Hand of the Week: Esfandiari Bilks Brunson w/ Brilliant River Move

esfandiari brunson flop

There’s a top-class battle waiting for you this time in our hand of the week series.

The protagonists are Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, the Godfather of Texas Hold'em poker, and Antonio "The Magician" Esfandiari, former $18m winner of the Big One for One Drop and the player second on poker’s all-time money list.

The hand comes from the prestigious High Roller Cash Game held at the Aria this summer and features some of the great skills that made each player famous.

In the end, though, it’s the young guy who leads the Godfather up the garden path.

Flop to River

The hand in question was played during a cash-game session at the Aria casino last summer while the WSOP was playing out only a few kilometers away.

The blinds are $400/$800 and there are some monstrous stacks on the table. The effective stacks in our hand are $637,000, equaling about 800 big blinds.

Phil Ivey raises pre-flop to $3,000 with     Matt Kirk folds but Esfandiari calls in the small blind with     Brunson calls from the big blind. There's $10,600 in the pot. The flop is      

Esfandiari checks, Brunson bets $10,000 and Ivey folds. Esfandiari check-raises to 28,000 but Brunson re-pops it again to $88,000. Esfandiari calls and there's now $186,600 in the pot.

The turn is the   Both players check and we’re going to the river. It’s the   Esfandiari checks again. Brunson now bets $110,000. Esfandiari check-raises again to $250,000 and Brunson finally folds    

Watch the hand here:


Esfandiari and Brunson make a couple of exciting, unconventional moves but in the end the Magician has somehow taken $200,000 out of Brunson's hands.

Antonio Esfandiari5

Let’s look at the most important details. After Ivey raises from late position Esfandiari takes an unusual step and just calls with aces.

When stacks are very deep it can be a good idea to keep the pot small if you don’t have position. However, Esfandiari’s main goal here is to hide the quality of his hand.

Brunson calls behind him with a nice hand that has both flush and straight potential.

Three rainbow low cards on the flop suddenly reveal the weakness of Esfandiari’s move. He now has a problem putting his opponents on ranges and he’s pretty much playing against half of the deck.

He checks in first position to see how his opponents respond. He doesn’t have to wait long as Brunson leads out with almost a pot-size bet.

Ivey gets rid of his terrible hand but Esfandiari can of course never fold to this bet.

Nothing More or Less Than Semi-Bluff

It’s interesting that Esfandiari now chooses to check-raise. By doing so he builds the pot without turning his hand into a bluff.

Plot thickens.

He can well expect to be called with worse hands like 9-9, A-8, or draws like T-9 and 6-5.

Still, not many players would go for this move as aces out of position are very vulnerable when playing against unclear ranges.

Brunson interprets Esfandiari’s check as a sign of weakness and tries to take down the pot right there with another hefty raise to $88,000.

His hand isn’t anything more – but also nothing less – than a semi-bluff with four outs and 24% equity. This hand is actually very well suited for a move like this as it will make a lot of marginal hands and bluffs fold.

But Esfandiari has a strong hand and he doesn’t buy the monster that Brunson tries to sell. He calls, so he has all the bluffs caught and because another raise wouldn’t be called by a hand worse than his.

Pretty Much Asking for It

The turn is a dream for Esfandiari. He’s now holding the nuts and he’s hoping that his opponent might have the case ace.

He checks to invite a bet; no, he’s pretty much asking for it. But Brunson checks behind and thus caps the top of his range. If he had a set he would certainly bet again so we can now pretty much rule out any of these strong hands.

Yet, from Esfandiari’s point of view, it’s very possible that Brunson holds the last ace. Brunson’s check means to Esfandiari that he’s either given up on his hand or that he now has a hand with showdown value, which before was a bluff.

Doesn't scare easily.

On the river Esfandiari is faced with the question “to bet or not to bet." He decides to go for the check, partly because Doyle’s check on the turn has scaled down his range a lot.

Brunson’s play doesn’t look like he has a strong hand but rather like a bluff or a marginal value hand. Soon, the brilliance of Esfandiari’s river move becomes obvious.

Esfandiari Wants More

Brunson sees Esfandiari check a second time, and he also sees a chance to still win the pot with jack high.

He bets roughly two-thirds of the pot, trying to represent a strong hand like two pair, a set or a straight.

But Esfandiari is obviously not afraid of a very possible 6-5 or an unlikely 5-2. Also, despite checking the turn, Brunson can have lower sets or two pair that can bet the river.

Esfandiari doesn’t scare easily, however. He wants more.

We can’t answer the question here if Esfandiari would have called an all-in bet from Brunson, as Texas Dolly obviously has to fold.


Brunson uses a semi-bluff hand to start a battle with Esfandiari that turns into an expensive adventure.

The Magician first doesn’t go away and then digs deep into his magic box of tricks when he hits a bulls-eye on the turn.

Brunson falls for it because, as a good player, he continues to fight for a big pot like this.

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