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Former No. 1 All-Time Money List Leader Antonio Esfandiari Gets His Priorities Straight

‘The Magician’ Talks About His Legacy, Boxing Kevin Hart, Phil Ivey In The Face Of Danger, And That Time He Let Dan Bilzerian Shoot Him In The Chest

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Apr 08, 2020

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It’s been nearly eight years since Antonio Esfandiari won what was then the biggest first-place prize in poker history, pocketing $18,346,673 for taking down the $1 million buy-in Big One For One Drop at the 2012 World Series of Poker.

The massive score shot Esfandiari to the top of poker’s all-time live tournament earnings list, where he would remain for two years before ultimately getting passed by Daniel Negreanu, and then subsequently Justin Bonomo and Bryn Kenney. But catching up with Esfandiari for Card Player’s Poker Stories Podcast, it became clear just how disconnected he has become from the poker world in the years since.

“Oh? He’s no. 1? Good for him,” said Esfandiari, after being informed that Kenney had overtaken the top spot, nearly six months after it happened.

“I don’t really follow poker anymore,” he admitted. “I used to have a ‘guy,’ kind of on the payroll who would give me all the news and gossip, because I loved that [stuff], but honestly, I have no idea what’s going on anymore. I don’t know who’s winning. I don’t know who’s bashing who on twitter.”

As for his spot on the rankings, the 41-year-old admitted that it had been a while since he had checked.

“It was really nice when I was no. 1 for two years. I was running around with Jeff Gross, and he used to always prop me up to people and tell them I was the no. 1 all-time money winner, and you know, I got to admit it was kind of nice. It was great. I used to love talking about it.” he said.

“I don’t even know where I am anymore. My guess… 11th?”

It’s actually 14th, and there are four or five players who will be passing his career earnings of $27,275,185 any day now.

“$56 million?” Esfandiari questioned, when told of how much Kenney has amassed as poker’s new no. 1.

“Yeah, it’s going to be hard to catch up to that, because he’s still on the hunt. But he’s also young, he doesn’t have kids, and he can just drift around the world, playing in these poker tournaments. So, it’s very likely that he’s just going to [stay on top]. When Daniel [Negreanu] overtook me, a part of me was really hungry to get it back. But then, as soon as I had kids, I could [not] care less.”

Despite being out of touch with the latest news of the poker world, the three-time WSOP bracelet winner still remains one of poker’s most recognizable figures. His boxing match prop bet with comedy star and poker enthusiast Kevin Hart got the attention of mainstream media outlets, and he still makes regular appearances on Poker After Dark and other live-streamed cash games, but for the most part, his poker these days is played behind closed doors.

It’s a far cry from his early days in the game, when he was constantly on the road chasing the next big cash game or circuit stop.

“I’ve played at some vacation resorts that were just awesome, but we were just being complete degenerates,” he admitted. “I remember one time, we started playing Friday night, and didn’t stop until Sunday afternoon. Non-stop, straight through, at a beautiful tropical place, and nobody bothered to step foot in the ocean. Not one time. It was complete degeneracy at the highest level.”

Poker has been the focus on Esfandiari’s working life since his early 20s, when he was performing slight-of-hand magic for players during the tournament breaks. But before he could fully commit, he had to get the blessing of his father.

“I never wanted to be a professional poker player. It’s not exactly what an Iranian son is supposed to do to make his immigrant parents proud. For a while I was gambling, and the family wasn’t happy about it. I invited my dad to come down and watch me play one time. He came and sat down behind me, and I was very focused that day. I basically just told him what people had before they turned their cards over. I was really on point that day, and these guys were pretty ABC, nitty, old school players. I was right nine out of ten times. My dad just looked over and said, ‘Wow! You have my support son.’”

