How a Star Was Born: The Rise of Jaime Staples
It’s a hot, humid April Sunday afternoon in Augusta, Georgia. Millions of people from around the world are tuned in to their televisions to watch the final round of the Masters. As the final pairing head to the 18th green, thousands of fans in attendance are in an all-out sprint to get to a spot where they can see the final, championship-winning putt.
A three-foot tap-in putt should be the final stroke of the tournament. Up by two strokes, the leader just needs to tap the ball just right to earn the green jacket that comes with one of golf’s majors.
The ball is struck and rolls gently, eventually dropping out of sight and into the hole. Jim Nantz, the voice of the Masters known for his over-the-top witticisms as the tournament ends and a new champion stands tall, is prepared for the moment.
“A New Staple of golf’s elite. Jaime Staples, Masters Champion.”
That’s the world a 14-year-old Jaime Staples imagined for himself growing up in a family that loved the game of golf.
* * *
It’s a rainy Friday night in November in a random major metropolitan city. Thousands of people are sitting in a concert hall waiting for the evening’s entertainment to take the stage. As the lights go down and the velvet curtains begin to open they see a Steinway grand piano sitting alone in the center of the stage.
The silence is broken as the audience applauds politely as the Canadian pianist they’ve paid to see walks from stage left toward the piano before a soft-spoken voice over the loudspeaker introduces the man.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Jaime Staples”.
Staples takes his seat and smiles at the crowd as he begins to play the opening notes to Beethoven’s “Für Elise”. The crowd falls silent again.
That’s the world Susie Staples imagined for her teenage son who was growing up as the offspring of two people who had dedicated their professional lives to teaching music to the world.
Today, Jaime Staples is not in contention for the Masters – or any other pro golf event for that matter – and while he can still play a bit of piano, he’s not filling concert halls with fans of his ivory tickling. But he’s does have fans around the world – tens of thousands of them in fact.
The 24-year-old has had what can only be described as a meteoric rise from relative obscurity in the online poker world to one of its most beloved stars. Today, Staples is one of the most popular and successful poker players on Twitch, the live streaming service that puts poker players onto the monitors, tablets and phones of poker enthusiasts around the world as they play.
“I think it’s just the most connected community I’ve ever been a part of. It really feels like you all share this common interest, which is poker or gaming or streaming or whatever it is, and you get to hang around and interact with like-minded people,” said Staples. “You get to do that from the comfort of your home. It’s a great feeling to have that many people gathered in one place, and with live chat it’s like something completely different than we’ve seen before.”
The Twitch community has readily accepted Staples and helped him become a star. He recently crossed the 3 million views milestone.
Susie Staples is proud of her son and what he’s managed to accomplish so far but when he was a little kid running around the house, he was doing so only after having put in the practice hours on the piano.
“He was a really nice pianist. Both his Dad and I are musicians. I teach music at a high school and my husband is a retired university professor that taught music,” said Susie. “So he was certainly raised in a musical environment and he played in the school band and he took piano lessons and he did some writing as well.”
While music was important to the Staples family, they also played golf. Not just Jaime and his parents and siblings though. The passion for the links came from the top. Grandma loved the game. Mention that the Staples grew up in a Southern Alberta city and most will picture a snow-covered tundra and not an ideal place to play a game best suited for warmer climates. The truth is though that Lethbridge, Alberta has some of the best golf courses in Western Canada.
The entire family played the game, but it was his cousin Mike Mezei who introduced Staples to the game and the possibilities it presented. Staples was young and Mezei was making a real run at becoming a professional golfer. The impressionable Staples was fascinated and after getting out for just a couple of rounds with cousin Mike, Staples decided knew where he wanted his life to go.
“My cousin was a professional golfer for around 10 years, with moderate success. He took me out to the course when I was a kid, really loved it, and decided yeah, that’s about it,” said Staples. “I’d say maybe nine, ten years old is when I sort of said, ‘Okay, let’s do this’.”
