In 2012, the World Series of Poker held its most expensive tournament ever: it cost $1 million to buy into it and the top prize was more than $18 million. Antonio Esfandiari, who emigrated from Iran to the U.S. when he was a boy, finished on top and instantly became one of the best known poker players in the world. I met him in Las Vegas in October 2012 and we spent about an hour talking over an early dinner. He had the poker player’s stare; when we discussed the possibility of me writing about him his look bore through me; there was a power in his assessing that I’m sure serves him well at the poker table. Ultimately he chose to trust me with his remarkable story of surviving the Iran-Iraq War as a boy in Teheran and his teenage years in San Jose. I went on to play poker that night at Wynn and later at Caesar’s, where a few winning hands covered all my costs for the trip.
Here’s the PDF, the text follows below:
GOOD CALL: Antonio Esfandiari settles into life in Las Vegas
By Michael Shapiro
Taiko drummers in feathered headdresses from Cirque du Soleil’s Mystère pound colossal drums so loudly the Amazon Room at Las Vegas’ Rio hotel vibrates. One of poker’s most charismatic players, Antonio Esfandiari half dances and half skips into the room. He has paid $1 million to enter the richest poker tournament ever, The Big One for One Drop. Forty-eight players entered in the tournament – eight made it to the final table. Esfandiari is one of the eight.
ESPN’s Kara Scott pulls Esfandiari aside for a quick interview. “A million dollars to play in a poker tournament is insane,” says Esfandiari, who’d emigrated as a boy with his family from Iran to California. “To be at the final table is really a dream come true.” A dream because one of the eight people at the final table will win poker’s largest prize ever: $18.3 million.
Then Scott asks: “If you win…?”
Esfandiari breaks in: “I have to correct you. There’s no ‘if’ – there’s ‘when’ – so I’ll let you rephrase the question if you like.”
“When you win,” Scott obliges.
“When I win,” Esfandiari says with conviction, “I’m just going to take care of my family, travel a little bit more and take it easy.”
The year was 2012. When Esfandiari, intensely focused and brashly confident, fulfilled his own prophecy and won The Big One for One Drop, his father and brother rushed to embrace him. As confetti rained down from the rafters of Rio’s Amazon Room, Esfandiari gave his dad the $350,000 Richard Mille platinum bracelet, part of the prize he’d earned for winning the tournament. His friends, many of whom are pro poker players, hoisted the barefoot champion onto their shoulders as the crowd showered him with cheers.
That was the moment Esfandiari became the King of Las Vegas. The dynamic player was already a celebrity in his adopted home, but winning poker’s richest prize made him Vegas’ poker superstar. Which is somewhat ironic because Esfandiari didn’t plan on living in Sin City.
After winning his first big poker tournament, collecting $1.4 million at the L.A. Poker Classic in 2004, Esfandiari found himself coming to Vegas “all the time,” he said. “I never wanted to live here, but I bought a home here to not spend so much money living in hotels, and I kind of ended up moving here. It just kind of happened that way.”
Esfandiari has GQ panache – he’s not a grizzled, hard-drinking, cigar-chomping poker player. “Despite his outward suave, gamblin’ man appearance, I see Antonio as the antithesis of Las Vegas,” said World Series of Poker broadcaster Lon McEachern. “To the people he knows, Antonio is warm, caring, genuine, vulnerable, and a family man.” Esfandiari’s father, Bejan Esfandiari, is frequently on the rail at poker events, cheering on his son. And when Antonio goes out to celebrate, he insists Dad come clubbing with him and his friends.
Beaming with pride, a grateful Bejan said that he and his son now travel the world and even go to clubs together. When dad hesitates, the son insists, Bejan said. “My friends love you,” Antonio says. “If you don’t come, they won’t come.” And the One Drop bracelet isn’t the only gift Antonio has given his dad. “When I said I like Tesla,” the humble papa said, “he bought one for me.”
Though he never planned on settling in Las Vegas, Esfandiari, 36, has come to appreciate its allures. He’s a self-described foodie and appreciates that he can find innovative cuisine, from noodle bowls to $65 Wagyu filet mignon, at almost any hour. For the latter, he goes to Jean Georges Steakhouse at the Aria hotel. For Italian, it’s Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at Wynn.
“But really, my favorite places are off strip. There’s a Japanese grill place called Raku that I think is the best restaurant in the world,” he said. “I am a huge ramen guy – I love soup. I go to Jinya for late-night soup, super good. And there’s a sushi place that’s dynamite called Kabuto.” Though Esfandiari doesn’t go out nearly as often as he once did, his go-to club is the Marquee at the Cosmopolitan, with its indigo-lighted dance floor, sleek design and killer sound system.
