What would you do if you had a million dollars? Buy a brand-new Ferrari? Buy a house with cash? Not in the life Antonio Esfandiari. One million dollars was the buy-in, not the prize money for the Big One for One Drop Poker Tournament in 2012. Where most of us would be biting our nails to the quick, Antonio kept his cool and used his skills to advance all the way to the final table. In the end, he won the largest cash prize in the history of poker at $18,346,673. From magic to millions, the Ultimate Poker champ tells us how he made a life for himself in the world of poker.
You developed a strong interest in magic before you got into card playing, who were some of your biggest inspirations?
Joey Burton and Lee Asher were some of the guys I saw coming up. I really loved watching them.
Aside from playing at a table, how do you maintain a practice regimen for your poker game?
I talk about hands with other players and I discuss theory, but not as much as you might think. The beautiful thing about poker is that when you play, you learn. When you play, you practice. As long as you play consistently, you’ll always main- tain what you know.
What goes into the daily life of a professional poker player?
As far as my daily life goes, I wake up and go to the gym. Then I spend the first few hours of the day catching up on emails and work. I’ll run errands, get lunch and do everything that goes into catching up on life. In the evening I usually go out to dinner, then play cards or go out. That’s my home life, but it’s different when I’m on the road. It depends on what city I’m in, where I’m at and what I’m doing.
What do you remember most about the move from Tehran, Iran to the U.S. as a child?
I remember the flight was long and not knowing what was really going on as a kid. I obviously didn’t understand the repercussions of moving from one country to another and that I wouldn’t step back on my home soil for a very long time. To this day I haven’t and I don’t really plan on going back as long as the present regime is in charge. The biggest transition for me was going into the third grade when I didn’t speak any English; that was pretty tough. The first day of school was re- ally difficult and scary.
How much would you say that magic translated to and helped your poker game?
I think that what helped me the most was my dealings with people in general. As a result of performing magic, I got away from my shyness. So when I first got to the poker table, I was very comfortable talking to other players. When people talk with their hands at the table, it really gives away a lot of information about whether they’re weak or strong. I think that was the biggest thing that correlated to poker. It helped me learn a little bit more about humans in general.
Why do you think Texas Hold’em is the most popular of any poker game right now?
It’s really difficult to make a hand and it’s a lot easier to bluff; which creates a lot of action. It’s a great game with a lot of movement and possibilities to bluff as opposed to 7 card stud, 5 card stud and other games. You don’t have as much information in those games as you do in Texas Hold’em, where it’s much easier to narrow your opponent’s hand. For that reason, there seems to be more of a draw to it. The community cards also add a whole different element to it, which is great.
So you decided you wanted to be a poker player…but how did you tell your parents?
Well here’s where it really gets interesting. I told my Dad at 19 that I was going to drop out of college and become a magician, which I did. He wasn’t very happy about that of course; it was tough, but I had to do it. I just told him I was going to be the next David Copperfield, which was difficult because of my Persian and Iranian background. You know, you have to go to college and be- come a lawyer or a doctor in order to be taken seriously. Three years later when I said I wanted to be a poker player, the guy pretty much crapped his pants. But he always gave me his sup- port in the end. My dad is super cool, super supportive and has been since day one. He’s been my biggest fan for a long time and incredibly supportive of me. He’s the greatest guy in the world.
How do you overcome the nerves of high-stakes poker?
You have to get out of the mind frame that the buy-in is any higher than any other tournament. You really have to tell yourself it’s re- ally just a game where you get two cards and your opponent gets two cards. You can’t let the buy-in or stakes come in the way of that, so I just completely disassociate myself from what’s at stake. It’s just a puzzle, I have the chips that are the tools and as soon as I solve the puzzle I’m at the end of the road. That’s really how I look at it.
You’ve been in Entourage, Deal and various big screen cameos. Are you going to be in any movies or TV Shows coming up?
We are working on a show right now, but I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it till it’s done. But yeah, I just did another small cameo for a friend making a movie in New Orleans.
But for now you’re sworn to secrecy?
Sworn to secrecy.
What about your next tournament, do you have another World Poker Tournament coming up?
No, but I am going to Monaco soon. It’s a â‚¬100,000 buy-in, so that should be quite interesting.
Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
First, thanks to Ultimate Poker for being such an awesome sponsor. When it comes to Vegas, The Aria is my favorite poker room, Marquee is my favorite club, and John George Steakhouse is the best place to get a steak.
Who is your favorite UFC fighter?
Forrest Griffin. That guy can take a beating like I’ve never seen before and he never gives up. He has so much heart; anyone who can take that kind of punishment and can keep going is an anomaly.
Where’s the best Italian Food in Vegas?
B&B Ristorante in the Venetian.
Who’s Your Favorite Magician?
Joey Burton, he’s a great local guy.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever placed a bet on?
There’s been so many, but I bet that I could go one year without any sexual release of any kind. I did not win that one.
What is the best kept vegas secret?
Raku Japanese grill and Kabuto Sushi Restaurant.
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