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A brash Iranian-American wins $1.4 million at poker -- and knows his lucky streak has just started

Wednesday, Apr 14 2004
Antonio Esfandiari sat very still, brown eyes trained on his pile of poker chips. Esfandiari, who is 25, could feel his opponent, 35-year-old Quoc Al "Vinnie" Vinh, deliberating. Five seconds went by. Then 10.

"Don't fold," Esfandiari silently pleaded. "Please don't fold."

It was the last day of the World Poker Tour L.A. Classic tournament, held in February in the Southern California town of Commerce. The game was no-limit Texas Hold 'Em, and either Vinh or Esfandiari would walk home with the grand prize -- $1.4 million. To make it that much more real, the tournament's organizers had laid out the prize in $100 bills stacked on the table between the two players

Fortune was at stake; so was fame. The World Poker Tour has spawned a wildly successful television series. When a WPT tournament gets down to its final six players, the game is videotaped and broadcast later on the Travel Channel. At Commerce, 382 contestants had paid $10,000 to enter, making the grand prize the largest in WPT history. Now, Esfandiari and Vinh were the only ones left with chips.

A chatty, skinny Iranian-American from San Francisco who once worked as a professional magician, Esfandiari was already well on his way to becoming one of professional poker's biggest celebrities. Over the past year, he'd starred in a TV commercial for the WPT in which he'd fixed the camera with his most piercing Svengali gaze and made a deck of cards seem to fly through the air. He'd also been featured in a national print ad campaign for the show. To this point, though, Esfandiari didn't feel he'd earned the attention.

The best he'd ever done in a major poker tournament was third place, at the WPT's 2002 Gold Rush Tournament at Lucky Chances Casino in Colma. It was true that he'd won $44,000 there, and made it to the final table along with six (much older) veterans. Now, though, Esfandiari had to show the world he was more than a one-trick wonder. And he had the hand for it.

Beneath his fingers was the best possible starting hand in Hold 'Em -- a pair of aces.

Until now, Vinh -- a Vietnamese-American from Texas -- had matched Esfandiari's cheeky, confident playing style. He wasn't afraid to bluff, and he wasn't afraid of Esfandiari when the magician raised. Throughout the final day, the two young guns had sassed each other, flashing peace signs in a mock attempt to stop one another from raising, and high-fiving each other when they busted Mike Keohan, the third-place finisher, out of the game.

At the moment, however, both were silent. After looking at his pocket aces, Esfandiari had bet $150,000. Usually, Esfandiari would be searching Vinh for a "tell" -- some signal in his opponent's body language or facial expression, some tic that would reveal whether he was confident of his hand. Or Esfandiari might take a stab at a playful insult, anything he thought he could do to get Vinh to do what he wanted him to do, which was to continue playing. Not this time. Like a hunter waiting in the woods, immobile, so that the quarry doesn't startle, Esfandiari studiously ignored Vinh.

"Raise a little bit," Esfandiari prayed inside, feeling the two aces under his fingers. "Do something. Just don't fold."

After about 20 seconds, Esfandiari heard the two sweetest words in the English language. "All-in," Vinh said, pushing $1 million worth of chips into the center of the table.

Esfandiari stood and threw out his arms. In each palm he showed an ace. "I call," he said, putting his own $1 million worth of chips in the pot.

Vinh had nothing -- a queen and a 4 of unmatched suits. The flop came: A king, a 9, and a 2 (which the players could combine with their hole cards) were turned face up on the table. Vinh's slight chance of significantly improving his hand -- a flop of a queen, 4, 10, or jack that could combine with his two hole cards to make two pairs or a straight -- vanished. The fourth card came down; it was another 9, and the crowd erupted in cheers as Vinh smacked his hand on the table in disgust. The final card came down, a 5, but it didn't matter. Esfandiari looked at the $1.4 million in hundreds -- now his -- and swept the deck of cards they'd been playing with into his hand. To save, and savor, forever.

