Like the card sharps of the Old West, three of the brightest stars in the poker galaxy rode into Citrus Heights’ Stones Gambling Hall on Sunday to play Hold ’em while lobbying for legalized Internet poker in California.
While the battle over online poker intensifies, with key California gambling tribes lining up on opposite sides, Northern California fans showed up to meet and quiz former World Series of Poker champ Chris Moneymaker, an accountant who made history by winning the $2.5 million main event at the 2003 World Series of Poker after earning his seat in a $39 online tournament at PokerStars.com.
Moneymaker, 39, was joined by the glamorous Liv Boeree, a British astrophysicist turned model and actress who learned how to play in 2005 from champs Phil Hellmuth, Annie Duke and the late Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott on the reality TV show “UltimatePoker.com Showdown.” The 31-year-old Boeree’s total live tournament winnings exceed $2.5 million.
While Moneymaker and Boeree appealed to players across ages and genders, the most popular player with the new breed of young guns was Jason “JCarver” Somerville, 28, a Long Island native who began playing at 16 and became famous online with “Run It Up,” a live video-streaming poker series he pioneered.
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Somerville’s now best known as the No. 1 live poker streamer on Twitch, the leading platform for online gamers of all kinds. A poker champ with well over $6 million in live winnings, not including his online wins, Somerville’s engaging personality and ability to discuss each hand within minutes after playing it has helped make him the face of online poker.
Somerville allowed that online poker has for many years largely been “a Wild West of no regulations for companies that exist offshore. … There’s no sort of jurisdiction that protects the players – you have no guarantee that the game’s fair, you’re going to get paid and the government gets no tax revenue.”
With a regulated market, people who run sites that take advantage of players or steal their money will go to prison, he said.
All three celebrities are part of the PokerStars Pro Tour pushing the legalization and regulation of online poker in California. Assembly Bill 431, a bill that would do that, passed out of committee in May.
New Jersey and two other states have legalized online poker, but California is torn by factions angling for control of the lucrative business, including horse-racing interests, which already offer online wagering, and Indian casino tribes, a number of which specifically oppose PokerStars.com, the big dog of the online poker world. The site, based on the Isle of Man, agreed to pay $731 million in 2012 to settle a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging bank fraud, money laundering and violations of gambling laws.
But PokerStars.com, which says it has 65 million registered players in more than 90 countries, has weathered the storm and last year was sold for $4.9 billion to Canada’s Amaya Gaming Group Inc.
“The legality of online poker has been a gray area from the beginning,” said spokesman Eric Hollreiser. “We’ve admitted to no wrongdoing.”
Moneymaker encouraged wannabe poker pros to “do it as a hobby, always have a backup play. You get burned out, and once you have a 10-year gap in your résumé, it’s really hard to find a job.”
Boeree, who lives in London, said the main difference between online poker and live poker in card rooms is “you can’t look your opponent in the eyes.” But she can also scream and cheer over a good hand while playing online at home, something she wouldn’t do in the flesh with so much of poker strategy focused on figuring out how your opponents bet and manage their money.
Somerville, who won $5 playing in high school and ran that up to $100,000 in a year, said, from that point on, “I didn’t go see friends, I didn’t do anything else. All I did is play poker every single day. I read every book, I watched every video.” He said 90 percent of his earnings in the first five years were online, and this spring he played 70 straight days online, while providing live commentary on Twitch.
Kermit Schayltz, co-owner of Stones and the granddaddy of Sacramento card-room owners, said sitting in your living room playing online “is training for playing in brick and mortar.”
“Until you sit in on a live game, you’re not a real poker player.”