New law lures an online poker pro back home

Kerstetter at home in Brigantine with roommates Patti Haggerty and John Allan Hinds. "It's too early to tell after only one month how much I can possibly expect to earn," she says.
Kerstetter at home in Brigantine with roommates Patti Haggerty and John Allan Hinds. "It's too early to tell after only one month how much I can possibly expect to earn," she says. (CURT HUDSON)
Posted: January 20, 2014

BRIGANTINE, N.J. - Jamie Kerstetter is in her pink slippers with the pom-poms. And why shouldn't she be? It's a Sunday morning, and she's settling in to a long day during which she won't leave the apartment.

The cards are dealt, on the screen, four tables going at once, a far cry from the 20 poker games this former tax lawyer used to fire up on her computer screen in Mexico, where she would spend hour after twitchy hour playing online Texas hold 'em.

"My boyfriend and I would sit all day and not talk to each other except when one of us would say, 'Wanna order out?' " Kerstetter, 31, recalled.

At least now she's in New Jersey playing online poker, one of 150,000 accounts created since online gambling went live Nov. 21. Jersey gamblers have left revenue of $8.4 million on virtual poker tables, blackjack, and slots since, well below projections by the state. Online poker accounted for $2.89 million in revenue.

Before that, it was Rosarito, the little beach town in Mexico where she lived for two years, a place she describes as calm and welcoming - and also close to activities of a Mexican drug cartel.

Rosarito was full of resettled ex-pat online poker pros who fled the United States in shock after "Black Friday," the April 15, 2011, ruling that made online gambling illegal in this country, their hands and bankrolls frozen somewhere between the flop and the river cards of hold 'em.

Kerstetter, then known by the screen name "AndtheLawWon," persuaded her poker-playing boyfriend, Zach Donovan, to move to Rosarito. She then left him there, heading to the United States in November, when New Jersey made online poker legal again. Yes, the prodigal professional poker-playing daughter has come home. (And nobody's happier than mom in Monroe Township.)

One thing is clear: The career trajectory of Jamie Kerstetter never did run smooth.

Three years of law school at the University of Michigan, grinding jobs at high-powered law firms, and she left that all behind to turn online poker pro, now grinding cash in a third-story apartment facing the ocean, feasting on the site's newbies, having snagged a coveted sponsorship from partypoker.com.

"I ended up bluffing the river with a missed flush draw," she says in a flash of poker lingo that accounts for much of the back-and-forth with her roommates, Patti "Patticakes" Haggerty, 39, and Haggerty's boyfriend, John Allan Hinds, 26, known as "Beastro," an engineering-school dropout turned poker pro and Lucky Charms-eating foil.

"You don't know how anyone's doing until you hear 'Yes!' or 'Jesus!' " says Kerstetter.

Says Haggerty, with the laser-focused dejection that will punctuate her night on till her epic 3:22 a.m. bad beat flameout: "I flopped a set of sevens; he turned a set of nines," she said in typically obtuse pokerese.

And, more than once, "Jesus!"

It's 6:56 p.m., seven hours into the usual Sunday poker jag, but Kerstetter hasn't eaten yet. When you're anticipating poker till 3 a.m., better to push dinner to 10. She has a blanket around her legs, stretched out onto another stool. Outside, it's a quiet winter beach town. The Borgata, which partners with partypoker.com, is just a few miles up the road and over the bridge.

For PartyPoker, Kerstetter is their local hero. "We know her by reputation," says Jeffrey Haas, global poker director for partypoker.com of Gibraltar-based bwin.party. "She's a consistently successful poker player." She receives an undisclosed salary and other perks. As a successful female in the casino world, she is a pivot from the ubiquitous cocktail waitress or nickel slot player.

Kerstetter, who started playing while an undergraduate at Rutgers, says she hasn't looked back. The old job took over her life, long hours in a cubicle researching tax law and writing wills and trusts. She left family events early, ground her teeth at night, and paid Manhattan rents. Then she got laid off. She got a new law job, but had already begun the poker life, fueled by her usual intense research, and soon left for Mexico. Her new job raises eyebrows, but feels liberating.

"I had to defend poker a lot," she says. "At my old job, I never took heat. I was saving rich people money from their estate taxes, but I was a lawyer, so I was respected."

Lawyers, along with traders, have flocked to the ranks of poker pros. At the WPT Borgata Poker Open last year, two lawyers - Anthony Zinno and Vanessa Selbst - duked it out for first and second place ($825,099 and $492,569).