His father Bijan was famously by his side when a shoeless Esfandiari jumped on the poker table following his One Drop win, but even that moment was a long shot to happen given his start at the professional level. In fact, Esfandiari nearly went bust before his career-sparking win in the 2004 WPT L.A. Poker Classic for $1,399,135. (Esfandiari had previously finished third in the WPT Gold Rush at the Lucky Chances Casino for his TV debut, eliminating Phil Hellmuth while being told “to show some class.”)

“It was almost the last of it,” he clarified. “I remember the night before that I lost half my bankroll in a cash game, and I went to bed quite tilted. At the time, it was a lot of money for me, but I woke up and ran good for five days to bink the Commerce.”

“Nobody remembers you unless you win something,” said Esfandiari. “The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It’s no secret that I thrive when the cameras are on, and especially at the time, I wanted to be ‘somebody.’ I think anybody who was picked on his whole life, probably wants to be ‘somebody.’ That was my mental state at the time. I was also lucky and fortunate because poker kind of needed stars back then. People needed someone they could relate to, to watch on TV. If you won a tournament back then, you were on the map and everybody knew who you were. But these days, you can win the main event and the next year it’s, ‘Who was that guy?’”

Esfandiari was briefly at his residence in Las Vegas this December, where he was in town to play the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic at Bellagio, a tournament that was perhaps only his third live event of the year, by his estimation.

Indeed, he did manage only one tournament cash in 2019, banking $82,365 for a deep run of 82nd place in the WSOP main event, but skipping the Five Diamond wasn’t an option. The event has become a must-play tournament for Esfandiari since he won it back in 2010 for $870,124 and the second of his two World Poker Tour titles. The following year, he finished sixth for another $119,418, and in 2012, he made his third final table in a row, taking fourth for another $329,339. (He’s also finished 23rd, 43rd, 59th, and 66th!)

This year, after busting out on his first bullet, Esfandiari had plenty of time to re-enter, but instead was eager to get back to his other home in Venice, California, the house where his wife Amal and two sons reside.

“I love this tournament, but you know, my kids are young, and I just hate being away from them. As crazy as that sounds… I’d love to get back to the final table and win this tournament, but at the expense of missing precious time with my family… I don’t know, I just want to be home. I busted, and was torn whether or not I should rebuy, but I decided to just catch a flight and go home.”

Another factor why he doesn’t travel the circuit anymore is that Esfandiari says that the players have changed.

“It’s not so much that I feel rusty, it’s just that everyone keeps getting better and better, and that’s annoying. They just always know what you have and how to counter, and that’s a bit tilting. But it’s just the name of the game. With anything, the more information out there, people are just going to consume it and get better.”

One big reason why Esfandiari plays more private games these days is that it’s easier to control who sits down with him at the table.

“I’ll tell you what I don’t miss,” he stated. “I don’t miss sitting at a table, watching two guys take eight minutes per hand, staring at each other and playing slow. That I don’t miss. I do miss a fun table, with banter, and people gambling and having a good time while they play poker. You have to exist right? Whether you choose to have a great time or sit there and be bored is up to you. I find that I’d rather have fun than be bored, and poker tables are typically boring because you are folding so many hands. I don’t know, I feel like I have this responsibility, almost, to get the table going, just for shits and giggles.”

While Esfandiari is far from retired from the game, it’s clear that he’s at least semi-retired from his time in the poker spotlight. And if he happens to fall a few, or a dozen more spots on the all-time money list, that’s just fine with him.

“I haven’t really thought about my legacy. I feel like my footprint in poker… You know, I said it, I did it, and now I’m on to different things. Will I return to poker full-time? I’m certainly never going to fly around, playing all of these different tournaments like I used to. One of my boys is almost five, and the little one is two, and I know that at some point, this stage is going to disappear. They are so much fun. Just playing with them is the absolute nuts, there’s just nothing better. I know that one day they are going to be 15, and sure they’ll love me, but they won’t come and cuddle on the couch. I’ll get back to poker then.” ♠

Highlights From Esfandiari’s Appearance On The Poker Stories Podcast

On How Magic Got Him Into Poker

“I went into a restaurant with a friend of mine. We sat at the bar, having lunch, and the bartender asks, ‘What’s your favorite card?’ He does this whole magic trick for me, and I was completely dumbfounded. It was so cool to me. [Magic has this stigma], but there’s a fine line between not liking magic and not wanting to be a magician. In a social setting, it’s very rare that someone says they don’t want to see a magic trick.”