When the World Poker Tour debuted on TV in 2003, it was the first time American television audiences got to see the cards in the players' hands. Poker tournaments had been televised before -- Binion's World Series of Poker had been broadcast on ESPN for 10 years -- but it had never been interesting. Now, the WPT was mounting lipstick-size cameras on the tables, allowing TV viewers to see what the players couldn't -- who was bluffing, who needed a jack on the draw to make a straight, who needed a heart to flush out. The WPT-cams transformed televised poker tournaments from something only a serious poker player would care about into mainstream programming. With so much revealed by the cameras, the tournaments became something akin to reality TV shows, in which players compete -- not just through strategy, but also through psychological manipulation -- to win huge piles of cash.

The WPT, featuring the "exotic locales" of the world's finest casinos, is the highest rated show in the Travel Channel's history, drawing an average of 1.4 million viewers an episode. It has also spawned a host of imitators; Bravo launched its own show, Celebrity Poker Showdown, and ESPN added card cameras to the filming of the World Series of Poker. The rise of television poker popularized a new kind of winning player -- not the grizzled veteran who sits, sphinxlike, through a game, but an animated, brash, telegenic player. Somebody who's easy on the eyes and fun to watch. Someone like Esfandiari.

"Antonio is a young, sexy-looking magician," says WPT creator and executive producer Steve Lipscomb. "He's the guy who will grandstand and play it for all it's worth. And in the new world of poker, that gives him an edge. ... He's great to watch, win or not win."

Off-camera, Esfandiari lives the impulsive, quirky existence of the professional poker player. By day, he competes in high-stakes Hold 'Em games at Bay Area casinos. Frequently, he'll fly out of town on a moment's notice to hit the no-limit games at Las Vegas' Bellagio Casino or the Commerce Casino in Southern California. He plays at every World Poker Tour tournament he can.

It's a high-risk lifestyle. In a game leading up to the tournament at the Commerce Casino in February, Esfandiari took a loss of $20,000. To enter the tournament two days later, he had to engage in the not-uncommon practice of selling pieces of himself to other poker players to raise the $10,000 buy-in. As a result, he had to pay out a substantial percentage of his $1.4 million win to the "investors." How much, he refuses to say, only that he took home "more than a couple hundred thousand."

"If people know how much money you have, they can use that against you," says Esfandiari. "If you're playing with a guy who's down to his last money, you can keep attacking him because you know he's scared to lose it."

Esfandiari's black hair is spiked with product; he wears neatly pressed Club Monaco dress shirts with fashionably distressed jeans and black Hugo Boss loafers. But he wasn't always cool.

When Esfandiari -- then known as Amir -- moved from Tehran to America at age 9 with his mother, father, and 3-year-old little brother, he knew only one word of English -- "hello." They settled at Esfandiari's paternal grandmother's house in San Jose, but after just three weeks, his mother departed suddenly to Los Angeles, claiming she was visiting her brother. She did fly to L.A. -- and then on to Iran, without saying goodbye.

"She ditched us," says Esfandiari bitterly. His father, Bijan, a shy, jovial man who owns a computer training firm in Oakland, never got over her. "She didn't like America," he says sadly. "She called it 'a glamorized Caspian Sea resort.'"

For six months after she left, according to Bijan, his oldest son came straight home from school, locked himself in his room, and cried until dinner.

Esfandiari's grandmother was a strict replacement for his mother, who visited just once a year. The boys' friends weren't allowed to come to the house, because they might "mess it up," according to Esfandiari, and there was a firm 10 p.m. curfew. Education was all that mattered to Esfandiari's father and grandmother. Though Esfandiari made straight A's, he wasn't interested in academics. School was a stressful place where other students teased him and his brother about their long noses and called them "towel heads," prompting them both to change their names -- Pasha to Paul, Amir to Anthony.

Then Esfandiari discovered that "cool" could be bought, and that he had a talent for making money. At age 11, he was raking in $400 a week telemarketing subscriptions for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he paid for his own phone line. At 16, he waited tables at Birk's, a glitzy Santa Clara steakhouse near Great America amusement park. He took pride in selling more wine than any other waiter, even if he was too young to drink. "You just have to know what people want to hear."

The Mr. Smooth persona wasn't going over well with Esfandiari senior. Bijan and his son bickered constantly over Esfandiari's phone use and broken curfews. In his senior year of high school, Esfandiari checked his voice-mail messages after the 10 p.m. curfew; his father carried the phone outside in his underwear and smashed it with a hammer.

