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A Poker Life -- Ali Eslami

Eslami Talks About His Transition from Cash-Game Pro to the Tournament Trail

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Ali EslamiAli Eslami first started experimenting with poker after he played Magic the Gathering in his teens and early 20s as a semi-professional. These days he can call himself a full-fledged poker professional who has racked up $699,751 in career tournament earnings and much more in various cash games.

Eslami is well-respected in the poker community and he has only recently turned his attention to poker tournaments full time. That decision has turned out to be a wise one considering that he recently won his first tournament title at the World Series of Poker Circuit Western Regional Championship, which was good for $282,242. Read on below to see how Eslami first came to the game of poker and how a few wise mentors took his game to the next level.

Building Through The Limits

Friends from the Magic the Gathering arena first urged Eslami to play poker after they themselves won $80,000 playing poker. Eslami read Hold’em Poker for Advanced Players and then started playing $2-$4 limit hold’em for two weeks. He jumped to $6-$12 hold’em and played at that level for six months, and then played at $15-$30 hold’em for another six months.

He was also studying for a business management degree at this time so he would bring his books to the casino and he studied those business school books at the table while he played. He once studied for a final all night while playing $20-$40 limit hold’em at Hollywood Park Casino. “That’s kind of how I got through school, studying at the table while I played poker,” said Eslami.

One day, an event at Hollywood Park Casino led to a fellow card player throwing a chair at Eslami and he hit him square on with the chair so that prompted him to drop out of poker for a while. He finished the business management degree and after a six-month break away from the game he started playing at Commerce Casino, where he continues to play until this day.

Eslami kept taking shots at the $40-$80 game but he couldn’t crack through. He attempted multiple times before breaking through, and once he became successful he played at the level for another six months. He then decided to take a shot at $80-$160. He broke through immediately at that level. Eslami next played at $100-$200, which was about the highest he could play limit hold’em at that time, so that prompted him to branch out into mixed games, where he picked up pot-limit Omaha and triple draw deuce-to-seven lowball. He played mixed games at the $200-$400 and $300-$600 levels. “I wasn’t very good for a long time, but after a lot of practice and reading I learned how to play the game,” said Eslami.

He eventually played at $400-$800 and worked up to $1,000-$2,000. The largest he ever played on his own bankroll was a short session at $2,000-$4,000 but $1,000-$2,000 was his highest comfortable ceiling.

Finding Mentors For Tournaments

He started trying out tournaments that came into his area in Los Angeles and then he played in his first major tournament at the World Series of Poker main event in 2004. He had mainly used books to learn how to play prior to his tournament experience and at that point he sought out a friend to provide lessons for the tournament game. That friend was Amir Vahedi and he became the first of many poker mentors to Eslami.

“I offered him a 25 percent freeroll on the main event if he could mentor and teach me throughout the tournament. He was an incredible teacher, just amazing. He really taught me quite a lot and different ways to think about the game. He taught me things to look at that I had no idea about at the time,” said Eslami. “He was my first tournament mentor I would say, and there have been some others.”

Eslami made it down to the final 50 with an above average chip stack and he was never all in for his tournament life, not even once, until the hand he got knocked out on. He fell at the hands of the eventual world champion that year, Greg Raymer. On a Q-9-7-2-10 flop Eslami made two pair but he fell against Raymer’s straight, busting in 49th place and scoring his first tournament cash ($45,000).

Had it not been for the popularity of tournaments Eslami might have never added no-limit hold’em to his poker arsenal. “They didn’t really have no-limit hold’em in the mixed games at that time so I picked it up to play in tournaments. They added it later with 8-game and 10-game mixed. It was only at the ultra-high limits where they played no-limit in the mixed games at that time. I played in the third tier at that time. They had the $4,000-$8000 game in Bobby’s Room and then the $1,000-$2,000, $1,500-$3,000 and $2,000-$4,000 range, and then they had the level below that where I played most of the time, which was between $300-$600 and up to $800-$1,600,” said Eslami. “It wasn’t necessary for me to play no-limit hold’em to be successful at that point so I didn’t focus on it.”

He played a little bit in no-limit cash games, but only when they were the only games going on. “I never got into it except for the fact that I wanted to play some tournaments. I wasn’t taking tournaments seriously, just when the World Series or major tournaments came around,” said Eslami. Ted Forrest was another player who Eslami highly respected so when he decided to stake Eslami in the main event in 2005 Eslami jumped at the chance although he wasn’t able to reproduce the 49th-place finish he scored his rookie year.

