Phil Laak & Antonio Esfandiari are poker’s very own odd couple so we talked to them about their story: “It’s amazing, he never stops talking, he’s a machine”

Phil Laak and Antonio Esfandiari take time out in Miami to explain how to make a living by being a goofball

Phil Laak exudes the energy of a young child on a sugarhigh. Lying on a sofa with a sheet covering his head, he fidgets at least once a second. Every time he pops up from under the cover, his eyes excitedly flit around the room as though seeing everything for the first time.

Antonio Esfandiari is also flat on his back, but in most ways is the polar opposite to Laak. He remains completely still. The only time he moves is to shield his eyes from the mid-morning Miami sun creeping into their beachfront suite.

Laak has just launched into a complex explanation as to why his clothes are in neat piles all over the floor. ‘I picked up that trick from Gus Hansen. That way I have complete inventory knowledge and I get a feeling for my energy in the room.’ He reminds me of a wind-up toy, which goes on forever – only in straight lines. Esfandiari is the hand that swoops down to push him back on track. As Laak gets lost in a world of chi and house cleaning, Esfandiari whispers sarcastically: ‘This is the most valuable part of the interview. What a retard.’

Taking the hint, Laak immediately changes tack. ‘Okay, I’m in a meditative, restful, aware and great state of mind. I’ve never done an interview laying down,’ he observes.’ Laying down is…’

‘So much better,’ pipes up Esfandiari.

It would be churlish to deny the duo a welldeserved lie in. In the past few days I’ve accompanied them as they’ve filmed their TV show, I Bet You, now in its second season. The premise of the show is that Laak and Esfandiari have to compete against each in all manner of ‘activities’ from wrestling alligators and fire fighting to getting scrutinized by lie-detector tests and subjecting their sperm to critical evaluation (yes, really).

‘It’s been draining,’ says Esfandiari. ‘It’s work because you have to show up at a certain place at a certain time.’ Laak concurs – but is also keen to emphasise that it’s a lot of fun as well. ‘When the cameras go on, the producer tells you to go here, tells you you’re on a lunch break. It’s like going to an amusement park when you’re nine and your dad is carrying you.’

The show is a world away from the high-profile poker tournaments that they’ve become famous for. But, as I’m gradually beginning to realise, it’s a world they’re more than happy to give up poker for.


There wasn’t an instant meeting of minds when Laak and Esfandiari first crossed paths at the WSOP in 2000. In fact, it was hate at first sight. ‘Antonio was like a 13-year old magician roaming the streets,’ Laak recalls. ‘I was 21,’ Esfandiari interjects.

‘Right, 21 and at his first WSOP,’ continues Laak with a mischievous nod. ‘I had been following him and trying to figure out how he did his tricks because they were really cool.’

It annoyed the hell out of Esfandiari: ‘I did magic for a high-stakes table with Freddy Deeb and Gus Hansen. Phil was sitting behind Gus and I remember he was looking at my hands, trying to figure everything out. I was like, what a prick, right? I continued down the hallway and started doing magic for another group. All of a sudden I see Phil in the crowd kneeling down and trying to look at my hands again.’

Laak is on the verge of tears as he takes up the story. ‘I’d seen magic shows before and I’d always been the guy on the front row trying to check it out. I was stunned at this stuff – it was slick. The first thing I ever said to Antonio was, “Dude, that was some righteous magic.”’

Buoyed by the compliments, Esfandiari started explaining some of his tricks to Laak and several drinks later they became inseparable – and remain so seven years on. ‘That night we just went around’, says Esfandiari. ‘We had the greatest team; he would do all the talking and bullshit and I would do all the magic tricks.’


After the World Series was over, they headed for opposite sides of the country. Phil was trading on Wall Street and continued to make a decent living from the city’s many underground backgammon clubs. ‘There were ten top pros in New York,’ he says. ‘I was ninth or tenth, but I earned in the top three or four spots because I was a fun guy and a lot of the fish would single me out and play me because they knew I was one of the weakest pros.’

In San Jose, California, Antonio was picking up $300 an hour doing magic gigs as well as trying to build his bankroll. But then a phone call changed both their lives. ‘He [Antonio] called me up because he was in a game at Bay 101. There were two guys,’ Laak pauses hesitatingly, then continues: ‘I didn’t believe him…’ shaking his head as though he can’t even believe it now, before Antonio steps in: ‘Every time it was their turn, they put the max in. They were losing $10,000-$20,000 a day.’

Laak had to know more. ‘You’re telling me there’s a game in the US where every time it’s these two guys’ turn to bet, they’re betting $200? Why is this table not overrun with pros? Dude, you can’t have P&L’s like this. In a $10/$20 game, you don’t just win $5k or $10k a day!’

The action proved just too much for Laak to ignore. He told his boss he had to take a sabbatical and ‘check out this lead’. The first day he played in the game he says he broke the record for how much money was won in Bay 101, at around fifteen-anda- half grand. ‘It was really sick,’ Laak says.

‘After about five days I told Antonio that I was going to rent a place within five miles of the casino, and asked if he would get a two-bedroom apartment with me? He said yes and the next day we had a place to ourselves rented for a whole year. Antonio is the reason that I got back into poker again.’


Shortly after the duo met, Esfandiari took a trip out to New York for a week to hang out and party with Laak. ‘I thought his net worth was $50k-$100k the way he was spending,’ Laak says. ‘Every night we went out, sushi, buying drinks for girls and we were spending on average around $700.

‘At the end, Antonio’s like, “I’ve got to go back to San Jose and work. Play cards.” I’m like, “What’s the rush?” He says, “I’ve just spent $3,500 and I only started with $7,000.” I said, “You spent 50% of your net worth partying? You’re going broke, kid.”’