His interest wasn’t just some pre-teen phase though; Staples got into golf in a big way. While his parents made sure school was still the priority, he was golfing nearly every day, working with private coaches and doing everything he could to get better at the game.
“I think (Mike) was a really large influence on him. Also, most of the people in our family golf, and his grandmother was an avid lover of golf. So he was raised in an atmosphere where that was something we did. He really liked it actually. That was what he did before poker,” said Susie.
Even as hard as we was pursuing the pro golf career, there eventually came a time where Staples recognized that it probably wasn’t going to be where he ended up. He was working a part-time job and taking some university courses when he found poker and made a life-changing decision to drop golf and turn all of his dedication to poker.
“Golf was pretty stagnant, and it was becoming a reality that I wasn’t going to make it. I was sort of losing some of that naivety and was like ‘Okay, this isn’t going to happen’,” said Staples. “I watched some poker TV shows and thought it was really cool. I thought being a poker pro would be amazing. Compete with your mind and live this glamorous lifestyle as a card player.”
The highly edited TV poker shows he was watching made the game look easy and flying around the world to play for millions of dollars looked exciting. Like nearly every other player his age, Staples jumped online in search of poker. First he found play money sites and then started entering freerolls and eventually started playing for real money.
“Well, when I first saw the game, I was like, ‘Wow, I can do this’, just because I was really arrogant,” said Staples. “I guess the first thing that made it a little bit real was I got fifth place in the $3 rebuy on PokerStars.”
That finish was worth $2,700 and at the time that was more money that Staples was making in a month at his part-time job. Which, unsurprisingly, was at one of the local golf courses where Staples had made enough connections to get a job. But Staples wasn’t fitting guys for new spikes in the pro shop or driving the cart picking up the balls duffers had launched on the driving range.
“At the time, I was working as a cart girl at a golf course. Typically a female job, for whatever reason, in the golf industry, and I somehow got the job,” said Staples. “(The golfers) weren’t expecting me, but I’d play into it. I’d drop a button (on my shirt) and then play it up and do my best.”
Despite his ability to make the duffers laugh, the wages and tips didn’t add up to a lot of money and even though he was living at home with his parents and siblings, he still had bills to pay.
“I was living paycheck to paycheck. I was in debt a little bit to my brother for golf training that he paid for,” said Staples. “So yeah, I quit my job when I won that $2,700.”
The golf cart gig wasn’t the only thing Staples stopped doing. Whatever energy he had been directing towards his pursuit of a pro golf career, he turned towards online poker, but it meant he’d have to drop out of school, something not exactly music to his parents’ ears.
“I remember a few years ago when he said ‘mom, this university thing is not me’ and, of course, my reaction is what you’d expect any high school teacher to have,” remembered Susie. “Our whole life has been based on education and setting our kids up for their future, so I said ‘I never want you to come back and tell me that you shouldn’t have let me do that or whatever’.”
Momma Staples wasn’t going to stand in the way of one of her adult kids making a decision to pursue something they were so passionate about. She knew she’d have come across as a bit of a hypocrite had she put up any real resistance.
“The thing is we’ve always told our kids to be passionate, so I have to follow through with what I’ve said. I say it in my classroom every day ‘you find that thing you love’,” said Susie. “I still remember Jaime saying ‘I want to work, I want to do this, mom. School might be there later in my life but right now this is what I want to do’.”
Parents have a way of giving approval while also being cautious and concerned as they watch their offspring venture out into the real world and take risks. Staples knew his parents were okay with the transition, but also understood there was still some concern as he ventured off into a world completely foreign to them.
“They didn’t know anything about poker, so there was no difference between poker and blackjack originally to them. They were quite concerned in the beginning,” said Staples. “I think as I started to not have a job and eventually not need a job, to be able to buy whatever I want and pay whatever measly bills I ended up having, living at home, they were like, ‘Okay, we’ll live with this,’ and as I continued to make a little bit more every year, they were okay with it.”
