Magician, party animal, girl-magnet – what’s it like for Antonio Esfandiari to be a multi-millionaire poker player?
I’m in Las Vegas waiting for The Magician. He’s running about an hour behind schedule and after hustling through the door of the Rio casino he apologises for having kept me waiting and acknowledges that his schedule of promotional duties has gotten all jammed up. He edgily fiddles with a pair of sunglasses and shows the stressful side of being a professional poker player who isn’t playing poker.
He appears truly discombobulated, but his tardiness is somewhat understandable: Esfandiari just got knocked out of a big tournament and he’s obviously pretty bummed. He endured a couple of bad beats and then busted out after his pocket Nines got outdrawn by K-8. ‘I was kind of sick that I called,’ remembers Esfandiari, wearing a flashy red satin shirt, augmented by French cuffs and adorned with the UltimateBet logo. ‘But I didn’t put him on that hand. I didn’t think he’d be in with K-8. Nevertheless, that was the end of Antonio.’
But don’t feel too sorry for him. ‘I’m pretty good at getting my name out there even without winning. I don’t play many tournaments, but I’m young, I go to clubs, I have a good time. My lifestyle fits what you’d expect for a poker pro.’
And what does that lifestyle entail? For Esfandiari, it’s usually a lot of partying. ‘I know all the club owners here and they treat me like a rock star,’ he says. ‘I never wait in line, I get bottle service, security guards, the best table in the house. Everything is taken care of.’ He lets this hang in the air for a beat, before adding, ‘I’m high energy and I dance all night. At Tao (a nightclub in the Venetian casino) you’ll see me up on the moat, a raised stage where only girls are allowed to dance. I’m the one exception, and I can tell you that it’s pretty nice to be the only guy up there with a bunch of girls.’
In the beginning
Sounds sweet, but it’s not exactly the kind of life that Esfandiari could have envisioned for himself. Growing up, the only cards he played was a game called Persian poker (he’s of Persian descent) and the thought of doing magic was far from his mind. Then, at the age of 18, he happened to be in a restaurant and spied a bartender drumming up tips by impressing customers with some rudimentary sleight of hand. Esfandiari’s reaction? ‘Holy shit! That was cool.’
A few weeks later, he happened upon a newly opened magic shop, bought a few tricks, learned how to do them, and became completely obsessed. He practised magic for 12 hours a day and cared about nothing else – as evidenced by his short, unsuccessful stint in college.
‘It was kind of my plan to become a professional magician,’ Esfandiari acknowledges. ‘But I knew it would be hard. There were so many magicians out there and hardly any of them made the kind of money that I wanted to make. I’ve always had dollars in my pocket – when I was 11 I earned $400 a week selling newspapers – and I needed to find a career that would put me into a good financial position.’
Living with roommates in San Jose – located near San Francisco and home to the famous Bay 101 poker club – Esfandiari waited tables, handed out business cards, and landed gigs doing tricks. He figures he made $5,000 to $6,000 per month between the two occupations. Then, in 1999, when his roommate at the time mentioned that he was going out to play poker, 19-year-old Esfandiari became curious. So curious, in fact, that he wanted to buy-in without knowing much about the game. ‘Read up on it,’ was his roommate’s smart advice.
Esfandiari turned to an excellent book for beginners – Winning Low Limit Hold’em by Lee Jones – and vowed to do exactly what the book’s author advised. ‘I won the first tournament I ever played,’ remember Esfandiari, who quickly turned the Garden City poker room into a second home and placed magic tricks on the backburner. ‘Right from the start, poker came easy to me. I was always able to tell what other people had. And don’t ask me how I did it. I don’t know. It just came to me.’
