"Don't fold," Esfandiari silently pleaded. "Please don't fold."
It was the last day of the World Poker Tour L.A. Classic tournament, held in February in the Southern California town of Commerce. The game was no-limit Texas Hold 'Em, and either Vinh or Esfandiari would walk home with the grand prize -- $1.4 million. To make it that much more real, the tournament's organizers had laid out the prize in $100 bills stacked on the table between the two players
Fortune was at stake; so was fame. The World Poker Tour has spawned a wildly successful television series. When a WPT tournament gets down to its final six players, the game is videotaped and broadcast later on the Travel Channel. At Commerce, 382 contestants had paid $10,000 to enter, making the grand prize the largest in WPT history. Now, Esfandiari and Vinh were the only ones left with chips.
A chatty, skinny Iranian-American from San Francisco who once worked as a professional magician, Esfandiari was already well on his way to becoming one of professional poker's biggest celebrities. Over the past year, he'd starred in a TV commercial for the WPT in which he'd fixed the camera with his most piercing Svengali gaze and made a deck of cards seem to fly through the air. He'd also been featured in a national print ad campaign for the show. To this point, though, Esfandiari didn't feel he'd earned the attention.
The best he'd ever done in a major poker tournament was third place, at the WPT's 2002 Gold Rush Tournament at Lucky Chances Casino in Colma. It was true that he'd won $44,000 there, and made it to the final table along with six (much older) veterans. Now, though, Esfandiari had to show the world he was more than a one-trick wonder. And he had the hand for it.
Beneath his fingers was the best possible starting hand in Hold 'Em -- a pair of aces.
Until now, Vinh -- a Vietnamese-American from Texas -- had matched Esfandiari's cheeky, confident playing style. He wasn't afraid to bluff, and he wasn't afraid of Esfandiari when the magician raised. Throughout the final day, the two young guns had sassed each other, flashing peace signs in a mock attempt to stop one another from raising, and high-fiving each other when they busted Mike Keohan, the third-place finisher, out of the game.
At the moment, however, both were silent. After looking at his pocket aces, Esfandiari had bet $150,000. Usually, Esfandiari would be searching Vinh for a "tell" -- some signal in his opponent's body language or facial expression, some tic that would reveal whether he was confident of his hand. Or Esfandiari might take a stab at a playful insult, anything he thought he could do to get Vinh to do what he wanted him to do, which was to continue playing. Not this time. Like a hunter waiting in the woods, immobile, so that the quarry doesn't startle, Esfandiari studiously ignored Vinh.
"Raise a little bit," Esfandiari prayed inside, feeling the two aces under his fingers. "Do something. Just don't fold."
After about 20 seconds, Esfandiari heard the two sweetest words in the English language. "All-in," Vinh said, pushing $1 million worth of chips into the center of the table.
Esfandiari stood and threw out his arms. In each palm he showed an ace. "I call," he said, putting his own $1 million worth of chips in the pot.
Vinh had nothing -- a queen and a 4 of unmatched suits. The flop came: A king, a 9, and a 2 (which the players could combine with their hole cards) were turned face up on the table. Vinh's slight chance of significantly improving his hand -- a flop of a queen, 4, 10, or jack that could combine with his two hole cards to make two pairs or a straight -- vanished. The fourth card came down; it was another 9, and the crowd erupted in cheers as Vinh smacked his hand on the table in disgust. The final card came down, a 5, but it didn't matter. Esfandiari looked at the $1.4 million in hundreds -- now his -- and swept the deck of cards they'd been playing with into his hand. To save, and savor, forever.
When the World Poker Tour debuted on TV in 2003, it was the first time American television audiences got to see the cards in the players' hands. Poker tournaments had been televised before -- Binion's World Series of Poker had been broadcast on ESPN for 10 years -- but it had never been interesting. Now, the WPT was mounting lipstick-size cameras on the tables, allowing TV viewers to see what the players couldn't -- who was bluffing, who needed a jack on the draw to make a straight, who needed a heart to flush out. The WPT-cams transformed televised poker tournaments from something only a serious poker player would care about into mainstream programming. With so much revealed by the cameras, the tournaments became something akin to reality TV shows, in which players compete -- not just through strategy, but also through psychological manipulation -- to win huge piles of cash.
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.