All-In

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

As if to prove his point, a 30-ish woman with blow-dryer-distressed brown locks grabs Cristina, peeking out over his muscular triceps territorially.

"I'm just in from New York for a few days, and I'm trying to be very discreet," she slurs, apropos of nothing.

Cristina shakes the vixen free.

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.

When the check comes, totaling $650 (a single bottle of Grey Goose with mixers costs $350 on its own), Esfandiari produces five playing cards and announces that whoever draws the 6 of spades will pay. It's Cristina's bad luck, and he pulls out his billfold.

The group heads for Suite one8one, a nearby dance club, hoping for better babies. Mohajeri stops in front of the Clift to balance a can of Red Bull on his head. The drink topples off, raining the flowery-smelling liquid down the back of his suit. "I'm intense! That's ME! I'm Koosh!" he proclaims.

There's no line out in front of Suite one8one, either, and the group reacts with disgust to San Francisco's lack of "real" nightlife. Inside, the men drink at a table that they'd reserved, and that's shaped to suggest an oversize bed. Mohajeri gets increasingly drunk, bites my arm, unsuccessfully attempts to dance with a drink on his head again, and gets bounced from the club.

"They didn't really kick him out," says Esfandiari, unconcerned. "We're spending too much money here."


After Esfandiari won $1.4 million playing poker, doors began to open for him. The new owners of Vegas' Golden Nugget Casino offered to comp his room for an entire month around the World Series of Poker. He was flown about in the private jet of a poker fan movie star, whom he "would prefer not to name." He got a call from a Persian couple in L.A., who wanted him to meet their daughter. "Now that I have money, I'm husband material," says Esfandiari (who declined the offer).

But it was his father Esfandiari wanted most to impress. Over the previous two years, Bijan Esfandiari had slowly warmed to the idea that his son played cards for a living. Part of it was a matter of being worn down; it was clear that Antonio was nowhere near making an application to medical school. Then one afternoon his son took him to Bay 101, pulled up a chair, and had him sit and watch. "Everybody loved him there!" enthuses Esfandiari senior. "Now I tell people, 'Yes, it's his profession. My son's a poker player.'"

When Esfandiari won the $1.4 million, he put off telling his father until he could see him in person and see his reaction. The chance came two weeks later, at another WPT tournament, the Shooting Star at Bay 101, where he met his father in the parking lot and recalls telling him: "Dad, I won $1.4 million." Bijan beamed, speechless, and threw his arms around his son. The two walked into the card room together.

It was Esfandiari's first time back since his big win, and he was immediately rushed by Bay 101 staff and regulars; he was the hometown-boy-made-good. Shouts of "Congratulations!" and "1.4!" filled the air. People he didn't even know walked up to shake his hand; some even asked for his autograph. The media were there, and the reporters wanted quotes. Esfandiari remembers the owner of Bay 101 taking Esfandiari senior to the front of the buffet line and giving him the best table in the house. Bijan was ecstatic, and Esfandiari felt he was finally, completely living his lifelong dream. Everybody in the room, it seemed, was looking at him, talking about him, admiring him.

Five hours into the Shooting Star, Bijan had gone home, and Esfandiari was pursuing a strategy of aggressive raising. He was trying to get a big chip lead on the other players early in the game. This time, though, his raising strategy had drained him of chips; he didn't get the cards he needed, he was losing too many pots. On his last hand, Esfandiari was dealt two kings, and raised. An opponent went all-in with two 8's, Esfandiari called, but the other guy picked up a third 8 on the flop. That was the end for Esfandiari.

In early April, the scenario repeated itself. At the WPT's World Poker Challenge in Reno, Esfandiari was busted after only three hours.

"Poker celebrities are a brand-new thing," says Esfandiari's buddy Rob Fulop. "I believe that unlike Tiger Woods or Andre Agassi, with a poker professional, there's no way they can guarantee consistent performance. The winner gets lucky. Antonio got lucky. Not that that should take away from any skill they might have -- obviously he's a good player. But in poker, anyone can win. That's part of the appeal."

Right now, though, Esfandiari is coasting on celebrity. He's talking to "interested parties" about sponsorship deals. A millionaire in Woodside hired him to hang around a home game he was having with his friends and give poker tips. "I would have done it for free, just to be the man," says Esfandiari. "But to get paid for it?" The WPT episode featuring his $1.4 million win is airing later this month, and he plans to throw a big party then for all his friends in Vegas.

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