Antonio Esfandiari: The $18m magic man

He’s the most successful tournament player in history, after winning over $18m in one tournament. Paul Cheung finds out what’s next for the magician…

Prior to 2012, it was hard to know what Antonio Esfandiari’s enduring legacy in poker would be. In the decade since he’d been on the scene, the ‘magician’ moniker which he’d flouted in the early part of his career had faded away and he seemed just one of the ‘old school’ live pros who was a constant fixture on televised poker shows. You’d tune in not to see if he’d make an amazing play but simply to be quietly entertained/annoyed by the banter between him and the likes of Phil Laak and Phil Hellmuth.

Despite having a WSOP bracelet, a couple of WPT titles and several million dollars to his name, his poker skills were never uttered in the same breath as his peers. He even seemed to know the limitations of his game versus the highest calibre players. In that famous High Stakes Poker season 2 hand featuring Gus Hansen’s quads against Daniel Negreanu’s full house, Esfandiari looks down at his A-Q, ruminating his next move. ‘Out of position against Gus and Daniel?’ before tossing it away disgustedly, ‘What a load of garbage…’

As of February 2013, it’s safe to say that Esfandiari’s stock has soared in remarkable fashion. In July 2012 he pocketed over $18 million by winning the WSOP’s Big One for One Drop event. What’s more he did so by beating all those old school pros that he was so used to playing a supporting role to. The 34-year-old instantly rocketed to the top of the all-time money list with an astounding $23m in career winnings and although he quickly acknowledged that some of his historic win went to anonymous creditors, he admits that ‘it was the biggest win he’d ever had’.

Esfandiari went on to close out 2012 in some style too, snatching another bracelet (his third) at the WSOP Europe and rounding off the year with a fourth place finish at the WPT Five Diamond Classic. We caught up with Esfandiari shortly after his epic travelling session across Asia to find out how he can possibly top the last 12 months.

PokerPlayer: What are you up to right at this moment?

Antonio Esfandiari: I am going from New York to DC, I have a meeting with a potential creator for [TV show] I Bet You 2. It’s probably 10% so I don’t want to talk about it and have it not happen! It won’t be I Bet You exactly but it will be a spin-off with Phil and Antonio.

How much do you see Phil nowadays?

AE: I try and see him as often as possible. I haven’t seen him for a while, but I’m actually going to see him in a few hours.

How has your relationship changed?

AE: It’s still the same, I love him. He’s just one of the most fun guys I know. We never really talked poker and we still don’t.

Do you have similar outlooks on life?

AE: Not really. I do a lot more going out to eat and hanging out. He’s a much harder worker than I am. He likes to play poker and sometimes he’ll just go down to the Commerce to play. I like to chill with friends and take it easy.

Are most of your close friends poker players?

AE: No, not really. There’s only a few poker players that are my true friends: Brian Rast, Phil Laak. I just don’t want to talk about poker all day, poker players just like talking about the game all the time.

Where have you travelled to recently?

AE: I was in Australia, I then went to Malaysia, Macau and Hong Kong. It was over about four months, just me but meeting friends in different places.

Was that a poker-fuelled journey?

AE: It was mostly poker as I went to Macau to check out the games there, but I didn’t really play much. Then I went to Hong Kong because I have a good friend there.

What was your take on Macau?

AE: I went there seven years ago when the Wynn was halfway up and there was nothing around. Now there are casinos everywhere. It is insane when you walk around a casino in Macau and every single table is baccarat, every single table was full the whole time. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Are you interested in getting involved in the Big Game out there?

AE: I would. I tried, but I was not successful although I didn’t try very hard. There were a couple of big games, one was a private Chinese-only game that I couldn’t get into.

Who holds the sway?

AE: There’s a bunch of different people, but I’m not going to name any names. The big local players obviously. 

So generally how has the poker been going while you’ve been away?

AE: There’s no such thing as ‘running bad’ so I guess I’m running good! Even when I lose for a month or two, I’m still happy with my life so there’s no such thing as running bad.

Are you saying that poker players can’t say they run bad at all?

AE: I’ve been in some parts of the world and I realise how lucky we are to live in a civilisation with running water and fresh showers and food that you want.

How would you sum up your life at the moment?

AE: I’m at a very good place in my life, I wake up early, I go to the gym almost every day, I eat very healthily. I don’t really party anymore. I feel like I’ve never been in a better place, I have the best relationships with my family and friends.