The big problem for Esfandiari was that, at 19, he was a couple of years below the legal gambling age. And when a Garden City security guard asked to see his ID, suddenly his poker career seemed poised to crash-land before it had truly gotten off the ground. But the age thing turned out to be a non-issue: Esfandiari moved to Bay 101 and never once got carded there. He settled into the $2/$4 limit game and says he was pulling down $600 to $800 per night of play. After a while he moved up to $6/$12 and the profits increased. Told that it sounds as if he was doing remarkably well, especially in the lower-stakes game, Esfandiari shrugs and locks eyes. ‘I just sat there and played nit poker,’ he says. ‘Nobody else did that. So it was easy to make money. Playing tight and following the rules were the first things I did to become a successful poker player.’
Though the approach was clearly effective for the situation, that algorithmic style of play did not necessarily make him into a good and tricky competitor. For that, he turned to a friend by the name of Gabe Thaler (who would go on to become a highly respected, albeit under-the-radar, no-limit cash game specialist). Esfandiari and Thaler butted heads on a regular basis, playing no-limit Hold’em freezeouts on one of their kitchen tables. They’d each buy-in for $100 – ‘A lot of money to us at the time’ – and receive $10,000 in tournament chips.
‘We played our hearts out and I got so much better from going up against Gabe,’ says Esfandiari, explaining that the one-onone donnybrooks helped form the bedrock of his no-limit strategy and allowed him to delineate between the two forms of poker. ‘I always play nit limit poker but am completely anti-nit in nolimit. It’s not even the same game. In no-limit I can crack a guy’s Aces by taking the pot away from him. In limit, it would never happen.’
Meanwhile, as Esfandiari developed into a full poker player, he discovered an interesting game at Bay 101: spread-limit Hold’em, which meant that you could bet anywhere from $20 to $200. ‘It was a game I could not lose in,’ he remembers with fondness. ‘I was really good at making players in that game think that I was loose when I was actually tight. I talked a lot. I made it $200 to go with 9-3 off-suit – and showed my cards. Then I wouldn’t do anything like that for nine hours. I created an image for myself that succeeded very nicely against guys who work nine-to-five in an office, play poker one night a week, and are afraid of blowing their bankrolls.’
Esfandiari points out that this was 1999, not very far back in human years, but a generation ago in poker years, long before the Hold’em boom and a time when random, non-strategic play was the norm – especially in San Jose, America’s cradle of high technology and a place where loads of money was floating around. ‘I won so much that people thought I was cheating.’
After expenses, over the course of 1999 and into 2000, Esfandiari managed to put together a poker bankroll of about $7,000. When World Series time rolled around, he figured he’d head out to Vegas and try to parlay his relatively meagre wad into something much bigger. But this was at a time when the World Series of Poker’s Main Event really did attract the best players in the world. The record-setting 450 competitors in the event that year were far more seasoned than the young Esfandiari could have imagined.
‘I had a big head and didn’t know that other people knew how to play poker,’ Esfandiari says. ‘I entered a couple of events, played in the supers [satellites], and went home busted. It was depressing. I forgot how not-fun it is when you’re broke. So I concentrated on working as a waiter in a restaurant, saved my money and put together a mini bankroll of $1,000.’
On the upside, though, Esfandiari garnered attention with his magic. One person who seemed particularly intrigued was Phil ‘Unabomber’ Laak. ‘I performed some tricks for people and Phil sat there, staring intently at my hands, trying to figure out what I was doing rather than enjoying the magic like everyone else. I remember thinking, ‘This son of a bitch…’ But we went out that night, partied together, and that was it. We became great friends. Phil is the only guy I trust 100 percent. He’s my best friend and I love him, but ever since he and Jennifer [Tilly] hooked up, well, he’s been kind of a wuss. I like to say that Jennifer stole Phil from me.’
Friendships are nice, but during the months following the 2000 World Series, Esfandiari had real problems. He needed a bankroll in order to go back to pursuing poker, and $1,000 wasn’t going to cut it. Then he came across an extraordinary opportunity: a wealthy live one – who also happened to be a friend – wanted to play Esfandiari, heads-up, for all he had.