For poker, “if you want a big game with a lot of money on the table, you have to go to Aria or Bellagio,” he said. “Those are the only two poker rooms where you can really find a big game with a buy-in of more than $10,000.”
There is not much substance to Vegas, Esfandiari adds. “It’s kind of an empty town. There’s gambling, there’s drinking, there’s partying, but there’s not a lot more. It’s really hot during the summer. You can’t just sit outside at a beautiful café and enjoy the scenery and the vibe of the city, because the Strip doesn’t really have a vibe, unless you’re in a casino.”
Downtown Vegas, however, is showing signs of life, Esfandiari said. “There’s a really cool little restaurant called EAT (a homey brunch and sandwich place), and there are some speakeasy bars downtown; it’s got a little bit of a London vibe going.”
When the weather cools off, the gambler who often spends long nights in casinos heads out to Red Rock Canyon, a national conservation area with more than 30 miles of hiking trails through russet hills, about 15 miles west of Las Vegas, to take long walks and clear his head.
Though Esfandiari is not a typical Vegas guy, he and Sin City share “a devil-may-care attitude,” said McEachern. “No matter where he goes, Vegas goes with him. Whether it be his slick, quaffed Rat Pack look, his ability to be the center of the party (usually with his dad by his side), or his drop-of-the-hat tendency to accept a bet on just about anything, he is one of those rare people whom everyone knows when he is in the room—and everyone wants to be noticed by him.”
For the past couple of years, Esfandiari has joined McEachern in the broadcast booth for WSOP’s Main Event final table. “He has treated me like a friend from the first moment we met and continues to do so,” McEachern said. “He’s always on time, ready to go. Antonio will use his ‘cold read’ on those in a hand, and more often than not, give us a pretty darn good read on the cards they hold. It’s impossible to be spot-on 100 percent of the time, but he’s right enough to drop jaws of us neophytes around him and those watching on ESPN.”
* * *
Vegas is glitz and glamour, surface and shimmer. It’s a place to have fun you won’t remember, go nuts at a bachelor party or get married by Elvis. Tribal societies held annual festivals when anything from drug use to wild sex was condoned, even encouraged; today we have Vegas, where what plays in Vegas… well, you know.
It’s the surreal illusion of Cirque and the banality of Celine, the profligacy of fountains and golf courses in searing desert, a place where you can visit New York, Paris, Egypt and Italy in a single afternoon. A place where one tourist once said to another (I overheard this) at The Venetian hotel: “Well it’s like Venice, but better because it doesn’t stink and there aren’t so many pigeons.” It’s a place beyond time – there are no clocks. In summer, hardly anyone goes outside in the oppressive daytime heat, and music festivals, such as Electric Daisy Carnival, run during the spectral hours from sunset to sunrise.
And then there’s gambling. During the seven-week, 66-event World Series of Poker, more than 100,000 players chase over $200 million in prizes, with only a few earning life-changing money. In 2012, Esfandiari was one of those few.
World Poker Tour broadcaster Mike Sexton, who witnessed Esfandiari’s first big win, the WPT event in 2004, said Esfandiari now treats success differently than in his youthful years. “He was a very Vegas guy early in his career. He was partying in every club in town every night. He got the best tables, and they would welcome him with open arms. He was single, having a big time, living a big life.”
He burned through a lot of money, and had a few years without much success. Now he’s back with several big cashes since his huge take at One Drop, Sexton said. “But I don’t see him doing that (partying to the hilt) again. I see a far more mature Antonio Esfandiari, much more professional. He just recently became a father, and he just has a different attitude now.”
In a post last February on Bluff Europe, Esfandiari shared his joy: “On January 7th at 8:01 am, I became a father of a beautiful son. It was a moment that truly cannot be explained, only experienced. I am shocked and transformed, and my life has changed forever. The arrival of a child into my world has given birth to an everlasting love, a nurturing love that has weaved itself into the fabric of my being. It happened instantly, and watching my child enter this world was nothing short of a true miracle.” <Note: I’ve confirmed with Antonio via email that he wrote these words.>
He also recently married, but being intensely private, asked the magazine to refrain from sharing further details about his personal life.
His past, however, is no secret. “I grew up in Iran in the 1980s in a time of war,” Esfandiari said. Two months after he was born the Shah was overthrown and the ayatollahs took over; before his first birthday more than 50 Americans were taken hostage in Iran and held for more than a year.
During the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, “my dad told me that when the planes would come my little brother and I would say, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb’ and then we’d go look for place to hide. One time a building four or five houses away was blown up. I thought: that could have been our house. I was six years old – it was pretty scary. That’s when my dad decided to get us out, but it took a couple more years until we got the papers to leave Iran.”