Do you feel like the golden days of poker are far behind?

AE: I think it flatlined for a long time but I believe it’s going to make a comeback in the next couple of years. I think with the legalisation of poker on the way there will be a surge in poker. The big boom happened, it kind of flatlined a bit but I think in the next few years there’s going to be a big, big comeback.

What’s your focus like when you sit down to play?

AE: I believe if you lead a very healthy life, you focus a lot more at the poker table, so I find myself in a pretty good place at the table. The Big One for One Drop definitely helped my confidence. Of course there’s no such thing as ‘easy’, the players are just so good these days. [But] when you’re focused and you have a clear vision of what’s in sight, there’s not much that can stop you.

You have a life coach, right?

AE: It’s more of a mental preparation coach. I have someone who coaches me when I play. I speak with her during breaks and go over anything that went wrong and clear it off. She’s someone who focuses my mentality when I play and makes sure my mindset is somewhere where it needs to be. She holds me accountable if I make a bad play.

Did it feel anti-climatic to win another bracelet in September after The Big One for One Drop?

AE: It was fantastic, the bracelet after The Big One for One Drop was a lot harder to win. There were about 20 times more people in the tournament, so realistically it’s a greater achievement than winning The Big One for One Drop.

Do you consider The Big One for One Drop the peak of your career?

AE: Of course. It was the biggest tournament in the history of the game. To be the one to win it was fantastic. 

There have been a lot of rumours about what share you took from that tournament. Can you let us in on the actual number?

AE: I had more than 1% and less than 99%. It’s the biggest win I’ve ever had. I made a few people happy. I was surprised by how fast I was able to sell the action. I sent one email and in less than three hours, it was like boom, boom, boom and I was like holy shit! It happened really fast.

What are your resounding memories of the tournament apart from the win itself?

AE: The number one thing I remember the most was my dad. He was so happy and had a huge smile on his face.

How do you balance seeing the poverty that you have on your travels and the money that gets bandied around in poker, like million dollar buy-in even?

AE: This is my life, these are the cards that I was dealt. I’m a professional poker player and when a tournament comes along and I want to play it, I do. It is what it is. But I know where I came from, I came from a country where we were at war and if a bomb had gone off I could have been killed and never been here.

How much are you playing online?

AE: It’s probably been a couple of years since I last played online. But I’m about to complete a deal with a site so I’ll be playing online soon.

How hard is it to be a pro now versus five, ten years ago?

AE: If I was coming into poker now, I don’t think I would even try. I say that, but I love poker so I’d have to experience it before I know what I would do. It’s not like it was 10 years ago. The competition is so hard that unless you have access to some private games, it’s really tough. Even if you’re better than the other pros, how much money can you really make? I think the game has gotten a lot tougher. If you’re new to poker and planning to strike it rich, unless you’re extremely talented, I’d stick with college if I were you. I don’t want to discourage people. Poker’s a beautiful game and if you have the talent then you can beat it.

How much do you keep up-to-date with what’s happening in poker, who’s winning and who’s losing?

AE: I never follow it at all. I play in a tournament, I try and win but I don’t really care who wins. That’s how I live my life. 

You own a spray tan salon, Spray La Vie. Have you been harbouring a secret spray tanning addiction all these years?

AE: I know, right! There’s a guy I know who I play poker with and he owns a few tanning salons and he had this idea for spray tan only salons, so I partnered with him and we opened a few salons. That was almost a year ago, it opened up during the World Series. I saw it as a business opportunity. If you’re hanging out in LA and meet a nice girl, it sounds a lot better if you say you’re a spray tan owner versus a poker player!

When you sit down at the table, is that what you think of as work?

AE: Not really, I love playing live. My work is this interview, writing articles, those kinds of things. Taking the train to DC to have this meeting, that to me is work.

When you’re back home in Vegas, where do you tend to play?

AE: I don’t really go to the casino to play poker too much but if I do, I go to the Aria, they have a really good game there in Ivey’s Room. I like to travel around and play tournaments.

What gets you out of bed these days?

AE: It’s so sick but it’s true, no matter how much money you have, you just want more. Saying that, my life does not revolve around making more money. I have a very fine balance between working and enjoying my life. No matter how much money you have in the world you can’t have the kind of fun that you have when you’re in the middle of nowhere with your buddies, just hanging out.

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