Enraged, Esfandiari packed his bags that very night. As his little brother wailed (in a depressing repetition of their mother's departure eight years earlier), "Take me with you!" Esfandiari left to live with his best friend. After a few months, he rented his own apartment. He was 17.

The first card trick Esfandiari learned -- from the bartender at Birk's -- was really two tricks in one. The mark is asked to think of a particular card -- say, the 6 of spades -- and then announce it out loud. Then the mark is told that the cards will be fanned out, and the 6 of spades will appear face up. Sure enough, it does. Then comes the kicker: The magician pulls the face-up 6 of spades from the fan and remarks, as if he's about to reveal the trick's secret, "Well, it was easy to tell it apart from the others." He then turns it over, and unlike the other cards, which have red backs, the 6 of spades just happens to be blue.

Esfandiari bought drawers full of magic videotapes and practiced dealing a deck of cards with one hand while driving. He performed for his tables at Birk's. When the dot-com boom hit, the 19-year-old Esfandiari changed his name again, to Antonio (to sound "more mysterious"), and handed out business cards to his computer industry patrons. They hired him for parties.

Esfandiari rarely smiles; his closest approximation is a kind of lopsided leer that sometimes makes him seem a little smarmy. But when he's doing magic, he isn't flashy; he unveils a trick quietly, making intense eye contact, creating an aura of easy intimacy that makes the trick seem that much more wonderful. "I love messing with people's heads," says Esfandiari. "Before I started doing magic, I was shy. After? Never."

There was only one step left to complete Esfandiari's metamorphosis from geek to star -- at 19, he took it. He paid a family friend who was a plastic surgeon to shave a bit off his nose.

One night, Esfandiari's roommate said he was going to a poker tournament at Garden City, a San Jose card room a few blocks from their apartment. Esfandiari, then 19, tagged along and played in some non-tournament poker games while his friend competed.

Esfandiari had never been inside a card room, nor had he played Texas Hold 'Em -- one of the family of "community card games" in which some cards are shared by all the players -- only seven-card stud and five-card draw. But gambling was in his blood. "A deck of cards is illegal in Iran, but everybody has one," says Esfandiari. "Persians love to gamble. But they're usually horrible."

Esfandiari found Hold 'Em compelling and dramatic. For one thing, there was more bluffing in the game than in most other kinds of poker, because of the "community cards," which are dealt face up in the center of the table, so all the players can see and use them in combination with two unshared, "down" cards that each player receives. For instance, if the cards in the center are 6, 7, 8, 9, and 2, a player with a 5 or 10 in his hand would have a straight, and might place a large bet. Or, a player without those cards might bet big, hoping to bluff the others into believing he has a straight, and thus into folding their hands.

A couple of weeks later, Esfandiari read a book on Hold 'Em and entered a $30 buy-in tournament at Garden City. He took first place and was hooked.

For the next few years, he played low-stakes Hold 'Em -- $3 to $6 betting limits -- after work several days a week. One evening, when Esfandiari was performing magic at a private party, he met a man who invited him to his home poker game. Esfandiari, then 21, surprised himself, winning $2,000. He blew $1,100 on a dining room table and took the rest to Garden City, where he ran his winnings up to $20,000 in three months.

Esfandiari's father wasn't pleased. His dream of seeing his son become a doctor or lawyer was looking increasingly unlikely. Poker added new rancor to a tempestuous relationship that hadn't calmed much since the phone-smashing incident.

In 2001, Esfandiari flew to Vegas with $20,000 and tried to win the Big One -- the World Series of Poker at Binion's casino. He came home broke. After waiting tables long enough to rebuild his bankroll, Esfandiari began playing poker full time. Then came his 2002 third-place finish at the WPT. "That was what made Antonio," he says. "I told my dad, 'I'm gonna win one.'"

"This place is so yucky," says Esfandiari, not caring who hears him as the elevator doors of Lucky Chances close behind him. "Yucky, yucky, yucky."