Staples was resolute in the path he was taking and now had a bankroll big enough to make some things happen.
“I knew what I wanted to do, and that I wanted to chase the dream and it didn’t really matter if I failed,” said Staples. “I just had to do it, school was just a placeholder, and I finally took the plunge.”
Around the same time that Staples was “going pro” another newcomer appeared on the poker scene, one that again altered the path that Staples was on.
“Twitch just appeared, and it was just like a perfect fit,” said Staples.
Staples saw Jason Somerville stream a couple of times and read through a few posts on TwoPlusTwo about other players who were streaming on Twitch.
“I knew I wanted to participate in the industry around poker and give back to the game if I was going to dedicate my life to it for at least the time being. I was like, ‘all right, I’m going to give this a go’,” said Staples. “I didn’t really expect anything, maybe I’ll make an extra $10,000 a year or something, and it’ll be a lot of fun, and I’ll play better, and it grew to be a lot more than that.”
Even an extra $10,000 a year seems like a lot considering that Staples didn’t really have any idea how to make Twitch work. Rather than sit down and plan out how to build a following and ramp up his audience, Staples basically just turned the camera on and went to work playing, while letting the few that tuned in early get a glimpse of his personality.
“Going back to the dreamer part of my personality, I had stars in my eyes very quickly, but from day one, day two, day three, I had no plans,” said Staples. “I really didn’t think of it as a business or as something that needed to be managed when I got into it. I saw it as just people sitting down and playing their games and talking. I didn’t really realize that there was more to it than that as the channel grows.”
Staples, really an unknown commodity in the online poker world with limited big scores to his name at this point, started modestly. But things escalated quickly and he broke through the 100-viewer benchmark within the first week.
“I sort of realized it was going to extrapolate into something bigger. I was taking it seriously then, but it wasn’t the production that we have going now,” said Staples. “It’s been a slow progression, but like I said, I like to project those things early and dream about them. This one was, I guess, attainable.”
To the outsider, a Twitch stream looks easy enough. Fire up some tables, turn on the webcam and off you go. That’s how Staples started, but as his audience and his chances to make money off of it grew, he knew he needed help. Staples now employs a handful of people to manage his stream and all of the ancillary products that go with it.
“I have four people working for me full time doing various stuff, and that takes a lot of managing, but they’re doing jobs that I, at one point, was doing all myself, and that time I now have back to produce more content,” said Staples. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes to try and grow the stream, to connect with the community and continue to grow the community.”
That level of dedication to the product is a big reason why Staples was able to grow his audience so quickly. With so many eyeballs tuning in to watch him play, it was only a matter of time before sponsors came calling. In early 2015 that’s exactly what happened – and it wasn’t some small time company offering free gear or energy drinks – it was the biggest online poker company in the world.
“It was the day after I won the Big $109 in March, which was my biggest score ever for $19,700,” said Staples. “(PokerStars) called me. I was in bed getting ready to stream and actually knew who it was on the phone. It was a guy that goes on the TwoPlusTwo Pokercast a lot, Steve Day.”
Day was the manager of Team PokerStars Online at the time and it was part of his responsibility to recruit new members. Staples had a pretty good idea as to why Day was calling. Even though it came quickly, the call was the culmination of a lot of hard work and started the ball rolling on Staples completing what he thought would be a lifelong goal.
“At the end of 2014, I was like, ‘Okay. This is going to happen one day. I’m going to be sponsored by PokerStars.’ That’s the dream. That’s what I had wanted forever. That was the end goal for me when I got into poker,” said Staples. “I thought it would be a year later, not three months. I was totally unprepared and nervous. I hadn’t really had very much sponsorship opportunity before that. I wasn’t ready.”
Staples had very little live experience so a spot on Team PokerStars Pro wasn’t likely and Day wasn’t ready to offer full Team Online status to Staples right away. He was made a ‘Friend of PokerStars’ and told that if he could make Supernova Elite status – a requirement for Team Online members – he’d most likely be asked to join Team Online full time.