The next few years involved a mix of cash games and tournaments, but Eslami sensed that online poker was cutting into the availability of live cash games. He decided that since so much focus was being put on tournaments that they were becoming a profitable option to consider. The cash games also got tougher and less plentiful, which made the move to tournaments more necessary.

A Few More Mentors Edge Eslami Over To Tournaments

“I always looked up to businessmen who jumped into the games. I think I came across genuinely in my conversations with the various people I had an opportunity to meet as a result of playing high limit cash games, including Jerry,” said Eslami of his experience in L.A. card rooms. That Jerry just happened to be the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and businessman Dr. Jerry Buss. “He is a genius,” said Eslami of his experience with Buss.

They became friends and Eslami was very interested in picking the brain of the successful businessman thanks to the graduate degree in business management that he had earned years ago. Buss invited Eslami to travel with him to tournaments and attend Lakers games. They went to London for the European Poker Tour event in 2010. Eslami taught him how to play deuce-to-seven lowball, while Buss gave him business insights and he suggested that Eslami play in more tournaments.

Eslami didn’t think tournaments were a good value, and that his time would be better spent in cash games. Buss suggested there was a lot of intrinsic value in getting recognized for your poker accomplishments. Eslami was also not a big fan of the travel aspects of the tournament trail, but he eventually decided to give tournaments a fair shake in the Fall of 2010.

Barry Greenstein and Chad Brown were also helpful mentors and friends during this time and Jeffrey Lisandro continued to be another mentor in mixed cash games. Eslami wasn’t going to play in the The Big Event bounty shootout tournament in March until Greenstein made a backing offer. “He said I will put up half for you and take a third, which is a very good deal in tournaments, you never get that deal. Because of him I went in played in the event, which gave me the confidence to win my first title at Rincon. He has helped me quite a lot with teaching and poker ethics. He also gave me that little extra push to eventually realize my potential,” said Eslami, who scored a final-table appearance in the bounty shootout, finishing in second place ($56,000).

Ali Eslami after winning the WSOP Circuit Western Regional ChampionshipHis next tournament triumph was on the horizon but he might have never played in the tournament had it not been for the urging of his most recent mentor. “Buss had gone down to Rincon for some preliminary events [at the WSOP Circuit Western Regional Championship] and he called me and said you really should come play this. I had no intention of going…Day 2 fell on my birthday and I didn’t intend to play poker on that day. He said I really think you should come down and play this event so I decided to go. When a champion builder like Jerry Buss, who has groomed stars like Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson tells you with that much conviction, and he had never said anything like this before at other tournaments I had played, that he had a hunch I was going to win it and that I should play you have to listen,” said Eslami.

He arrived late, but Eslami quickly built his chip stack early, which was a different tournament experience for the usual slow starter. He also won his first tournament ever, topping a field of 98 players and beating Tim West in the heads-up final. “All throughout he kept sending me messages that I was going to win the tournament. When I made the final table he texted me again and said after today you will have a ring to wear when I wear mine, and sure enough I won the event. I recently attended one of the Lakers playoff games with him and I wore my ring,” said Eslami.

A Career In Business In The Future

“I always imagined poker as a stepping stone to be able to start my own business,” said Eslami of his future plans. “I sure hope I’m not playing full-time poker in five or ten years. I’ve always wanted to get into business and I always thought that poker was a good spring board to do that. I’ve talked to people both in and out of poker, both poker players and business people, and discovered that ultimately I want to get into business or entrepreneurship.”

For the time being he wants to keep playing in major tournaments and sprinkle in cash games. Eslami was getting discouraged before his win at Rincon but with his renewed confidence he will play the major season-ending events for the EPT and World Poker Tour and then head to Las Vegas for the summer for the WSOP.

What happened to online poker has hurt a lot of his friends and he is upset about that but for him the new developments might actually help because more online players will come back to live cash games. Those players will have to go through the same learning process that Eslami already endured to earn his poker living. “There are a lot of different paths that people will take from this point, but one of those paths is going to lead them into the cash games. I feel like this will lead to more games being available and create a renaissance for live games,” said Eslami.

His focus will eventually lead him to business no matter what happens in the poker world moving forward. Eslami also has experience as a computer consultant so with his technology, business, and poker background he thinks that his best place to start in business would be to develop some type of technology in the gaming industry. “I feel like I have the right skills to be able to bring something good to the table in that arena,” said Eslami.

For now his skills at the poker table will continue to be his means to an end but don’t be surprised when Eslami jumps to the world of business. He will be well served by his time playing poker and all the mentors he met on the felt.

You can follow Ali Eslami on his twitter page: @Indigoae