The Colma card room has all the low-rent glamour of a Reno cocktail lounge. Esfandiari's image is reflected back at him five different ways as he steps into the mirrored foyer, the green neon restroom signs casting a tawdry glow. An emerald- and amethyst-colored patterned carpet covers the floor, and across it uniformed servers scoot wheeled carts piled high with gambler food -- unappetizing plates of chow mein, anemic tomato slices, flaccid omelets.

Still, this is -- as Esfandiari and his cronies ironically call it -- "the office." Lucky Chances has one of the few regular no-limit Hold 'Em games in the Bay Area, every Wednesday and Friday. It's the highest-stakes form of Hold 'Em -- players can bet all their chips on a single hand -- and until his big win, Esfandiari played from noon until the wee hours, twice a week. He also played in the $20-to-$200-limit games at Bay 101 in San Jose two days a week.

Esfandiari settles down at the no-limit game in progress, surrounded by other regulars. There is a pool of men (and they're almost all men) who play high-stakes Hold 'Em in the Bay Area. Some play for a living, most don't; their races, backgrounds, and ages differ widely. Esfandiari's poker buddy Eldon Elias is a Lebanese-American from Louisiana Cajun country who imports Japanese koi fish for a living. Others sell real estate, or work in Silicon Valley tech companies. And then there's Esfandiari, a child of immigrants who is supposed to be earning a Ph.D. and settling down with a nice Iranian girl. Instead, he's peeling hundreds from the wad of cash he keeps folded in his sock, buying $8,000 in chips, and heading "to work."

Another Esfandiari buddy, Alex Roberts, sits across the table. A 37-year-old professional poker player from Oakland, he has the boyish face and tousled blond hair of a surfer dude, and the clenched jaw and manic laugh of a surfer dude who's lost his marbles. His new wife just had a baby.

To the left of Roberts is Rob Fulop, a 43-year-old video game designer Esfandiari counts as one of his mentors. Esfandiari gave Fulop the taunting nickname "Trickle Down," to describe how Fulop's poker chips supposedly "trickle down" from him to his opponents. The others at the table have nicknames, too. The imposing, mustachioed gentleman who's played in the game for the longest time is called "The Don." The older Asian man chewing the toothpick is "X-Man," because he never speaks and refuses to give any information about himself. There's "Alhambra," whose "chips flow like water," and "The Albino," who is, of course, pale. Many of the players have known each other for years in this way and have no idea what one another's real last names are.

A hand is dealt, and Roberts bets; Esfandiari cries in mock distress, "Alex, think of the baby!"

Esfandiari is one of the most vocal -- bordering on obnoxious -- players at Lucky Chances.

"Some of the these guys play tight, and the rest of these guys are nits," remarks Esfandiari dismissively, nodding at X-Man, who ignores him. "Nobody is going to give them any action, because they know that when they bet, they have a good hand."

A few hands later, Esfandiari is dealt an ace and 6 of clubs. The flop comes to the center of the table: king of clubs, 7 of diamonds, 2 of hearts. Esfandiari bets $300, and everybody folds, except Roberts. He only has a jack high, but he calls, believing that Esfandiari views him as a tight player who wouldn't call unless he had two kings. The turn brings a 9 of clubs, leaving Esfandiari just one card short of a flush (i.e., all five cards in one suit). He's not buying Roberts' ruse and bets $600. Roberts, who only has $1,000 in chips left, folds.

The attempts to bluff Esfandiari have failed miserably, and Roberts is desperate to find out why. "I just KNEW that you KNEW that I wouldn't call unless I had something, because I'm SO fucking tight!" Roberts rants.

"I thought you had a 7," explains Esfandiari, matter-of-factly. The idea that Esfandiari would think he'd call a good-size bet with a mediocre hand -- a pair of 7's -- further enrages Roberts.

"I'm going to call 300 with a 7? Have you EVER seen me call 300 with a 7?"

Poker players constantly watch each other for "tells" that could reveal information about the strength of an opponent's hand. If the guy at the end of the table raises $600, and he usually raises $300, that could mean he's confident. If another guy tossed his chips when betting last time on a good hand, and this time he's neatly stacking them, he might be bluffing.