Esfandiari said he didn’t know much about the U.S. before coming to live near relatives in San Jose, Calif. He just knew it was “this big wonderful place that you only dreamt of, … so I felt very fortunate and lucky.” Enterprising from a young age, he became a paperboy at age 9.
“At 11, I was a newspaper salesman over the phone for the San Francisco Chronicle. It was a little office with a bunch of telemarketers. I was number one in the area – I crushed it. When they found out I was 11, they let me work under my mother’s name to keep my job.”
In his late teens, Esfandiari took up magic. “As soon as I did a couple of tricks, all of a sudden I went from being the most unpopular kid to a very popular kid. Magic helped me feel like The Guy. I loved it – I loved bringing out the kid in people. Who doesn’t love magic? If you don’t like magic, you’ve got issues.” Esfandiari’s given first name is Amir, but he changed it then because “Antonio the Magician” sounded better. He practiced relentlessly and said he wanted to be the next David Copperfield—until he discovered poker.
When his uncle told him he had to stop gambling, “I looked right at him and said: ‘Not only am I not gonna stop, but I’m gonna make a million dollars from playing poker.’ I was so confident in what I was saying. He just laughed in my face and said I was crazy. But it didn’t sway me for a second. I just knew.” His family thought poker was all luck, but Esfandiari knew better. “I was just good at what I did and smart enough to know it. I can read people’s hands before they turn over their cards.”
A couple of years after he started playing, Esfandiari asked his father to come to a casino and watch. “That day I was so on point: I told him what people had before they flipped their cards over. I was right 90 percent of the time. And my dad – I will never forget – he was sitting behind me and he said, ‘Son, how in the world do you know what they have?’ I don’t know how I know, I told him – it’s just a process. I can sense when someone is strong or weak or lying or honest. It comes pretty natural to me.”
Esfandiari said his father looked over at him and said, “I believe – you have my support.” Which meant the world to him. “My dad is my hero, so it was really important when he said he’d support me. Now for me there’s nothing better than hanging out with my dad – I love him so much. His sacrifice (giving up a lucrative business in Iran and working for years at a restaurant in San Francisco) for us was very courageous. He’s the best.”
By 2004, Esfandiari said he was “hungry, very hungry, to make a name for myself.” He’d finished as high as third in a World Poker Tour tournament but never won one. “I knew that in poker you had to win a major tournament.” So he entered the L.A. Poker Classic even though he’d lost $30,000, about half his bankroll at that time, playing poker the night before. “I wanted the spotlight; I really needed to win something. It just felt like my time. I outplayed and outlasted and outhustled hundreds of players. And I won it.”
Esfandiari drove all night up Highway 5 to San Jose because “I didn’t want him (his father) to hear about my victory from anyone but me. I showed up at his doorstep just after dawn with a backpack filled with $1.4 million – cash! He groggily answered the door and squinted into the rising sun. ‘Dad, there’s something I really need to tell you,’ ” Esfandiari said. “I could sense he was worried. I really like to mess with people. I just showed him the backpack. Then I opened it and said, “Dad, I won.”
He looked down in shock and said, “What did you win?”
“This big tournament in L.A.,” I said.
“How much did you win?”
“Over a million bucks.”
“I wish I would have filmed it – he almost melted – he almost fell to the ground in shock he was so happy. He laughed, he cried, he hugged me. It took time for reality to sink in. But when he looked back down and saw my bag stuffed with packets of hundred-dollar bills, he got it. He believed, and he knew that finally our family’s American dream was coming true.”
What Bejan didn’t know was that Antonio’s $1.4 million win would be just the beginning. Antonio, on the other hand, had a clear vision of where his determination, intuition and perseverance would lead.
Esfandiari now has earned more than $26 million in sanctioned tournaments, according to Bluff, and who knows how much more in cash games. “He wants to be best at anything he does,” Bejan said. But despite his success and the life-altering money, Antonio remains as down-to-earth as ever.
“Antonio is just so good with the people,” said Sexton, the WPT broadcaster. “There are very few players who are really fan favorites, and he’s in that elite group. He takes photos with them, he laughs with them, he jokes with them, and he gets along with them.”
Esfandiari still enjoys meeting his fans and posing for photos with them. “I love people, I love talking to people, I love new people, so what better way to have great experiences than random people coming up to you. I love it.”
He realizes how lucky he is to be playing a game he loves and to make a good living from it, Sexton added. “Antonio is one of those guys who gets it.”
Michael Shapiro writes a column on gambling for the San Francisco Chronicle and is author of A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives and Inspiration.