Interview with Antonio Esfandiari
By Steve Marzolf
Antonio "The Magician" Esfandiari moved to San Jose, CA., from Tehran when he was nine years old and unable to speak English. Now sporting a WSOP bracelet and repping for UltimateBet, Esfandiari has garnered enough fame to spur his first internet-gossip scandal. We caught up with him during a drive around San Francisco to see how the good life's treating him.
Was it tough adjusting to American life as a kid?
"My first day in third grade, I didn't speak a word of English besides 'hello.' It's just a whole different mindset coming over here. In Iran, a deck of cards is illegal, even though everyone has a deck of cards. But, I couldn't exactly go walking around the streets doing magic."
Do you have family in Iran who can't comprehend that you're playing poker for a living?
"People don't really understand. As soon as they hear I won something, they're like, 'Quit while you're ahead.' They don't understand that it's a game of skill."
How did you get interested in magic?
"I was nineteen years old. I was sitting in a restaurant, and I saw a bartender do magic. I was so mesmerized - I couldn't figure out how he did it. I was so taken by it. He gave you a deck of cards, said, 'Name a card.' Then he pulled out the deck, and every card was facedown except for your card."
Do you know that one now?
"Yeah. I went to the magic store, and I told the guy that worked there about it. He's like, 'Oh, you can do that, too.' I bought the tricks and started doing them, and the attention I got from the magic got me instantly hooked. So, for about two years, I spent 12 hours a day practicing."
How long were you making a living performing magic?
"I was a professional magician from 19 to 21. I wasn't doing too bad. During the holidays, I'd do a lot of Christmas parties. I worked at a fine-dining establishment, but it was all corporate clientele. I used to do magic tricks for all my tables and pass out my card. That's really how I started my magic business."
Did the card tricks spark your interest in poker?
"No. I first played poker, recreationally, when I was about 20. I didn't play seriously until I was 23. I went to play poker, and my roommate said, 'Look, if you're going to play poker, you have to learn how to play.' So, he gave me a book to read. And, when I was at the poker table, it was like 'The Matrix' - I just saw the truth. My girlfriend's laughing at me."
Chicks will never understand why we make analogies about 'The Matrix.' So, the numbers lined up and you saw the whole picture?
"Exactly. You know, when someone asks me to sign an autograph, I always write, 'There is no spoon.'"
What did you struggle with in your game at the beginning?
"Discipline. I would go on tilt, and I'd literally play for two days straight. I never knew when to quit. I remember one time when I working as a waiter and a magician and was starting to play poker. I played all day Thursday. I went to work Thursday night. I went back to the casino after work, and I stayed at the casino until Friday morning when I had to go to work again. Then after my shift, I went straight to the casino again. I was so exhausted. I remember asking one of the guys, 'Is it bad to stay up two days straight?' And I'll never forget it; the guy was like, 'Antonio, it's really unhealthy and can actually cause bodily damage.' I had a mental breakdown. I started getting dizzy, and the lights started kicking in from all different directions. I almost collapsed. I just picked up my chips and went home. That was the longest session I've ever pulled."
You went broke after the World Series in 2001 soon after having some success as a player; did you think that was the end of it?
How did you build your bankroll back up?
"I was in a home game with a friend of mine, and I had $1,000 to my net worth. But, my friend is one of the two most degenerate gamblers I've ever met in my life. He's a good friend of mine, but he's a sick, sick man. So, he invites me over to his house to play poker. He wants to play for $1,000. I'm like, 'Alright, I have $1,000 or zero. What's the difference, right? Either way I'm tilted.' So, I played him heads up and won. Then he wants to play for $2,000. I won. Then he wants to play me for $3,000. I won. So, now I have $7,000 to my name. He says, 'Let's play for $10,000.' But, I didn't have ten. So, he's like, 'I'll tell you what. If you win, I'll pay you within three months, and if I win, you pay me within one year.' How can I say no to that? So, we played, and I busted him on the second hand. He settled up by paying me $7,000 the next day. So, all the sudden, I had $14,000. That bankroll is the same bankroll I have today."