Esfandiari is particularly good at noticing these things and intuiting their meaning. During the L.A. Classic, he saw that every time, right before Vinh reraised, he put a little silver coin he carried with him for good luck on top of his cards. On one crucial hand, Esfandiari noticed that Vinh didn't pick up the coin before quickly saying, "I raise." He guessed Vinh was bluffing -- and he was right.

Other times, like today, Esfandiari doesn't even know how he knows someone's bluffing.

"I just had a feeling," he tells Roberts.

"Antonio's greatest strength is reading people," says Fulop. "He's one of the best at it I've ever seen."

He's also good at math -- a crucial skill needed in no-limit Texas Hold 'Em. Players must be able to instantly calculate their odds of getting a hand, and compare that against the amount of the bet and the size of the pot.

Say you are dealt the ace and queen of hearts, and the flop gives you two more hearts. You need one more heart on the next two cards turned up to make a flush. To determine your chances, you divide 9, which (being that there are 13 cards in a suit) is the remaining number of hearts still out there, by 47, which is the number of cards in the 52-card deck that you can't see. The result is: 20 percent of the time you will draw your heart, or, 5-to-1 odds.

Now you must calculate the investment you need to make to have a chance to win the pot. If somebody bets $300, which you would have to match, and the pot is only $600, the pot odds are a measly 2-to-1. If your pot odds are less than your odds at getting a hand (which they are in this example), then you know you should fold.

If only it were that easy.

"People know the information, and then they don't follow the directions," says Roberts. "That's what makes [no-limit Hold 'Em] such a good game. It plays on human emotion. With all that money in front of you, you sit there and say, 'Just this once, I'll make an exception.' And all those 'just this once' times is what determines winners and losers."

A half-hour later, Esfandiari does just that. Fulop goes all-in with a pair of aces; Esfandiari calls with a nothing hand -- a queen-jack combo -- and loses the pot.

"That was a really bad play, but I wanted to bust his ass so bad," says Esfandiari. He shrugs it off and leaves to play backgammon with his grandmother. He's lost $1,700 in two hours. Before he won the $1.4 million, he would have stayed and tried to win it back. But today he's distracted and bored. "Since I won the money, I just want to be out having fun," he says.

The Fillmore Center, a group of stark, modern towers at Fillmore and Geary, is the kind of place where young men live when they first move to the city. As in a college dorm, twentysomethings crisscross its modern, beige and lilac corridors with takeout pizzas and carts piled with laundry. Esfandiari, who moved from San Jose to San Francisco eight months ago, lives in one of the center's penthouse suites with his friend Koosh Mohajeri, an Iranian-American computer networking specialist. Their two-bedroom apartment, with its sweeping views of the city skyline, is decked out in the finest bachelor-pad furnishings: leather couches, lambskin throw rugs, and even a whimsical dining room set with red-and-black velveteen-upholstered chairs whose backs curl into points on top, like the tips of a jester's hat.

Esfandiari, Mohajeri, and three other friends have formed a posse they proudly call "Rocks and Rings," after a line in a P. Diddy song that references jewelry, or bling-bling. When Rocks and Rings goes out every Friday and Saturday night, it buys the finest VIP treatment. The group goes only to the kind of clubs that have lines in front, so Rocks and Rings can make a show of knowing the doorman and being allowed in before those in line. One of the group always reserves a table and purchases entire bottles of liquor from the bar at astronomical markups, so the friends can mix their own drinks. On one trip to Las Vegas, Rocks and Rings partied in a popular club at its own table -- with its own bouncer and velvet rope. When the check comes, the members of Rocks and Rings gamble for it.

On a recent Friday, Moby's hypnotic groove blasts from the stereo, and the members of Rocks and Rings prepare for a night out on the town. Besides Esfandiari, who holds the title of Rocks and Rings president, there's his best friend, Tony Licari, a 24-year-old carpentry contractor, whose impossibly white teeth, blue eyes, and blond hair have earned him the title of executive vice president of female affairs.

Jeff Cristina, a strapping, tan blond from San Jose who works in his father's waste management company, is EVP of recreational affairs. He organizes the group's occasional camping and skiing trips.

