Antonio Esfandiari


01 February 2011

Living in Las Vegas, in my twenties, and having financial freedom, I was really fortunate to do be able to do things that your average guy can’t do. I pretty much maximised the life-vig out of that.

For a player who rose to fame on the tails of a WPT victory at the height of the poker boom, it seems fitting that Antonio’s recent triumph in the WPT Five Diamond Classic should signal the end of his long barren run. The Magician, it seems, has come full circle. Time, then, to reflect on the career of the poker boomer who never went bust.

Can you believe your first WPT win was only seven years ago? It feels like an age.

Seven years is a long time in poker. The game was so different back then.

You saw success very young. After you won the WPT, was there a sense that poker was easy. Did you think that you’d win one of these things every other month, or were you more realistic?

Seven years ago, playing poker, I really did think it was easy, and I don’t mean that egotistically. It’s just that there weren’t that many good players around, and that’s changed in the last seven years. Nowadays, there are so many good poker players; all these little young wizards who have played a million hands online, and everybody kinda seems to know what they’re doing.

It happened for you at the right time, at the height of the poker boom. How has the climate changed since?

Well, like I say, everybody’s got better, and the sport – or the game – itself has changed. Now you can’t really make a name for yourself in the poker world just by winning a WPT. Seven years ago, I won a WPT and that put me on the grid. I was lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time, just when poker started getting popular. Nowadays, if I were just another poker player winning a WPT at Bellagio, nobody would know or care who I was. There are far fewer stars made in the poker universe every year. You have to win the Main Event or you have to be a durrrr or a Jungleman12 – that’s really what it takes. You have to be one of the best online players in the world or you have to win the Main Event.

It’s a lot tougher; people play better, there are more of them and the competition is a lot harder, so to come back seven years later and beat 438 players that are definitely better than they were seven years ago – that feels good.

What about the business of poker? Were there more opportunities back then?

When poker first started getting popular, we weren’t living in a recession and people were willing to spend more money for poker products and appearances, TV games – whatever. There was a boom, and it’s declined. Five or six years ago was when it boomed and since then it’s kinda gone down a little bit. There’s still a market, just not as much.

Money’s nice, but can it be dangerous to have so much at such a young age?

I think that a lot of people don’t realise they were somewhat lucky at an early age and they end up making bad decisions with their money. A lot of people who make money young end up losing it. I’d like to think that I come from a different school. I always knew the importance of money. Once you have a taste for it, you fear not having it, and so a lot of decisions I’ve made in my life and my career have been geared to not losing it. That’s because I want to say that I was the only poker player who never went broke.

Apart from us, of course. You seriously never went broke?

When I first started playing poker, I ran up from zero to about $7k bankroll; this was right at the very beginning. I kinda went busto later, but not really, because I still had a job, so I didn’t really count that as my poker bankroll. Once I gave up my job to play poker, from that day, I’ve never once gone broke and I don’t know if there’s any other poker player who can say that.

Apart from us…

Yes, obviously apart from you…

Between WPT’s you had a barren run. How tough has that been?

From the point of view of my own personal mental health, it was tough to go that long without winning a major tournament. My dad is my biggest supporter; he comes to all my tournaments and he’s always rooting for me, and, I mean, I didn’t even make a final table in the WPT for seven years, and it was barren! That’s tough. It’s not something I want to relive and I hope it’s not another seven years before I make another.

The paradox is that, in order to be successful in tournaments, you have to be super-competitive with an immense desire to win, and yet tournament poker is all about dealing with losing, losing, losing… Does that mess you up?

No, you just accept it for what it is. It’s mathematics. When there are 400 players and only one winner, there can only be x amount of winners per year. Let’s say, for the last seven years, there have been 70 WPT’s, so there are only 70 winners – mathematically, I should win one in 400. So yeah, it sucks to go seven years but it’s really hard to win one of these major tournaments…

So, you didn’t curse your luck? You felt that, mathematically, it felt about right and you deserved your barren spell?

It certainly didn’t feel right because I wanted to win more, but, from a mathematical perspective, I certainly can’t complain. Of course, there were also a lot of spots where I got really close and really unlucky, but again, that’s poker. I’m not going to sit here and tell you my bad beat stories. If you look at the whole picture, I have been a somewhat fortunate poker player.

