All-In

A brash Iranian-American wins $1.4 million at poker -- and knows his lucky streak has just started

The WPT, featuring the "exotic locales" of the world's finest casinos, is the highest rated show in the Travel Channel's history, drawing an average of 1.4 million viewers an episode. It has also spawned a host of imitators; Bravo launched its own show, Celebrity Poker Showdown, and ESPN added card cameras to the filming of the World Series of Poker. The rise of television poker popularized a new kind of winning player -- not the grizzled veteran who sits, sphinxlike, through a game, but an animated, brash, telegenic player. Somebody who's easy on the eyes and fun to watch. Someone like Esfandiari.

"Antonio is a young, sexy-looking magician," says WPT creator and executive producer Steve Lipscomb. "He's the guy who will grandstand and play it for all it's worth. And in the new world of poker, that gives him an edge. ... He's great to watch, win or not win."

Off-camera, Esfandiari lives the impulsive, quirky existence of the professional poker player. By day, he competes in high-stakes Hold 'Em games at Bay Area casinos. Frequently, he'll fly out of town on a moment's notice to hit the no-limit games at Las Vegas' Bellagio Casino or the Commerce Casino in Southern California. He plays at every World Poker Tour tournament he can.

Rocks and Rings members Licari, Mohajeri, 
Esfandiari, and Chamlou, with two 
unidentified "babies."
Paolo Vescia
Rocks and Rings members Licari, Mohajeri, Esfandiari, and Chamlou, with two unidentified "babies."
Esfandiari's roommate, Mohajeri, becomes 
"fucking Teen Wolf" when he parties.
Paolo Vescia
Esfandiari's roommate, Mohajeri, becomes "fucking Teen Wolf" when he parties.

It's a high-risk lifestyle. In a game leading up to the tournament at the Commerce Casino in February, Esfandiari took a loss of $20,000. To enter the tournament two days later, he had to engage in the not-uncommon practice of selling pieces of himself to other poker players to raise the $10,000 buy-in. As a result, he had to pay out a substantial percentage of his $1.4 million win to the "investors." How much, he refuses to say, only that he took home "more than a couple hundred thousand."

"If people know how much money you have, they can use that against you," says Esfandiari. "If you're playing with a guy who's down to his last money, you can keep attacking him because you know he's scared to lose it."


Esfandiari's black hair is spiked with product; he wears neatly pressed Club Monaco dress shirts with fashionably distressed jeans and black Hugo Boss loafers. But he wasn't always cool.

When Esfandiari -- then known as Amir -- moved from Tehran to America at age 9 with his mother, father, and 3-year-old little brother, he knew only one word of English -- "hello." They settled at Esfandiari's paternal grandmother's house in San Jose, but after just three weeks, his mother departed suddenly to Los Angeles, claiming she was visiting her brother. She did fly to L.A. -- and then on to Iran, without saying goodbye.

"She ditched us," says Esfandiari bitterly. His father, Bijan, a shy, jovial man who owns a computer training firm in Oakland, never got over her. "She didn't like America," he says sadly. "She called it 'a glamorized Caspian Sea resort.'"

For six months after she left, according to Bijan, his oldest son came straight home from school, locked himself in his room, and cried until dinner.

Esfandiari's grandmother was a strict replacement for his mother, who visited just once a year. The boys' friends weren't allowed to come to the house, because they might "mess it up," according to Esfandiari, and there was a firm 10 p.m. curfew. Education was all that mattered to Esfandiari's father and grandmother. Though Esfandiari made straight A's, he wasn't interested in academics. School was a stressful place where other students teased him and his brother about their long noses and called them "towel heads," prompting them both to change their names -- Pasha to Paul, Amir to Anthony.

Then Esfandiari discovered that "cool" could be bought, and that he had a talent for making money. At age 11, he was raking in $400 a week telemarketing subscriptions for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he paid for his own phone line. At 16, he waited tables at Birk's, a glitzy Santa Clara steakhouse near Great America amusement park. He took pride in selling more wine than any other waiter, even if he was too young to drink. "You just have to know what people want to hear."

The Mr. Smooth persona wasn't going over well with Esfandiari senior. Bijan and his son bickered constantly over Esfandiari's phone use and broken curfews. In his senior year of high school, Esfandiari checked his voice-mail messages after the 10 p.m. curfew; his father carried the phone outside in his underwear and smashed it with a hammer.

Enraged, Esfandiari packed his bags that very night. As his little brother wailed (in a depressing repetition of their mother's departure eight years earlier), "Take me with you!" Esfandiari left to live with his best friend. After a few months, he rented his own apartment. He was 17.

The first card trick Esfandiari learned -- from the bartender at Birk's -- was really two tricks in one. The mark is asked to think of a particular card -- say, the 6 of spades -- and then announce it out loud. Then the mark is told that the cards will be fanned out, and the 6 of spades will appear face up. Sure enough, it does. Then comes the kicker: The magician pulls the face-up 6 of spades from the fan and remarks, as if he's about to reveal the trick's secret, "Well, it was easy to tell it apart from the others." He then turns it over, and unlike the other cards, which have red backs, the 6 of spades just happens to be blue.

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