But poker was always good to Esfandiari. First it made him a living, and then in the first quarter of 2004, it made him a star as he became the youngest player ever to win a WPT Championship (the LA Poker Classic) in February. But he wasn’t finished there; by May, he had bagged his first World Series of Poker bracelet.

With an easily marketable look and style, ‘The Magician’ had the chance to create a formidable poker legacy. But three years on, he has faded into relative obscurity. So what’s happened? If you believe what you read on poker forums, Esfandiari became a little too interested in laughing at the queues of punters outside Las Vegas nightclubs as he strolled in with his entourage; but this cartoon image is a little unfair. Sure, like any 29-year old with money to spend, he loves to party. But in truth, his priorities have changed.

‘I want to make money when I’m sleeping – from businesses,’ he says. ‘I’m only young once. I don’t want to wake up in ten years and say to myself that I should have had more fun when I was young. I don’t want to spend my time in a casino when I can go out and adventure.’

It’s got to a point now that – aside from High Stakes Poker – cash games are almost entirely absent from his schedule: ‘One day I’m going to be old and have kids and a wife and play cash games then.’ Indeed, Esfandiari’s avoidance of live games is a constant source of amusement for Laak: ‘Dude, you’ve walked past games that were super-juicy with seats open and just went up to Light [exclusive nightclub at the Bellagio] to drink!’

Esfandiari is quick to fire back: ‘I work everyday, writing articles, writing blogs. During the day I probably spend two hours on the computer keeping up on my emails and business stuff. If I get an email that needs to be answered, I do it that day – no question.’

Despite this cash game drought, Esfandiari remains confident he could still sit down with anyone, but feels no compunction to prove as much. ‘I don’t need to be in the Big Game, I don’t need to be one of the guys there. What do I care what people think? We’re the only two poker players who have their own TV show that is non-poker related.’


Ask any poker fan who their favourite players are and the ‘Unabomber’ is sure to crop up on most lists. Ever since the public witnessed him running round the table and doing press-ups on his way to winning the WPT main event in LA in 2004, he has cemented himself as a crowd favourite. Judging by his appearances on the Extreme Poker series and his affinity for playing poker bots, he’s also one of the few players whose existence doesn’t just revolve around money.

‘Jumping out of a plane, playing under water, that’s fun,’ says Laak. ‘The robot one was fun because it stimulated the brain.’ As Laak explains the role of Ali Eslami as his playing partner for that gig [against poker software Polaris], Esfandiari perks up from his slumber: ‘He doesn’t love me! I would have picked him because we’re buddies. But he doesn’t do that.’ Laak giggles matter-of-factly: ‘It was science, kid.’

In person it’s evident that the Laak gregariousness isn’t reserved for the cameras. ‘In high school I was more of a shy guy, but in college I opened up,’ he reveals. ‘[Now] I like being the first guy to a party and the last guy to leave.’ A large part of his charm lies in his achingly honest story telling. Laak admits he didn’t think he was good enough to be a professional poker player. ‘After that World Series [in 2000], I called it quits on poker.

I didn’t think it was for me. I had never really had crazy wins. I decided that after a year of poking around, I was going to take it easy on poker and go and do something in the real world.’ Luckily, he trusted Esfandiari’s instincts on the juicy cash games in San Jose and since then he has never looked back.

Nowadays Laak has a reputation as a good cash game player who can more than hold his own in tournaments. The only thing missing when he plays is ego. The $20/$40 no-limit games at the Commerce in Los Angeles are his bread and butter. The biggest shot he’s ever taken is the $500/$1,000 no-limit hold’em/pot-limit Omaha in Bobby’s Room – although it didn’t quite go according to plan. ‘I bought in for $100,000, ran it up to $220,000. I was going to quit at $300,000, then I lost two hands and I was felted.’

Laak knows that he’ll probably never be a regular in such big games – but it’s not a particular bugbear. ‘When I sit down in a poker game, I’m like, “Okay, he’s better than me, he’s better than me.” But I’m totally happy with what god gave me – a brain that allows me to get a decent amount of money out of the game. I can’t imagine devoting enough time to be a legend. I’m too much of a goofball.’


The boys are spending the next few weeks together in Miami, but they quickly go their separate ways again. Laak loves the surfing ambience of LA (and the Commerce’s cash games) while Esfandiari lives and breathes the 24-hour party syndrome of Las Vegas.

‘When I go to Vegas, I’m not like, “Ah, it’s home,”’ explains Laak. ‘It’s the desert, it’s hot and I’m not really a going out guy.’ Esfandiari shoots back with a critique of LA: ‘There’s too many people, you have to spend an hour of your life in a car.’

They may not see each other very often, but it’s comforting that money has not changed them. They still don’t exchange bad beat stories; Esfandiari still loves to blow his cash. ‘He spends about $20,000 a month on entertainment!’ Laak exclaims. Esfandiari comes back again: ‘It’s amazing, he never stops talking, he’s a machine.’

Poker has given both an opportunity to try out new things, like starring in their own TV show and endorsing energy drinks. And, like most things they have done, they’re jumping in feet first. ‘I never thought there would be something where I’d get paid for being goofy,’ says Laak.

‘It’s like getting paid to play video games.’ They play less poker together today, but they’re adamant the WSOP will always be a regular fixture. ‘You can’t miss the World Series,’ says Laak. ‘You can’t miss it,’ echoes Esfandiari, who adds: ‘Nine months before the Series starts, I’m not going to make love to my wife and impregnate her because if my baby is being born during the main event, I’m sorry but I have to play!’

Esfandiari’s twisted logic has Laak in stitches. ‘I never really thought about that, it’s really smart!’

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