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The Rise of a Poker Millionaire

1/11/2006

Antonio Esfandiari is young, good-looking, and successful. His skills at the poker table have earned him millions of dollars in the past couple of years, and afforded him a lifestyle the rest of us can only dream about. But as Antonio will tell you, his life wasn't always so glamorous.

When Bluff magazine spoke to Antonio, he'd only had an hour's sleep after a five-hour drive to Italy from Monte Carlo, fresh out of the Monte Carlo Millions Tournament. Even so, he was preparing to go out and party … what a legend. Time to find out a little bit about the man behind the party animal.

Growing up in Iran:
I was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1978 and lived there until 1988. I remember we were at war with Iraq and there would be bombs going off and we'd have to go and hide out in the basements of the apartment that we used to live in.
My father was very successful back in Iran. He owned about four different businesses, but when we came over to America the value of the Iranian currency had dropped so much that we weren't rich at all. We could've been multi-millionaires, but by the time we finally made it here, the money had gone to [expletive] -- so that didn't happen.

The American dream:

My father worked at it for about a year, and then he managed to get us visas and green cards to go to America. We were very lucky and my father gave up his entire life and everything in Iran to bring us to America and give his kids a better life.
I had spoken English a little when I was growing up in Iran -- I learned it, but didn't practice it. By the time I came to America I knew just one word: hello. It took me less than six months to get my English back; I had already learned it once, so it was already in my head. I picked it up pretty quick when I started American school.
As soon as we got to America, and before I started school, my mother left and went back to Iran. She and my dad were getting a divorce, so she left. So it was my dad and my grandparents who raised us. My brother was just a little kid at the time.

In school but not cool:

I went to junior high in San Jose in the Bay Area. I wasn't cool in high school, at least most people didn't think I was. I didn't have a lot of dates, but I was very good with persuasion. I was actually better with girls that went to different high schools than my own. I got my first girlfriend at 13. Is that cool?
I was a straight A student up until my last semester of high school, my senior year. And I started getting into bad things and partying. I ran away from home the night before I turned 17. I came home and my father and I had a fight, so I packed my stuff and I left. I lived with my friend Tony and his family for about three months. Then I rented a room out of this woman's house for another three months, and when I was about 18 I got my own apartment. My whole senior year I had my own apartment. I paid for it by working as a waiter. I always made good bucks as a waiter -- I got tons of tips. As soon as I got my own apartment, my place was Party Central. I had the party house. Every Friday night was a huge blow out. And my grades dropped as my partying increased.

Magical beginnings:

One night I was sitting in the restaurant where I worked [Left at Albuquerque] and I saw this bartender do a magic trick. He did about three, and I was baffled. So I went straight to a magic store that had just opened up in town. I talked to the guy who ran it and explained the trick the barman had done. He said to me, "You can do exactly what he did," and I thought, "No way!" I bought this trick and some others and just started performing them for people. The reaction I got was great and I was instantly hooked. People were suddenly interested in what I was doing, so I had to learn more. For about two years I practiced for about 12 hours a day and this was the same time as I was partying, so my grades took a big hit the second semester of my senior year.
I went to college after high school, but I couldn't get into it. I was studying business -- I wasn't a professional magician until about the age of 20. At the time, I was working at Bert's restaurant. This was when Silicon Valley was pumping; we were jamming. Bert's was the best restaurant to work at in the Bay Area. All the big corporations came there, and people were throwing money away. I was waiting tables and I would do magic for all my customers. They'd take my business card and that's how I started doing magic gigs. I was earning 300-400 bucks an hour. So eventually I stopped waiting tables and became a magician.

Poker takes over:

I had started to play poker around the age of 20 -- $2-$4 and $3-$6 hold'em. I got into it through a guy I was living with named Scott Stewart. One day, as he was leaving our apartment, I asked him where he was going and he said he was going to play in a poker tournament. I thought that sounds like fun, but at the time I wasn't old enough to get in. But I had a goatee and figured that if I just walked in like I owned the place, I'd be alright, and that's what I did.
I actually won my first tournament! Scott said, "If you're really going to start playing, you should read a book and really learn how to play." So he gave me Lee Jones' "Winning Low-Limit Hold'em." I read it and just started doing what it told me to, and that's when I started playing poker.
So I combined magic and poker for a while. Magic was very lucrative when the economy was good because there were a lot of corporate parties, and that's where I made the bulk of my money. But as the economy declined, so did my magic business, and I was making pretty good money playing poker by the age of 22. I was still waiting tables at this time, but [because] I made the most money playing poker, I decided to quit magic and waiting tables to focus on cards. And that was it … I started playing no-limit hold'em in the Bay Area.

Enter the Unabomber:

When I was just getting into high-stakes poker, I had the fortune to meet Phil Laak, and later on, we ended up moving in together in San Francisco. I met Phil at the WSOP, while I was doing magic for the people at my table. I noticed Phil wasn't looking at the magic, but at my hands, trying to figure it out -- I hate it when people do that. So I went to another table and Phil moved with me and started looking at my hands again. So we started chatting and hanging out. I went to New York to visit him and we partied and every now and then I would call him to tell him about the games in the Bay Area. So he came out to visit, and by the time he left, we had prepaid for an apartment for six months.

Set for life:

I didn't move to Vegas until a year ago, after I won my World Poker Tour event. I was 25. At the time I won, I was the youngest player ever to win a WPT event. I won $1.4 million. I spent some of the winnings on a Dodge Viper and some on an Armani suit. I got that car up to about 170 -- it was a fast car!
Life was good before I got rich though. I'd always enjoyed my life because I know it's short and I live every day to its fullest. The win made sure I could sleep at night with no worries. It wasn't until I won a bracelet at the World Series that I moved to Vegas. I decided I'd buy a house so I didn't have to pay so much money for hotel rooms at the Bellagio, and because I was paying rent on a penthouse in San Francisco and I was never there.

The ultimate deal:

Getting the deal with Ultimate Bet was huge. Annie Duke and I were friends before I won my tournament in L.A., and we'd been talking about the possibility of some sort of deal with UB. After I won the tournament they were definitely interested in me, so I signed a contract with them. It's crazy with all these sponsorship deals now. I'm also involved with the World Poker Tour video game, and I've written a book on poker cash games which should be out in March. I've also endorsed this new product called Kick Butt Amped Energy Ballz. It's like an energy drink but in a candy ball form.

My brother Paul is also playing poker now, and he definitely has what it takes to make it.

Life is sweet, and I can't stress how important it is to live every day to its fullest. Enjoy everything you do, every place you go and everyone you meet, because that's the secret -- that's what happiness is all about.

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