic. Reflective of a community that isn’t open to all, when we actually are one of the most open communities in existence. Maybe it’s not because of something unique to poker, and it’s just a relic of the old-school mentality when the world’s default mindset was at best “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but, come on, it’s 2012. Whatever the reason… zero??
I’ve struggled with how to discuss this, with how to balance my desire for privacy with the fact that I do want to be myself publicly – and the fact that I think it’s overdue for a guy to be open about it in poker. I’m no Daniel Negreanu, the royalty of real talk, but I do pride myself on saying what I think and simply being who I am; but I suppose you could say in the past being “truly myself” has come with a bit of an asterisk. Privately, amongst friends, I can say I’ve been doing that for some amount of time – but publicly, and in poker, that hasn’t completely been the case. I haven’t exactly always been where I am now, though, and haven’t really been ready to share my story publicly. Privacy reasons excepted, that won’t be the case any more.
2011 was an amazing year for me. Although I was fortunate enough to win an event at WSOP, 2011 was key for me because it was transformative. At 24, I finally came to embrace the seemingly basic concept that happiness should come before most other priorities, an idea it seems many of us poker players struggle with for some reason. Ever since I left college at 19 to pursue poker professionally, pretty much every morning (read : afternoon) I woke up and said “how can I make the most money possible today?” – and that’s what I did. When I felt lonely, or unhappy, or depressed, I did what I could to feel better; but for the most part, I made few actual changes and mostly just returned to the status quo of the grind. After Black Friday (my birthday, by the way) and the shutdown of online poker, I suddenly wasn’t able to do that any more. Being unable to tunnel-vision focus on making money, real-life things finally kind of caught up with me.
By the time WSOP 2011 came around, I had already begun to want real change, and once WSOP passed I had a few important heart-to-hearts with some very close friends and my mindset finally started to actually change. I decided I wasn’t going to focus on making decisions that were in my best financial interest, I was going to focus on making decisions based on how they’d impact my happiness – without making excuses. The obstacles that I had always created for myself – what if this, what if that – I put aside, and began making changes instead.
I had put it off for a long time. I always knew I wasn’t straight, but I never spoke a word of it for twenty two years, and nobody really ever knew otherwise. I dated women exclusively through my teens and early 20s, doing my best to convince myself that it wasn’t something I had to pursue, that maybe I’d grow out of it, that I’d be happier with women anyway, that I just should focus on other things. After a lot of struggling and a lot of anxiety, I eventually came out to one of my close friends when I was 22. That same year, the second and third people I came out to were my parents (probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done), from which I basically received the not-exactly-what-I-needed reaction of “keep it to yourself, don’t tell anyone.” I told very few people from then until I was 24 (by the way, my parents are way better now).
I was lucky enough to come out to a few close friends who were very encouraging. My closest friends are amazing people that I all love dearly and they were crucial in my growth from then til now. I remember, two years ago, accidentally verbalizing “that guy [on tv] is pretty cute” to one of my friends. Even though I had already come out to him, I was instantly petrified – it was the first time I had really said something like that out loud (at 22!) – and although I remember the anxiety very well I also clearly recall the flood of relief I felt when he simply laughed afterwards. Whether serious or lighthearted, that sort of positive encouragement from my friends over the past two years helped me greatly along my path to finding myself and “living my truth,” as a (slightly overly) philosophical friend likes to put it.
I didn’t actually make a gay friend until June of 2011, when I was 24. That helped a lot with being able to understand/express myself and not quite feeling so…isolated. Before then, I never really tried to make any gay friends or relationships. I would consider taking action, but before anything actually happened, I’d find or fabricate excuses to not be open or aggressive about it. I told myself to be afraid of the poker world finding out somehow and outing me and having some “disaster” roll out because of it. I was worried that no matter what I ever accomplished or did, I’d be labeled “that gay poker player” above all else, and it would be a title of shame. I feared that I’d lose friendships that meant a lot to me, that I’d ring a bell that could never be unrung and I’d be miserable, somehow. It took me a long time to mostly get over all those somewhat irrational anxieties (fingers crossed!) and to truly start being myself, regardless of what that might mean or look like to others.
As 2011 continued on, and my mindset became more focused on being happy, I pushed myself to make the changes I wanted. I started being more and more open, telling more and more people, and eventually started dating. I became more empowered by the growing personal freedoms I felt as I increasingly was just myself by default, less and less often censoring my thoughts, desires, and feelings. The small personal ‘victories’ piled up, I gained a lot of forward momentum, and the positive changes started to snowball…and here we are now, writing this post. I’m totally open in my personal life, in an amazing relationship that means a great deal to me, and bottom line, I’m honestly happier now than I’ve ever been.
I’m not planning on being much different. If you’ve interacted with me before, you pretty much know who I am, and there probably won’t be many differences in the future. Like I said, I’m just a poker player, after all, and being attracted to guys doesn’t change that. Still, though, for myself and as a member of the poker community, I felt this was important to share – to both allow me to openly/completely be myself in the poker world and maybe to make it easier for others to be themselves, too, if they want to be. Real talk.
edited to add : a lot of people have been trying to get in touch with me in various ways, best way by a mile is on twitter @JasonSomerville.