Selbst ranks fifth in the world with $9 million. Kerstetter ranks 494th, with $359,313 in live career winnings. She says she once had a $40,000 month to top six figures that year.

In her first month in Jersey so far, Kerstetter says, she has made the final table of the partypoker nightly $10,000 guarantee tournament four times, for about $5,000 profit. She has also earned about $3,000 cash game winnings. "That amount won't stay consistent," she says. "It's too early to tell after only one month how much I can possibly expect to earn."

As a pro, Kerstetter is still the exception in Jersey. Most online players are recreational and male, those playing along while watching Jimmy Kimmel Live! Most are New Jersey residents, though Haas says the site gets an influx of New Yorkers who travel across state lines on Sundays. (Gamblers must be in Jersey.)

At its peak - and the success of any poker room depends on having enough players to bankroll the game - about 3,000 players were logged into the sites shared with Borgata on this Sunday. (By contrast, Isle of Man-based PokerStars, not licensed in Jersey, averages 25,000 players a day.)

The pool in Jersey is small enough that Kerstetter looks at a screen name, popo10, and says, "This is my friend from Sunday school." (It's small enough to keep Donovan, a serious online tournament player, over the border.)

The laptop and big screen are still fired up. Kerstetter is playing a few cash games - "an opportunity to make endless mistakes" - and a warm-up tournament for the big $50K event, a $200 buy-in Sunday event her sponsorship gains her free entry (players get 10,000 chips.)

The virtual tables for the cash games have names of truly bland New Jersey towns. Kerstetter is toggling between Bridgewater and Cherry Hill. The game is Texas hold 'em, where betting starts pre-deal with "blinds." Players then get two cards face down, followed by betting, followed by three shared cards (the flop), another shared card (the turn), and a final card (the river.)

Beastro and Patticakes come back with groceries, including Lucky Charms for young Beastro. Patti fires up a Keurig. Kerstetter talks about "bankroll management," how poker moves are essentially risk analysis and how to bluff online - mostly with size and timing of bets.

The friends have built a poker camaraderie - like the old home games minus cigars, and rarely at the same table. The fast-paced and multiple games make live poker feel slow and inefficient. From the couch, Patticakes exults. "Oh goodbye! I have aces!"

"We call them fish," Haggerty says of the easy marks. Divorced, she left a family bar business in Pennsylvania a few years back to move to Brigantine and play at Borgata.

"But not to their faces," says Kerstetter, adding: "That's another perk of online. You can say whatever you want out loud."

It's midnight, and Kerstetter has eaten a quarter of a can of Campbell's chicken noodle soup. She is still in the $50,000 game that began at 7:30 and grinding in the North Brunswick table.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, boyfriend Donovan makes a deep run in an online tournament. Kerstetter calls up a site to follow. The two met cute, poker style, at Foxwoods. Donovan hopes to "put together a string of big wins" to pay for visits; also, that her Jersey play leads to international limelight (and sponsor).

Shortly after midnight, Kerstetter busts out of the tourney. Over 15 hours, she has won $710 in cash games, not a bad night But it will be Haggerty - given a courtesy entry on a Kerstetter request - who makes the deep run. Donovan, who finished second for $16,000 (most of which will go to pay his backers, alas) tunes in from Mexico, the equivalent of "railing" in the poker room.

Outside, if you hit the seawall and follow Brigantine Avenue back to the top of the island, a deep fog obscures the usually dominant purple-lined Borgata.

Inside the apartment, another kind of fog is descending. After an exhilarating run up the leader board, Haggerty is plummeting, with some bad beats (i.e., when an opposing player draws the only card in the deck that could win.) This happened to Kerstetter earlier against a player called SharkEye, prompting her to utter her signature non-poker phrase: "That's gross."

It's 3:05 a.m., silent but for the crunch of Beastro's Doritos. Haggerty picks at leftover cheesesteak. She's in the money, but fading, 11th with 88,205 chips.

As the lingo goes, she "raised with pocket queens, her opponent reraised, she shoved her virtual stack all in." (Kerstetter, at this late hour, speaks only in poker tongues: With "less than 30 big blinds, she couldn't really avoid putting her chips in with QQ this late in the tourney.")

Alas - that's not a poker term, but maybe it should be - her opponent had Kings and she busted in 10th, a prize of $614.95.

It is 3:22 a.m.

"Uh, gross," says Kerstetter, predictably. Haggerty sulks, anticipating, as is her way, the extra hours she'll need to break the streak of running bad.


arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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