Teen poker star takes major gamble in adults' game
Posted: Friday February 24, 2006 3:05PM; Updated: Tuesday February 28, 2006 9:20AM
Poker is the only game suitable for an adult. Or so Somerset Maugham insisted in the short story Cosmopolitan. "You talk of your cricket and baseball, your golf and tennis and football," he wrote. "You can have them. They're all very well -- for boys. Is it a reasonable thing, I ask you, for a grown man to run about and hit a ball? Poker's the only game fit for a grown man. Then, your hand is against every man's, and every man's is against yours."
Of course Maugham died in 1965, four decades before the online poker boom and two decades before the birth of Jordan Berkowitz. In the digital realm, no one sees your hands sweat or the "tell" that says you're bluffing, and you can't be certain that your opponent is even an adult. Would Maugham have considered Berkowitz a grown man? Five months ago, at the maddeningly precocious age of 18, the cocky high school dropout won the World Championship of Online Poker and its $577,342 jackpot. In defeating more than 1,400 players from around the world, Berkowitz -- who still lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with his mom -- became the Cincinnati Kid of cyberspace.
Stimulating, dangerous and seedily glamorous, computer poker is a game for our times. It's also astonishingly fast -- players raise and fold at the pace of a Nintendo game. Today, every "mathlete" with web access seems to want a piece of the action.
"It's the American dream," says Berkowitz. "You can turn nothing into a goldmine." He sure has. "I've won more than $40,000 in a dozen tournaments," he says. "Not that I think of myself as some big-ass celebrity. I'm just lucky enough to have clicked my wireless mouse in the right order a bunch of times."
Like Larry Darrell, the protagonist of Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge, Berkowitz is a model of misspent youth. He has frittered away his adolescence hustling any sucker dumb enough to sit across from him at a virtual Texas hold 'em table.
"I'm 19 now, and my lawyer says I'm 45 in my head," he says. "I've survived depression, chronic insomnia, the separation of my parents, school problems, women problems, debt problems. I've been through the mill and back."
On this bright, cloudless winter day, the poker world's luckiest mouse clicker rises at 1 p.m. and pads around his pad in blue socks, a red T-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms festooned with martini glasses. His body is more or less encrusted with bling -- the pavé diamonds inserted in his ears could buy Sierra Leone.
The poker face of the world's greatest virtual card shark is a monotonous, glazed expression. The poker lips are clamped; the poker eyes are at half-mast and as blank as a tilapia's. A pudgy 6-foot-1, Berkowitz has the chalk-pale skin and the overly-concentrated mien of a video game tester who never sees daylight.
When playing poker online, he usually doesn't see it. He'll plant himself in front of a computer screen for 16 hours a day, seven days a week. "I've stayed up three days in a row and played poker a good 30 hours straight," Berkowitz says. "I've played up to 10 hands at once. But to play well, I've got to keep it to eight at a time."
He preps for marathon poker binges by cracking open a carton of Newports and popping an Adderall-XR, the drug a doctor prescribed for his Attention Deficit Disorder.
"I really don't have ADD," he confides. "But Adderall keeps me awake and focused." It was easy to get, he says: "My doctor told me, 'I just have to ask you a few questions.' He said, 'Jordan, are you easily distracted?' And I was like, 'Whaaaaaa?'"
The only child of painting contractors Jay and Pagona Berkowitz, he got hooked on gambling at 13 during a family cruise in the Caribbean. "A cruise ship casino is just a big arcade for adults," Jordan says. "What kid wouldn't be attracted to that?"