“It was clear they wanted to work with me and they recognized me as a poker professional, but I sort of needed to prove myself to one of those teams to make that happen,” said Staples. “I set out with goal to make supernova status and made it on the last day that I set for myself, and then they accepted me to Team Online.”
Even though he didn’t have much live experience, his exposure on Twitch and as a member of Team PokerStars Online, opened up some opportunities for him that weren’t there before. Last summer, Poker Night in America came calling and invited him to be part of a cast that included some of the biggest names in poker including Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth and Randy ‘nanonoko’ Lew. The opportunity was something he cherished.
“I wasn’t nervous to play poker at all. I was a little bit nervous to meet some of those guys in that they’re the ones, a couple years ago, that I really looked up to,” said Staples. “I remember going to the 2013 World Series of Poker, I believe, and seeing ‘nanonoko’ in the halls and being afraid to shake his hand, like being afraid to approach him, and now I was playing in a game with him.”
Opportunities to play live are a perk of the job, but Staples understands a bulk of his energy needs to go to his core product, the live stream and the supporting content. While many young players simply bury themselves in poker; playing, hand review, session study and Skype chat, Staples devotes a lot of his free time to making sure he’s improving his product.
“I only think about poker when I’m actively studying or playing. Other than that, it’s 100% the stream, because it’s new – it’s like 2003 of Twitch poker right now,” said Staples. “It isn’t a very efficient game yet, and it’s just the Wild West. It’s a rush to grow, to be better. So that’s where almost all of my thinking goes throughout the day.”
Being good at poker, winning tournaments and having deep runs is an integral part of the formula for success, but it’s certainly not the most important piece. While Staples’ early foray into golf prepared him for the competitive side of poker, his music lessons and performances taught him about the value of connecting with his audience, something Staples knows will be the foundation his career is built on.
“It has to come down to caring about the people that are investing their time in you. Interacting with them on a real basis, trying to connect with them on social media and keep up with what’s going on in their lives and answering their questions in chat and answering their emails and doing everything you can to be a good person, be a valuable person to them,” said Staples.
Growing as a poker player and as a streamer are the two focuses of Staples’ life right now, but he knows that if he continues to have success in those two areas, other doors will open for him. He’s just not sure what those opportunities might be.
“Streamer does not define it anymore. I would like to do a lot. I’d like to keep climbing the mountain, basically, keep improving in my life, and that’s really sort of all I know right now,” said Staples. “Right now I’m focused on poker, hardcore streaming, YouTube, community. Where will that be in three years? I don’t know, but somewhere where hopefully I’m continuing to improve and work towards my goals.”
While his audience continues to grow by leaps and bounds as more and more poker players discover Twitch and more of the core Twitch audience finds poker, Staples has one viewer who’s always going to be tuning in, no matter what.
“I probably go in every day and listen to him talk just a little bit because he’s in Calgary and we’re (in Lethbridge) so we don’t see Jaime that often,” said Susie. “So I have watched him, but I have to be truthful – I don’t know how to play poker.”
She doesn’t play the game, but checks out the stream as a show of support and to watch her son put his passion for the game for the world to see. When something happens on the stream that she doesn’t quite understand she relies on friends and colleagues to explain it to her.
“Somebody who understands poker will tell me, ‘no, he didn’t have a choice there, that wasn’t bad play, those are the cards, he didn’t do anything wrong’,” said Susie. “Oh okay. As long as he didn’t do anything stupid, that’s all I want to know.”
Even if he had made a bad play, she knows that Staples is making his own decisions now. The golf thing turned out to be a bit of a phase and the musician’s life just wasn’t meant to be for Staples, but Susie has known since her son was born that his destiny was really up to him.
“The day he was born I remember his dad saying, he owns himself we just get to raise him,” said Susie. “And I still remember that day, the day he was born, and it really is true.”