Jordan started hustling card games that same year, not poker but Magic: The Gathering, a Dungeons & Dragons-style duel where players use monsters and spells to drain an opposing wizard’s life force. He advanced from his middle school’s recess game to the junior nationals, then started flying around the world to compete against adults in Venice and Japan. His skill and over-the-top competitiveness earned him a reputation as the John McEnroe of Magic, the flamboyant enfant terrible of a fairly nerdy game. William “Baby Huey” Jensen, one of Jordan’s Magic contemporaries, introduced him to online poker over the course of several weekends at his Maryland apartment. Jordan liked the action, and that luck seemed less of a factor in poker than in Magic, and that the potential upside was much greater. He converted his $40,000 in Magic winnings into an online bankroll, which he promptly blew at Limit Hold-’Em, $15 and $30 at a time. Then he asked his mom to back him, and somehow she said yes.
Your son is gifted but has ADD. He has problems respecting his teachers’ authority at school, and can’t seem to get out of bed in the morning. The standard guidance-counselor solution would not be allowing him to drop out of high school and leaving him at home with an online poker account, a high-speed Internet connection and $50,000 of your money. But if you are trying to support your son in his chosen profession and that profession is poker, money is like oats for a Thoroughbred. You have to keep on feeding him and feeding him and have faith that someday he’ll pay you back. Lots of parents talk a good game about their kids being able to do anything they put their minds to, but most spend their bucks on insurance policies — law degrees, SAT prep — in case that whole “follow your passion” thing doesn’t work out. Pagona Berkowitz put her money where her mouth is.
When Jordan reached the final table in the $210,000 tournament, Mom brought him a beer to settle his nerves.
“It’s okay if you don’t win this thing,” she said. “You’re already guaranteed a lot of money.”
But it wasn’t about the money for Jordan. At the poker table, money is just units, meaningless tokens that must be risked to win the game. Jordan, who learned to love winning early on, still hasn’t learned to have any regard for his money, and this is part of what makes him a truly great player. The game, not the tokens, is what keeps Jordan playing.
But he got the tokens anyway. Two hundred and ten thousand of them. It was 1:30 in the morning. Jordan called Shannon and promised to buy her a laptop for her first year of college at Temple. Mom came in and took a picture of the screen. Now she knew her decision to lend him the money was the right one.
“I didn’t want him to think of himself as a failure,” she recalls, kneeling in her living room. “I knew that when he applies himself to anything, he excels. I didn’t want him to think that I wasn’t there when he needed me.” She stops to load up her brush with paint. “But I really want him to have a career, too. If poker were a career, they would offer it in college.”
“What’d you say, Ma?” Jordan strolls in, looking for a fight. He doesn’t want her to have mixed feelings about poker, but he knows she does. “Are you saying that if they did offer it in college, it’d be all right?”
“No, I said that if it was a profession, they would offer it in college. And they never will,” Pagona shoots back.
“If it was a profession it would be all right? ’Cause then I’d have to go to college? Is that what you’re saying?
“What I’m saying is that if it were a profession or considered a profession, they would offer classes in college.”
“You know there are such things as professional gamblers, Mom. I’m not a professional gambler.”
“I stand corrected, then.”
She resumes her painting. He fills up his glass with water, walks back to his office, and closes the door. He’s very good at what he does, and it’s all she can do to hide the fact that she’s proud.