Khash Chamlou, aka "Khash-Money-GQ-CFO," is the oldest of the group, at 30, and the classiest. A willowy Iranian-American software engineer with a foppish air, Chamlou made the rule that Rocks and Rings members must wear suits when going out. As the group slips on jackets, he makes the sour face of a royal in the presence of a peasant when he sees Cristina don a sports jacket.

"I'm really psyched to wear it -- it's flannel from Saks -- just got it," says Cristina quickly, knowing he has screwed up.

Esfandiari's 26-year-old roommate, Mohajeri, is known as "The Rainmaker" because he brings chaos and action to the party. (He's the kind of drunk who does "crazy" stuff like take his pants off in the booth at their favorite Japanese restaurant, Benihana.) "When I go out, I become fucking Teen Wolf," Mohajeri brags.

Rocks and Rings members take cabs to their favorite haunt -- the Redwood Room at the Clift Hotel -- and are perturbed to find the sidewalk outside barren. "There's usually a line," says Esfandiari. "And we go right in."

Inside, the club is all ostentation, a reminder of the go-go '90s, compliments of its owner and designer, Ian Schrager of Studio 54 and W Hotel fame. Portraits on the burnished, red and gold walls are actually digital video displays of faces whose expressions change almost imperceptibly over time. The blond hostess in the slinky black dress greets the members of Rocks and Rings by name and wraps her slender arms around Esfandiari. Then she kicks other partyers off Rocks and Rings' reserved couches and tables. The guys sink onto the soft seats like rajahs, and pitchers of tonic and juices arrive, along with a bottle of Grey Goose vodka and a silver ice bucket.

"Running laps to and from the bar is for the proletariat," says Chamlou.

Esfandiari picks up a white cocktail napkin, shreds it, kneads it, and then releases his hands. The crumpled shape levitates in the air, attracting attention.

Snapping his wrist, he grabs the napkin. "There are no girls here tonight," he says, decisively.

Fans of the movie Swingers, Rocks and Rings members often call women "babies." Getting the table and the bottle service is partly to attract the babies, who are never allowed to chip in. It may be suggested to them, however, that they come home and do a little cooking or cleaning for Rocks and Rings. It's partly a Persian thing -- the belief in traditional gender roles -- but it's one that the non-Persian Licari and Cristina go along with. However, there are no beautiful babies in the Redwood Room this evening. "Seventy percent of the women you meet in here are kinda shady," admits Chamlou, casting his eyes around the bar. "You get the vibe that they're call girls, or have some kind of drug problem."

As if to prove his point, a 30-ish woman with blow-dryer-distressed brown locks grabs Cristina, peeking out over his muscular triceps territorially.

"I'm just in from New York for a few days, and I'm trying to be very discreet," she slurs, apropos of nothing.

Cristina shakes the vixen free.

When the check comes, totaling $650 (a single bottle of Grey Goose with mixers costs $350 on its own), Esfandiari produces five playing cards and announces that whoever draws the 6 of spades will pay. It's Cristina's bad luck, and he pulls out his billfold.

The group heads for Suite one8one, a nearby dance club, hoping for better babies. Mohajeri stops in front of the Clift to balance a can of Red Bull on his head. The drink topples off, raining the flowery-smelling liquid down the back of his suit. "I'm intense! That's ME! I'm Koosh!" he proclaims.

There's no line out in front of Suite one8one, either, and the group reacts with disgust to San Francisco's lack of "real" nightlife. Inside, the men drink at a table that they'd reserved, and that's shaped to suggest an oversize bed. Mohajeri gets increasingly drunk, bites my arm, unsuccessfully attempts to dance with a drink on his head again, and gets bounced from the club.

"They didn't really kick him out," says Esfandiari, unconcerned. "We're spending too much money here."

After Esfandiari won $1.4 million playing poker, doors began to open for him. The new owners of Vegas' Golden Nugget Casino offered to comp his room for an entire month around the World Series of Poker. He was flown about in the private jet of a poker fan movie star, whom he "would prefer not to name." He got a call from a Persian couple in L.A., who wanted him to meet their daughter. "Now that I have money, I'm husband material," says Esfandiari (who declined the offer).