“So, I went to the magic store a month later, explained what I had seen, and he told me I could do that trick. It was one of those self-working tricks. I bought it, I did it, and the reaction I got from it was very addicting, to say the least.”

“I loved it, but I was much better in small groups. I never had a stage show. It wasn’t my cup of tea. It was a lot of corporate parties with close-up stuff, card tricks, make your ring or watch disappear, that kind of thing. Back when the WSOP at the Horseshoe, I really didn’t play much poker the first couple of years. I was really just walking around, doing a lot of magic tricks. Word got around that there was this magician kid, so every time I walked by a table, they would ask me to come over and do some magic.”

“That’s actually how I met Phil Laak. He saw me doing magic. He was sitting behind Gus Hansen, and I remember seeing him just looking at my hands. He wasn’t really enjoying the magic, he was just trying to figure it out. About 20 or 30 minutes later, I was doing another set of magic tricks for an entirely new group of people down the hall, and I remember seeing him again, just kind of peeking his head in, and looking straight at my hands the whole time. We had a chat afterwards, went for a drink, and that’s how the love affair started.”

“It’s very unlikely that I’ve told [Phil] how a trick is done. But he’s known me throughout all these years. If you see someone do a trick enough times, you’re going to figure it out, especially a guy as savvy as Phil Laak. For me, the second someone knows how I do a trick, there’s no fun in it. It’s the intrigue of not knowing that makes it fun. So, I typically have never revealed my magic tricks… unless there was some crazy incentive… which there has been. But we don’t need to get into that.”

On The Time Dan Bilzerian Shot Him In The Chest

“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I went over to his apartment. This was back in my single days, and there was a bunch of cute girls running around, and he was shooting the bullet proof vest, while it was on the ground.”

“I thought that was quite silly, because what’s the rush in that? There were some cameras there, we were doing this thing for an online poker site that turned out to be a disaster, but that’s another story. So, I put the bullet-proof vest on, and he shot me, and that was that. [I didn’t bruise]. I think it was only a .22. I don’t know much about guns, but it wasn’t a big, heavy gun.”

“But it was a massive, massive rush. I’ve never had a rush like that. It was absolutely awesome and breath taking. Every juice I had in my body… I’ve jumped out of an airplane like seven or eight times, and it [doesn’t compare]. You know you are about to get shot, and you are just standing there. There’s always the element of something going wrong, a lot of what ifs, but I felt like it was one of those things that would stay with me forever once I got through it.”

“Poker doesn’t give me the same rush, but winning the One Drop was up there. That was one of those euphoric moments where I would do anything to go back to the minute and a half following the victory, because I don’t even recall it. It was this incredible high, but I don’t know if I’ll get that feeling again. Now, it’s just business. You win some, you lose some, but as long as you win at the end of the year, things will be okay.”

On His Terrifying Flight With Phil Ivey And Dan Shak

“That was by far one of the scariest moments of my life. Shak was great, but he was definitely not one of the most calm and collected people on the flight. Not to say that he wasn’t, but it didn’t even come close to Ivey. Ivey was super stoic, no movement, without even an ounce of worry in his face.”

“This was my first trip with my now-wife, at the time we had just started dating. We were going over to Europe, and we are about two hours into the flight from New York to Cannes. So, we’re over the ocean. We’ve hung out a little bit, and now it’s time to take a nap. We have this little couch, and we’re laying down.”

“All of a sudden, I feel the plane descending. I’m started to trip out a little bit, because these things kind of worry me. I look over into the cockpit, and the pilots are pushing buttons and what not, and the [flight attendant] comes out and she sits down in the seats next to us. She buckles her seatbelt, and I can tell that she is absolutely terrified. That is worse than anything, because she’s terrified!”

