Interview: GPI Award nominee Antonio Abrego on Mike Tyson, the WSOP, and Poker Paint

Jon Pill
Published by:
Posted on January 28, 2022 7:54 pm EST

The image that tops this article is a photo of fifteen-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth and his heads up opponent Adam Friedman. It was taken just after the final hand of the 2021 $10,000 Dealer’s Choice event.

The image tells the story of that event. You don’t need to know that Phil had come within a hair of his sixteenth bracelet half a dozen times in the 2021 series. Each time he came close he was frustrated in the final stretch. You can see that frustration on his face. Friedman’s body language tells a rather different tale of his experience at the series, punching the air in victory.

It’s a great photograph and is rightfully one of the four shortlisted for best photo in the 2021 GPI Awards. But there is a third person in that story — the person who set the focal length, framed the image, and sprung the shutter. I sat down with the man behind the camera, Antonio Abrego, to chat about his career on the other side of the lens.

Abrego has captured any number of iconic moments within the poker world. For example, it was Abrego who shot the moment when Daniel Negreanu kicked out the plexiglass on his table. “Which was funny,” Abrego says. “Cus nobody knew I did it. Not even my own company knew.”

Outside of poker, he’s shot for fashion brands and for TV’s Shark Tank. This included a day when Abrego and Daymond John bit off a little more of the edible than they could chew as guests of Mike Tyson.

“Me and Daymond took a jet to California and went to Tyson Ranch where Mike does his podcast. The title signals that you know ‘we get high and do a podcast.’ But we didn’t know about this, so me and Daymond go and we get ready for the podcast and they just start rolling joints. Neither of us smokes. So, it was quite an experience. We’re trying to be professional and film while Mike Tyson’s hotboxing the room and talking about stuff!”

The first time on the rail

If you paid much attention to the World Series of Poker last year, you are probably already familiar with Antonio Abrego’s work, if not his name. As one of PokerGO’s in-house photographers, his winner’s portraits and action shots of the WSOP were one of the major ways in which the poker community engaged with these events.

In a pandemic year, when vaccine mandates, travel bans, and health concerns kept so many of us away from the series photographers like Abrego were the poker community’s telescopic eyes on the ground.

Given the ubiquity of Abrego’s photography across poker media, it is perhaps surprising to hear that he came to poker cold.

“I was renting out a studio from Jamie Thompson,” he tells me, speaking via Zoom from the set of PokerGO’s Stairway to Millions event. “She was a friend of mine before I even knew she shot poker. I was renting the studio for a fashion shoot and she asked me if I was available for the summer for ‘some poker gig.’”

That gig turned out to be the 2015 World Series of Poker.

“I didn’t have anything to do during the summer, so I took it,” Abrego says. “I had no idea what I was doing or anything about poker.”

Even so, Abrego dived right in, taking photos of poker greats, many of whose names were totally new to him.

“My first photo was with big names like Phil Laak and Phil Ivey,” he says. “I had a list of who to shoot. I learned to read the seat numbers, and they told me, ‘just shoot the seat number and then ask the player if the list is right.’”

This led to some amusement when he marched up to a table full of poker pros and asked a player in hoodie and goggles if he was Phil Laak.

“The whole table just burst into laughter. Everyone was like ‘I’m Phil Laak,’ ‘No, I’m Phil Laak.’ Luckily Phil was cool about it and was just like ‘Yeah, it’s me.’ It was my first day.”

“I know who Phil Laak is now,” he adds.

The 2021 WSOP

Last year’s World Series was a strange one. The poker world went without a proper WSOP for almost two years and when it came back it was all masks, mandates, and tests. However, what stuck most with Abrego was the sense of an ending.

In 2005, the Horseshoe could no longer fit the post-Moneymaker crowds. Management moved the WSOP to the Rio All-Suite where for fifteen years it stayed. Next year, it will return to the Bally’s Las Vegas building, which is to be rebranded as the new Horseshoe.

“Last year at the Rio, I had my buddy Enrique [Malfavon] on my team,” Abrego explained. “We made sure to capture everything. The hallways, the interactions with people, even the massage team — everything. Nothing will be the same. We got plans to put some of the photos together to show everyone the last year of Rio.

“We thought the COVID restriction would bring a smaller crowd to it, but it brought a lot of people in. There were a lot of great moments, Doyle Brunson and Mori [Eskandani] playing cards together in a corner. All these little moments we captured.”

Some of these images will be coming out as part of an archive at the WSOP, though exactly how they’ll be published is still to be decided.

“We’re working out what to do with it,” Abrego explained. “We’ve ended up doing a lot of portraits, with a lot of the big names, like Doyle Brunson and so on. We ended up setting up a studio at the World Series and shooting a lot of the Rio content. We’re probably going to be making some books, but then we don’t know if we want to donate them or sell them.”

The other side of the lens

I then asked him if there was anything he wished the poker community knew more about the photography side of the industry.

“Basically, just always ask your photographer for their images,” he says. “And always thank them. We spend a lot of time shooting these photos.”

That led naturally to the question of the ongoing Poker Paint saga, Abrego’s images were among those used, without permission, as the basis for some of Poker Paint’s art. Abrego is far more laid back about the situation than many of the photographers, taking a live and let live approach.

“I was shooting shark tank,” Abrego explains. “Those days are long — from about five in the morning to eleven pm — and all day I’m seeing my Twitter blowing up because I’d been tagged in the original thread. So, I messaged Brett and was like ‘As long as you know what you did wrong, it’s okay. As long as you’ve learned from this and moved on.’”

“I met him at the WSOP and tried telling him: Hey shoot your own stuff. Make your own content. We spend hours taking photos, days editing them, years learning the craft and we’re here shooting every day, and then you to just grab a photo and just use it without permission. If you’d have just talked to people, people would let you use these photos.”

In fact, Abrego’s keen to point out that at PokerGO, most of their team’s photography is available for wider use.“If anyone wants any of our content, any of the photos that we shot for events, we do let you guys use them. Just send us an email at press(at)pokergo.com.”

Featured image source: PokerGO (photographer credit: Antonio Abrego)