But it was his father Esfandiari wanted most to impress. Over the previous two years, Bijan Esfandiari had slowly warmed to the idea that his son played cards for a living. Part of it was a matter of being worn down; it was clear that Antonio was nowhere near making an application to medical school. Then one afternoon his son took him to Bay 101, pulled up a chair, and had him sit and watch. "Everybody loved him there!" enthuses Esfandiari senior. "Now I tell people, 'Yes, it's his profession. My son's a poker player.'"

When Esfandiari won the $1.4 million, he put off telling his father until he could see him in person and see his reaction. The chance came two weeks later, at another WPT tournament, the Shooting Star at Bay 101, where he met his father in the parking lot and recalls telling him: "Dad, I won $1.4 million." Bijan beamed, speechless, and threw his arms around his son. The two walked into the card room together.

It was Esfandiari's first time back since his big win, and he was immediately rushed by Bay 101 staff and regulars; he was the hometown-boy-made-good. Shouts of "Congratulations!" and "1.4!" filled the air. People he didn't even know walked up to shake his hand; some even asked for his autograph. The media were there, and the reporters wanted quotes. Esfandiari remembers the owner of Bay 101 taking Esfandiari senior to the front of the buffet line and giving him the best table in the house. Bijan was ecstatic, and Esfandiari felt he was finally, completely living his lifelong dream. Everybody in the room, it seemed, was looking at him, talking about him, admiring him.

Five hours into the Shooting Star, Bijan had gone home, and Esfandiari was pursuing a strategy of aggressive raising. He was trying to get a big chip lead on the other players early in the game. This time, though, his raising strategy had drained him of chips; he didn't get the cards he needed, he was losing too many pots. On his last hand, Esfandiari was dealt two kings, and raised. An opponent went all-in with two 8's, Esfandiari called, but the other guy picked up a third 8 on the flop. That was the end for Esfandiari.

In early April, the scenario repeated itself. At the WPT's World Poker Challenge in Reno, Esfandiari was busted after only three hours.

"Poker celebrities are a brand-new thing," says Esfandiari's buddy Rob Fulop. "I believe that unlike Tiger Woods or Andre Agassi, with a poker professional, there's no way they can guarantee consistent performance. The winner gets lucky. Antonio got lucky. Not that that should take away from any skill they might have -- obviously he's a good player. But in poker, anyone can win. That's part of the appeal."

Right now, though, Esfandiari is coasting on celebrity. He's talking to "interested parties" about sponsorship deals. A millionaire in Woodside hired him to hang around a home game he was having with his friends and give poker tips. "I would have done it for free, just to be the man," says Esfandiari. "But to get paid for it?" The WPT episode featuring his $1.4 million win is airing later this month, and he plans to throw a big party then for all his friends in Vegas.

One day, he figures, someone younger will come along and win something big, and he won't be the "young guy" anymore. But he knows, eventually, he'll again be dealt those pocket aces. "There are plenty of tournaments," he says. "It's gotta happen someday."

How to Hold 'Em

In Texas Hold 'Em, players are dealt two cards, face down, and a round of betting follows. Three more cards (called "the flop") are then laid face up in the middle of the table as "community cards" that are shared by all the players, each of whom is attempting to make the best poker hand, using the first two cards and the shared cards. After another round of betting, a fourth community card (aka "the turn" or "fourth street") is laid face up. There is a final round of betting, then a fifth community card ("the river" or "fifth street") is laid down. Unless all players but one have folded somewhere along the way, there is a "showdown" among the remaining players, and the one who can make the best poker hand of his two cards and three of the community cards wins.

In no-limit Texas Hold 'Em, betting amounts are not fixed. A player can bet up to his entire stack of chips -- known as going "all-in" -- at any time. If a player goes all-in, and his raise is called, the remaining community cards come down, without any additional rounds of betting.

Hold 'Em has an extensive patois, as does poker in general. An abbreviated glossary of terms that appear in the story:

All-In: When a player bets his entire stack of chips.

Busted: When a player loses all his chips.

Call: When a player matches an opponent's bet or raise.

Drawing: Getting the cards you need on the flop, turn, or river.

Straight: A hand containing five cards in numerical sequence, but not of the same suit.

Flush: A hand containing five cards of the same suit, not necessarily in sequence.

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Lessley Anderson


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