“All this is happening, and the oxygen masks come down. Have you ever been on a flight when the oxygen masks come down? It’s not a good feeling. The captain tells us we’ve lost cabin pressure and that we need to make an emergency landing. How are we going to make an emergency landing if we are over water?”

“All I’m thinking about is that I haven’t yet told my girlfriend yet that I love her, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. She wakes up, and is totally fine. I look over, and Phil Ivey is on another couch. He wakes up, zero emotion of any kind, puts his mask on, and then just kinds of sits there like nothing is happening. I couldn’t believe how calm he was; it was mind boggling.”

“Anyway, they go down to 15,000 feet, regain cabin pressure, and make the emergency landing in Iceland. We are there for five hours until they can send a new plane and we ended up going to the Blue Lagoon, which was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, absolutely beautiful. We got a new plane, and went to France.”

On Winning His Boxing Match Prop Bet With Kevin Hart

Months after telling reporters that he was a favorite “to break his ribs or nose” during a boxing match with comedian Kevin Hart, Esfandiari not only managed to survive unscathed, but he also came away with the victory. Although the exact amount wagered between the two friends wasn’t disclosed, Esfandiari did receive 35:1 on his money. The long odds were in place because Hart had previous boxing experience, and was by far the more athletic of the two.

“We were playing cards, and I had just taken one of those boxing workout classes. It was one of those things where you just punch a little bit here and there. And I get to the game, and I walk in like a hot shot, throwing my arms, and Kevin is just laughing at me.”

“Now, Kevin is ripped, fast, athletic. He’s a beast. He starts talking shit, and he lays me 35:1, anytime, any amount. Basically, he just destroyed me at the table in front of all of our buddies. I eventually took the bet, and I had seven months. I don’t think he ever thought in a million years how seriously I would take it, so he didn’t take it as seriously as he should of. In his mind, he’s been training for a long time. Not professionally, but he throws the gloves around. He’s in really good shape. And I was just a skinny Persian. You ever seen a Persian boxer? It doesn’t work.”

“I was very worried about my body, as was my wife, but I had invested too much time, and my pride was on the line. I actually thought about getting out of it, and I think Kevin would have let me, since he’s such a good human being, but I didn’t want to tell the story to my kids that I backed off. If I could just get into the ring, last three rounds, even lose the bet… at least I did it.”

“I didn’t really think I could win. The only person in the entire room who truly thought I could beat him was my trainer Audley Harrison. He was an amazing coach. He’s a former [gold medal winning] Olympic boxer, and he plays poker too. We trained every day basically for six months.”

“There was a moment, early on in round 2, where I realized I could actually win the fight. Kevin was completely gassed, and I had been training cardio for months. My cardio was awful before that, but I was running on the beach, running three miles in my sleep. He came out slugging, throwing these massive overhand punches, and to his credit, if he had landed one of them, I would have been out for sure. But luckily, I trained, and knew what to do. Energy consumption is everything in boxing. He tired himself out, I came firing in round 3, and I ended up winning the fight. It was a very glorious moment; I couldn’t believe it.”

“After round 3, he was so gassed that he fell down, and didn’t get back up for about 20 or 25 minutes. The funny part of the whole thing is that I had a doctor there, because I thought I was going to be bleeding. [Kevin] was like, ‘I can’t believe you have a cut man! What do you have a cut man for?’ And he didn’t end up doing anything to me, but he had to make sure that Kevin didn’t have some sort of cardiovascular death at the end.”

“The best part is that when I hang out with him and his crew, his buddies give him so much shit. Like, ‘Don’t make me get Antonio!’ And the weird thing is, if he and I were to actually randomly fight, he would absolutely beat the shit out of me, but it just goes to show you what can happen if you train for something. If Kevin had given it the same preparation as me, I don’t think I would have had a chance in hell.” ♠