And after all your sponsorship ups and downs, Victory Poker seems to be the right fit for you now…

Yeah, I love Victory Poker. I love Dan Fleyshman [poker player and CEO]. I love the team. Dan took a chance to start an online poker site and it’s going well. We’re doing great things on the social media side and I like the product a lot. It feels right.

Are you still the party animal of legend?

I believe that you only live once and you’re only young once. One day I’m going to have a wife and kids and, when that happens, I’m not going to be able to just pick up on a whim and go do whatever I want; and so, living in Las Vegas, in my twenties, and having financial freedom, I was really fortunate to be able to do things that your average guy can’t do. I pretty much maximised the life-vig out of that. And so I pretty much got it all out of my system.

You’ve mellowed?

I’m a lot mellower than I used to be. I still go out, but I was going out four nights hard a week for years and my body can’t handle that anymore. I’m 32-years-old, man. I gotta find a wife!

So you have this fitness coach now?

Yeah, my trainer. All American Dave. He’s my nutritionist and my trainer. He’s going to make me live forever.

How has your style of play changed from the young Antonio? Public perception was that in the early days you were a total LAG. Now we see you on High Stakes Poker being a TAG, probably for very good reasons – but has your style really changed that much?

It depends on who you’re playing against. People give me flack for playing so tight on High Stakes Poker, but I’m at a table with Phil Ivey durrrr and Patrik Antonius, playing for half a million dollars. What am I gonna try and run over these guys for?

How much is bankroll an issue? I mean, as wealthy as you are, these guys probably have you covered. How much of an edge is that?

I’m pretty sure they’re all doing well and, obviously, when you have less care for the money it makes you play with less fear. And I’m doing all right, but do I want to have a half a million-dollar losing day? Not really… What I’m saying is, you gotta know your opponent and you gotta to know the game you’re in. In a game that includes the best players in the world, I’m not gonna try and run over them.

All these kids who have had success young, like you did – what advice would you give them?

To have bankroll management, because if you go broke you don’t have a job any more, and just to be disciplined: play your best game and don’t go on tilt.

What exactly did the second WPT mean to you?

The first one was amazing because it was life changing, but this one – it’s not going to change my life in any way, but it meant so much. To go so long and not win anything, and to come back seven years later and take down a WPT, it was kinda like proving to the whole poker universe that – hey, you know what? I still got it. A vindication.

You’re a poker player who famously hates talking about poker, but we have to ask: any sick WPT hands you can talk us through?

There was a huge hand where I bluffed Vanessa Rousso for my whole stack. That was the biggest hand of the tournament for me. In fact, it was the biggest bluff of my career. I raised in the small blind with 8-4 off suit, she called and it came 10-J-Q with two clubs; I bet and she called. A king came on the turn, which is a really good card for me because I can represent an ace here. I bet 950k and, again, she called, leaving herself 2.5 million back. On the river, I knew she didn’t have an ace, so I shipped it and she folded. I’m pretty sure she had some kind of two-pair hand. After that I just felt so confident that I was going to win.

You were heads up against Andrew Robl, who is a friend. Does that change the dynamic?

No, I wanted to destroy him. We’re friends but we’re very competitive. We want to punish each other much as anybody, probably more. I certainly wasn’t going to feel bad if I beat him. The plan was to torture him for the rest of his life. When you get heads up for a WPT title, you go balls out and try to hurt the other guy.

It’s like you and Phil Laak – you love each other, yet you’re forever trying to financially ruin each other. Is he still destroying you?

It’s not even close. I’ve just decided that he is luckier than me in life and that he’s always going to beat me heads up, or when it comes to any kind of flip or credit card roulette or anything of that nature. Sometimes you gotta just give up.

Where do you see yourself in another seven years?

I’m going to have two to three babies. Family is becoming more important as I get older. The best thing about winning the WPT was that my mom got to be there. She lives in Paris and she came over for my birthday. She’d never been to a poker tournament before. She couldn’t handle the pressure. She didn’t even come into the tournament room on the final day until I got heads up. The day of the final table was my actual birthday and so to win it when both my mom and dad were there, on my birthday, was incredible.