‘I figured that $1,000 and nothing is pretty much the same, so I agreed to play him for the grand,’ remembers Esfandiari. ‘I busted this guy on the first hand. Then we did it again and I busted him on the third hand. I had $4,000 and he wanted to go double or nothing one more time. I didn’t want to do it because $4,000 was meaningful and workable for me at the time. Then he said, ‘Let’s play for $10,000. If you win I will pay you within three months. If I win you have to pay me within a year.’ How could I say no? I busted him on the second hand. The next day we settled for $7,000. Suddenly I had $11,000 in my pocket and I’ve never looked back.’
Over the next four or so years, Esfandiari worked on his game, honed his money management skills and got more involved in the tournament scene. He cashed in a couple of World Poker Tour events, built up a sufficient enough reputation that he was invited to participate in the WPT’s Bad Boys of Poker invitational, and made the final table at the 2003 WSOP’s $2,000 buy-in no-limit Hold’em tournament. Most memorable of all, though, was Esfandiari’s performance during the first season of WPT, back in the halcyon days of 2002. He finished third in this tournament (held at Lucky Chances, one of his home casinos) and was at the final table with Phil Hellmuth. The two of them got into a bit of a war. ‘Every time he raised I moved in on him,’ recalls Esfandiari. ‘He mucked one hand and I showed Q-5. He said, ‘Keep coming after me like that, kid.’ I did. And it was brutal. He was tortured. I ended up busting him; he was red-faced and crying. Finally, he stood up and said, ‘Show some class and shake my hand.’
That exhibition put Esfandiari on the radar of big-time poker, but the real breakthrough came in February 2004, as he progressed through the L.A. Poker Classic in Southern California’s Commerce Casino. ‘I was actually playing for a girl at that event,’ he says. ‘I got set over set at the beginning and played my chips very well. Then we got down to 27 and this girl I had just met, who was so hot, came down to see me. We were playing to six and I didn’t want to get knocked out while she was there. She watched, I made it, and I knew I couldn’t lose.’
He was right. The L.A. Poker Classic, with its first prize that year of $1.4m stands as the biggest tournament win of Esfandiari’s career. I ask if the girl was impressed – ‘Put it this way,’ he says with a smirk, ‘I got some’ – and I know that his strong finish registered with UltimateBet as well. ‘After winning at the Commerce my price went way up and I signed a two-year deal with UltimateBet. They pay me and I do whatever I want. It’s kind of like being a made man in the mafia. I went from being nothing to being on the side of Annie Duke and Phil Hellmuth.’ That said, I can’t help but wonder if any bad blood remains between him and the Poker Brat. ‘We made amends,’ says Esfandiari. ‘But Phil is a baby. He knows it. And to this day, that final table at Lucky Chances was the most he’s ever been beaten up on TV.’
If he were up against Hellmuth again, would he still be so rough on him? ‘Sure,’ says Esfandiari. ‘It’s poker.’
These days Antonio Esfandiari is a regular on the televised invitational circuit and he made a splashy showing during the first two seasons of High Stakes Poker (the American TV show that centres around a cash game of no-limit Hold’em, with a buyin of $100,000). Though there are many formidable players at the table – including Doyle Brunson, Sammy Farha and Daniel Negreanu – and in spite of the fact that one bad beat on the show represents the biggest single-hand loss of his life (‘I got my money in with the best of it,’ he says, shrugging off the $80,000 drubbing), Esfandiari sees the game as having a positive expectation.
He insists that he possesses an edge in no-limit cash games regardless of the competition. ‘If that game happened everyday, even if it wasn’t on TV, I would play,’ he insists. ‘Right now the biggest no-limit cash game is 25/50. It’s good money, but, to tell you the truth, there are other things I’d rather do.’
And, as if to prove it, following our interview, he skips the Rio cash games and heads off to an autograph signing session just beyond the casino’s periphery.
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