All-In

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

Esfandiari bought drawers full of magic videotapes and practiced dealing a deck of cards with one hand while driving. He performed for his tables at Birk's. When the dot-com boom hit, the 19-year-old Esfandiari changed his name again, to Antonio (to sound "more mysterious"), and handed out business cards to his computer industry patrons. They hired him for parties.

Esfandiari rarely smiles; his closest approximation is a kind of lopsided leer that sometimes makes him seem a little smarmy. But when he's doing magic, he isn't flashy; he unveils a trick quietly, making intense eye contact, creating an aura of easy intimacy that makes the trick seem that much more wonderful. "I love messing with people's heads," says Esfandiari. "Before I started doing magic, I was shy. After? Never."

There was only one step left to complete Esfandiari's metamorphosis from geek to star -- at 19, he took it. He paid a family friend who was a plastic surgeon to shave a bit off his nose.


Esfandiari, formerly a professional 
magician, specialized in sleight-of-hand 
card tricks.
Paolo Vescia
Esfandiari, formerly a professional magician, specialized in sleight-of-hand card tricks.
Esfandiari drives a black Dodge Viper and 
wears Armani, post-$1.4 million win.
Paolo Vescia
Esfandiari drives a black Dodge Viper and wears Armani, post-$1.4 million win.

One night, Esfandiari's roommate said he was going to a poker tournament at Garden City, a San Jose card room a few blocks from their apartment. Esfandiari, then 19, tagged along and played in some non-tournament poker games while his friend competed.

Esfandiari had never been inside a card room, nor had he played Texas Hold 'Em -- one of the family of "community card games" in which some cards are shared by all the players -- only seven-card stud and five-card draw. But gambling was in his blood. "A deck of cards is illegal in Iran, but everybody has one," says Esfandiari. "Persians love to gamble. But they're usually horrible."

Esfandiari found Hold 'Em compelling and dramatic. For one thing, there was more bluffing in the game than in most other kinds of poker, because of the "community cards," which are dealt face up in the center of the table, so all the players can see and use them in combination with two unshared, "down" cards that each player receives. For instance, if the cards in the center are 6, 7, 8, 9, and 2, a player with a 5 or 10 in his hand would have a straight, and might place a large bet. Or, a player without those cards might bet big, hoping to bluff the others into believing he has a straight, and thus into folding their hands.

A couple of weeks later, Esfandiari read a book on Hold 'Em and entered a $30 buy-in tournament at Garden City. He took first place and was hooked.

For the next few years, he played low-stakes Hold 'Em -- $3 to $6 betting limits -- after work several days a week. One evening, when Esfandiari was performing magic at a private party, he met a man who invited him to his home poker game. Esfandiari, then 21, surprised himself, winning $2,000. He blew $1,100 on a dining room table and took the rest to Garden City, where he ran his winnings up to $20,000 in three months.

Esfandiari's father wasn't pleased. His dream of seeing his son become a doctor or lawyer was looking increasingly unlikely. Poker added new rancor to a tempestuous relationship that hadn't calmed much since the phone-smashing incident.

In 2001, Esfandiari flew to Vegas with $20,000 and tried to win the Big One -- the World Series of Poker at Binion's casino. He came home broke. After waiting tables long enough to rebuild his bankroll, Esfandiari began playing poker full time. Then came his 2002 third-place finish at the WPT. "That was what made Antonio," he says. "I told my dad, 'I'm gonna win one.'"


"This place is so yucky," says Esfandiari, not caring who hears him as the elevator doors of Lucky Chances close behind him. "Yucky, yucky, yucky."

The Colma card room has all the low-rent glamour of a Reno cocktail lounge. Esfandiari's image is reflected back at him five different ways as he steps into the mirrored foyer, the green neon restroom signs casting a tawdry glow. An emerald- and amethyst-colored patterned carpet covers the floor, and across it uniformed servers scoot wheeled carts piled high with gambler food -- unappetizing plates of chow mein, anemic tomato slices, flaccid omelets.

Still, this is -- as Esfandiari and his cronies ironically call it -- "the office." Lucky Chances has one of the few regular no-limit Hold 'Em games in the Bay Area, every Wednesday and Friday. It's the highest-stakes form of Hold 'Em -- players can bet all their chips on a single hand -- and until his big win, Esfandiari played from noon until the wee hours, twice a week. He also played in the $20-to-$200-limit games at Bay 101 in San Jose two days a week.

Esfandiari settles down at the no-limit game in progress, surrounded by other regulars. There is a pool of men (and they're almost all men) who play high-stakes Hold 'Em in the Bay Area. Some play for a living, most don't; their races, backgrounds, and ages differ widely. Esfandiari's poker buddy Eldon Elias is a Lebanese-American from Louisiana Cajun country who imports Japanese koi fish for a living. Others sell real estate, or work in Silicon Valley tech companies. And then there's Esfandiari, a child of immigrants who is supposed to be earning a Ph.D. and settling down with a nice Iranian girl. Instead, he's peeling hundreds from the wad of cash he keeps folded in his sock, buying $8,000 in chips, and heading "to work."

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