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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
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Page 4 of 6

"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.

About The Author

Lessley Anderson

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