Poker’s hotness isn’t news to anyone who watches cable TV or goes to bars on weeknights. It has been hot for so long now that the inevitable trend stories on the poker boom are no longer considered prescient, and dire predictions of a poker bust are in the air. But the poker boom has thus far resisted the standard NASDAQ crash narrative. An estimated 50 million to 80 million Americans played in a live poker game last year, and 1.8 million played for cash online, a number that’s grown by 50 percent in the past nine months alone. A small handful of this number, probably fewer than 500, are like Jordan, making a living playing the online game at its highest levels. Some of these online pros actively seek publicity, but Jordan deliberately keeps a low profile at the tables. Using an assortment of accounts and user names, he believes, keeps his opponents from noticing that the same guy is taking all of their money. Up until this year, it also kept offshore cardrooms from realizing that he hadn’t yet turned 18.
Jordan’s biggest score came several weeks after his $210,000 jackpot. In September, he won the World Championship of Online Poker, and $577,342 in prize money, defeating more than 1,400 players from around the world, each of whom had paid $2,500 into the prize pool. Most of them were professionals who’d been in the game longer than Jordan has been alive, including World Series of Poker winners Greg “Fossilman” Raymer and Barry Greenstein. But Jordan didn’t display the humility of the novice at the final table. In the wee hours of the morning, with the tournament money on the line and the rest of the online poker world watching, he typed garbled boasts into the chat box, tapping out “JORDAN B-E-R-K-O-W-I-T-Z. don’t forget it.” He claimed he’d had 14 beers to drink, and that playing under the influence “makes u way better.” While still in the throes of battling two silent Swedes for the top three places, he told the tournament director to inscribe the championship bracelet “Jordan.” A few hands later, he’d won, though Greenstein says Jordan still has a few things to learn:
“He’s almost certainly going to go broke again. He’s got a little too much gamble in him, which he’s got to get under control or it could possibly destroy him, emotionally and financially.”
“Jordan had a lot of leeway compared to most children, but I feel like it brought us closer,” says his mother, Pagona Berkowitz, who was raised in a strict Greek Orthodox family in Newtown Square. She’s kneeling on the living room floor, putting a coat of maroon paint on the fireplace hearth as Jordan clicks away in the next room. “Jordan and I are best friends. I don’t think a lot of parents can say that.”
Pagona, 48, is a compactly built woman who never seems to be standing still. She wears her chestnut-colored hair short, with a long, thin rat tail trailing down her back, and sounds alternately stern and resigned when looking back over her only child’s poker odyssey. “Poker is gambling,” she often says. “I’m like you, I work hard for my money. So when I gamble, I set a limit of $50.” She jokingly calls herself Jordan’s “constant maid,” and has been separated from Jordan’s father Jay for three years now. Pagona runs her father’s painting business and spends her spare time compulsively decorating and redecorating the house. Everything in Jordan’s room is black, red and poker all over: poker glasses, napkins, tissue dispensers, lamps, sheets and coasters. Straight flushes fan out across the bathroom’s hand towels and the cabinet beneath the sink. A wet bar and flat-screen TV are on the way.