When you were living with Phil "The Unabomber" Laak, did you guys play a ton of poker?
"Not as much as you would think. We used to have random freeze-outs and stuff to decide who had to do the dishes and take out the garbage. I always kick his ass. He's one of my best friends. But, he got a girlfriend and left me. He's going out with Jennifer Tilly, now. He's with her all the time."
Is it awkward playing your buddy in a tournament?
"Not at all. I want to bust him more than anybody, just because we're so competitive."
You've said some of your past behavior at the table embarrasses you.
"I used to be a little too rowdy and maybe had a little disrespect at times. I remember one time at the L.A. Commerce a few years ago, I busted Phil Ivey. And, I remember standing up on my chair and making a ruckus. There were cameras everywhere. I sat back down, and about a half-hour later, I was like, 'Wow. What did I just do? I made a complete ass out of myself.' So, the very next time I saw Phil Ivey, I went up to him and apologized."
How did Phil take the apology?
"He was very cool about it. I was really out of line, and I remember Jeff Schulman wrote an article about how Phil Ivey was busted by a classless player. And then, after I won the tournament two years later, he wrote, 'Antonio won the tournament in a very classy way.' So, everybody thinks I've come around from that bad behavior. It wasn't really obscene - it was just a couple incidences that were a little out of line. When I busted Phil Hellmuth at the Lucky Chances Poker Tour - I really don't think I was that out of line, but some people do. He said, 'Show some class and shake my hand.' And, I was doing the wave... But, it felt good to win. I started with $70,000 in chips, and he started with $450,000 in chips. Every time he raised, I came over the top of him, and I eventually busted him. He was sick to his stomach."
What changed your attitude?
"I've grown up a little and matured a little. Plus, I'm known as a pretty respectable poker player, and I want to maintain that image. I don't want anyone to think I'm an out-of-control kid. I have an image to protect now."
You've been quoted as saying you were a dork in high school. Paint us a picture.
"To my own thought, I was a very cool guy. But, I got picked on a little bit, and I didn't like it. I just wasn't very popular. One of my favorite hobbies at the time was Laser Tag. I used to love Laser Tag. (Girlfriend laughs again)."
Has your success changed the way you look at yourself?
"My confidence is through the roof. I know I can walk into any situation and handle myself well. It's the fact that I've accomplished something and the attention I've been getting lately. All the attention helps build your confidence. Girls throwing themselves at you always helps with the confidence, too. I'm really looking forward to my high school reunion."
What advice do you have for the next generation of players?
"Focus. A lot of players know what they're supposed to do to become a better player; they just don't do it. Discipline yourself."
What are some of those things they should be doing?
"If you're not in a hand, watch the other hands going off at the table. Always throw away your hand when you know you're beat - that's a big one. Nobody seems to be able to lay their hand down, even though they know they're beat. They have to call to show how unlucky they got. The best thing you can do is come to my poker camp. It's ThePokerCamp.com. Last time, we had three people we sent to the Shooting Star Super Satellite. All three out of three won a $10,000 seat. Oh, wait, Unabomber's on the other line. Hang on... [returns to call] ... Unabomber just told me the Internet says I'm having an affair with Shannon Elizabeth. I guess that's good for me. She's just my friend; she's a very cool girl. I met her through another buddy of mine who's an actor as well. He played poker with Shannon, and she wants to take her game to the next level. So, he introduced us, and I'm teaching her how to play, hopefully."
Pius Heinz wins the 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event over Martin Staszko.
The second wave of U.S. indictments against online poker rooms fires out from Maryland.
Player Migration Begins
PartyPoker's attempts to woo poker players away from US-facing rivals.
Feds Indict Online Poker Operators
News about the April 15, 2011 federal online poker indictments.
Three Poker Book Gift Ideas
Three Poker Book Gift Ideas for the Holidays