About Antonio Esfandiari
There are few more defining photos from a poker player's career than the ubiquitous "standing behind a stack of money after winning a tournament" shot.
Antonio Esfandiari, as you can see to the right, might have the best of all of them.
"The Magician's" epic shot in front of his $18 million pile at the first-ever $1m Big One for One Drop is surely a defining moment for his poker career but it's far from the only one.
The one-time illusionist has more than proved his mettle across a wide range of poker variants, in the highest-stakes cash games and the most sought-after tournament. He may not rank among the leaders in tournament wins or WSOP bracelets, but when he wins he has made them count. A lot.
The Way to San Jose
Who has more tricks up their sleeve than a magician? One of poker's most interesting players, Antonio Esfandiari, formerly a profession magician, became a bona fide poker superstar in the card-playing community and beyond during the poker boom of the 2000s.
His family's origins couldn't be further from that pinnacle at the top of the Vegas poker pecking order.
Originally from Tehran, Iran, Esfandiari moved to the United States with his parents in 1988. Esfandiari knew very little English when he started school in his new home but learned the language in less than six months.
Growing up in the San Jose area, Esfandiari was a model student until he hit 12th grade. Esfandiari got heavily involved with the party scene and moved away from home when he was only 17.
He soon had an apartment of his own, which he paid for by working as a waiter. His place quickly became party central and his last year of high school suffered as a result.
It was while Esfandiari was waiting tables that he got his first taste of magic. Between tables Esfandiari saw the bartender perform a magic trick. He was so impressed he went straight to the nearest magic shop and asked how the trick was done.
The store owner quickly showed Esfandiari the method behind the trick. Esfandiari began throwing magic into his waitering gig, performing for tips, and eventually dropped the waitering part altogether.
"Magic Antonio" was able to pull in $300 to $400 an hour just doing magic.
Magic Antonio Becomes Poker Antonio
At that time Esfandiari had a roommate who was a professional poker player. One day, at his roommate's suggestion, Esfandiari tried his hand at poker.
Despite technically being too young to play he found a way to win money in the first tournament he entered. Esfandiari was hooked and soon, in addition to making rabbits disappear as a magician, he was making other people's money disappear as a poker player.
Later in his career Esfandiari would talk about how the two professions complemented each other. He said that as a magician he learned to gauge human behavior and he was able to use that skill when he moved on to cards.
Just as Esfandiari was getting into high-stakes poker he met a fellow player by the name of Phil Laak. They were sharing a table at the WSOP and Esfandiari was wowing the other players with his magic tricks.
Laak was actually trying to figure the tricks out and this irked Esfandiari. Esfandiari moved to another table but Laak followed him there as well. Eventually they started talking and became quick friends.
Laak ended up coming out to the Bay Area to visit Esfandiari and by the time he left they had agreed to share a place. Both players would go on to attain comparable fame on the poker circuit.
Esfandiari Makes His Name
In 2002 Esfandiari made a name for himself at the WPT 49'er Gold Rush Bonanza by getting under Phil Hellmuth's skin and eventually placing third for $44,000. It was the first major tournament win for Esfandiari, but more were soon to come. A year later he made the final table of the $2,000 No-Limit Hold'em tournament at the 2003 WSOP.
Finally in 2004 Esfandiari cemented his first notable moment in poker history at the L.A. Poker Classic in Los Angeles. He beat out 382 (including Vinny Vinh in heads-up play) to win the massive $1.4 million first-place prize. At the time Esfandiari was the youngest player ever to win a WPT event.
Esfandiari bought a Dodge Viper and an Armani suit with the prize money and hasn't looked back.
Several months after the L.A. Classic Esfandiari once again struck gold, this time at the WSOP. He beat Phil Nguyen in the $2,000 Pot-Limit Event to take home a gold bracelet and $184,860.
It was around that time that Esfandiari finally moved to Las Vegas permanently. Since then he's been an influential part of the poker scene.
Esfandiari Goes Big
It was hard to tune in to any televised poker show in the 2000s and not see Esfandiari. He was on the most influential poker show of all time, High Stakes Poker, where he won dozens of memorable hands over the game's elite including Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu.
He was always featured on the ESPN WSOP broadcast, usually alongside sidekick Laak doing some form of prop bet or side bet. The two even had their own show, I Bet You, where they challenged each other to the most outrageous stunts they could dream up.
Esfandiari truly hit it big, though, when he entered and won the first-ever $1m Big One for One Drop at the 2012 WSOP. The inaugural charity tournament started by Cirque du Soleil's founder Guy Laliberte was the hottest ticket in poker at the time and Esfandiari made the most of it.
He outlasted the other 47 other players to win $18.3 million - the largest poker tournament payout in history.
Esfandiari: A Wife, A Son, A Lunge Bet
Since then, well ... what would you do with that kind of money? Esfandiari has lightened his poker playing load considerably, although he still plays the WSOP regularly and won a WSOP Circuit event in LA in 2016.
He also still makes regular appearances at the highest buy-in events in Vegas like the Triton High Roller series and the Aria Super High Roller Bowl.
He's been a frequent guest commentator on poker shows big and small and continues to live in Vegas with his wife, Amal Bounahra, the daughter of former WSOP November Niner Bob Bounahra, and their son.
Esfandiari counts among his best friends Brian Rast, Jeff Gross, who he has dubbed the professional best friend" and Bill Perkins, among whom he's been involved in several well known prop bets - one of which saw him disqualified from the 2016 PCA Main Event.
Why'd he get disqualified? Well, he made a bet that stipulated he had to lunge everywhere for 48 hours and was in so much pain he couldn't get up from the table to pee. So he pee'd in a cup under the table and, well, you know.
Despite all of his poker accolades, Esfandiari still loves to do magic and if you walk the Vegas strip sometime there's still the odd chance you might catch him out on the street doing some slight of hand.