All-In

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

Another Esfandiari buddy, Alex Roberts, sits across the table. A 37-year-old professional poker player from Oakland, he has the boyish face and tousled blond hair of a surfer dude, and the clenched jaw and manic laugh of a surfer dude who's lost his marbles. His new wife just had a baby.

To the left of Roberts is Rob Fulop, a 43-year-old video game designer Esfandiari counts as one of his mentors. Esfandiari gave Fulop the taunting nickname "Trickle Down," to describe how Fulop's poker chips supposedly "trickle down" from him to his opponents. The others at the table have nicknames, too. The imposing, mustachioed gentleman who's played in the game for the longest time is called "The Don." The older Asian man chewing the toothpick is "X-Man," because he never speaks and refuses to give any information about himself. There's "Alhambra," whose "chips flow like water," and "The Albino," who is, of course, pale. Many of the players have known each other for years in this way and have no idea what one another's real last names are.

A hand is dealt, and Roberts bets; Esfandiari cries in mock distress, "Alex, think of the baby!"

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.

Esfandiari is one of the most vocal -- bordering on obnoxious -- players at Lucky Chances.

"Some of the these guys play tight, and the rest of these guys are nits," remarks Esfandiari dismissively, nodding at X-Man, who ignores him. "Nobody is going to give them any action, because they know that when they bet, they have a good hand."

A few hands later, Esfandiari is dealt an ace and 6 of clubs. The flop comes to the center of the table: king of clubs, 7 of diamonds, 2 of hearts. Esfandiari bets $300, and everybody folds, except Roberts. He only has a jack high, but he calls, believing that Esfandiari views him as a tight player who wouldn't call unless he had two kings. The turn brings a 9 of clubs, leaving Esfandiari just one card short of a flush (i.e., all five cards in one suit). He's not buying Roberts' ruse and bets $600. Roberts, who only has $1,000 in chips left, folds.

The attempts to bluff Esfandiari have failed miserably, and Roberts is desperate to find out why. "I just KNEW that you KNEW that I wouldn't call unless I had something, because I'm SO fucking tight!" Roberts rants.

"I thought you had a 7," explains Esfandiari, matter-of-factly. The idea that Esfandiari would think he'd call a good-size bet with a mediocre hand -- a pair of 7's -- further enrages Roberts.

"I'm going to call 300 with a 7? Have you EVER seen me call 300 with a 7?"

Poker players constantly watch each other for "tells" that could reveal information about the strength of an opponent's hand. If the guy at the end of the table raises $600, and he usually raises $300, that could mean he's confident. If another guy tossed his chips when betting last time on a good hand, and this time he's neatly stacking them, he might be bluffing.

Esfandiari is particularly good at noticing these things and intuiting their meaning. During the L.A. Classic, he saw that every time, right before Vinh reraised, he put a little silver coin he carried with him for good luck on top of his cards. On one crucial hand, Esfandiari noticed that Vinh didn't pick up the coin before quickly saying, "I raise." He guessed Vinh was bluffing -- and he was right.

Other times, like today, Esfandiari doesn't even know how he knows someone's bluffing.

"I just had a feeling," he tells Roberts.

"Antonio's greatest strength is reading people," says Fulop. "He's one of the best at it I've ever seen."

He's also good at math -- a crucial skill needed in no-limit Texas Hold 'Em. Players must be able to instantly calculate their odds of getting a hand, and compare that against the amount of the bet and the size of the pot.

Say you are dealt the ace and queen of hearts, and the flop gives you two more hearts. You need one more heart on the next two cards turned up to make a flush. To determine your chances, you divide 9, which (being that there are 13 cards in a suit) is the remaining number of hearts still out there, by 47, which is the number of cards in the 52-card deck that you can't see. The result is: 20 percent of the time you will draw your heart, or, 5-to-1 odds.

Now you must calculate the investment you need to make to have a chance to win the pot. If somebody bets $300, which you would have to match, and the pot is only $600, the pot odds are a measly 2-to-1. If your pot odds are less than your odds at getting a hand (which they are in this example), then you know you should fold.

If only it were that easy.

"People know the information, and then they don't follow the directions," says Roberts. "That's what makes [no-limit Hold 'Em] such a good game. It plays on human emotion. With all that money in front of you, you sit there and say, 'Just this once, I'll make an exception.' And all those 'just this once' times is what determines winners and losers."

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