High-stakes superstar, Antonio Esfandiari, has all but disappeared from the poker scene over the last few years. The fierce competitor known as “The Magician” hasn’t cashed in a tournament since finishing 82nd at the 2019 WSOP Main Event. He’s even chosen to step away from an occasional cushy WSOP commentating gig alongside Lon McEachern and Norman Chad. Now and then, Esfandiari will pop into a streamed cash game, but those glimpses have been few and far between, much to the chagrin of his fans.
Esfandiari has created a storied career since winning the 2004 Los Angeles Poker Classic for $1.4 million and accumulating more than $27 million in tournament earnings over the last 15 years. Capturing the 2012 WSOP Big One for One Drop event for $18,346,000 catapulted him to the top of the all-time poker earnings list at the time.
For the last twenty years, Esfandiari has been one of the most entertaining players to watch play the game. He’s smart. He’s fearless. He’s witty, especially when trading quips alongside his long-time table buddy and traveling sidekick, Phil “The Unabomber” Laak. But as of late, the once-permanent fixture on the OG High Stakes Poker show has pulled away from the spotlight and focused on what is dearer to his heart than poker: a magical life with his wife, and three children.
PokerOrg’s Craig Tapscott caught up with the elusive Esfandiari in Los Angeles to find out how The Magician pulled off one of poker’s greatest disappearing acts.
Craig Tapscott: I read somewhere that you had a rough childhood before your family moved out of Iran. Can you share a little about that?
Antonio Esfandiari: My mother married my dad to get out of her house. She was never really in love with my dad. It was a set-up for a tumultuous and terrible relationship between them. My brother and I were the ones that paid the price for that.
CT: When did your family move to the United States?
AE: My father was the one that convinced my mom to move to America. Mainly, to give us all a better life. He left his business and all his accumulated wealth behind for us. We started over in San Jose, California. I was eight years old at the time. After a couple of weeks in the US, my mom left and went back to Iran. She never told my father she was leaving permanently. So, my father was left to raise my brother and me alone.
CT: How was your first experience of school in California?
AE: I started here in the third grade.vI didn’t know any English. It wasn’t an easy time for me. I was picked on a lot.
CT: Did you start to enjoy it once you reached high school?
AE: It was better. I was a pretty good student. I mostly hung out with my good friends. But I have to admit, I was a bit of a troublemaker and a little mischievous. It’s kind of funny. I see that in my kids now. As much as I have to be a parent and discipline them, I was 25 times worse than my kids.
CT: So, you were the oldest brother?
AE: Yes. While growing up, my father was at work all day, every day. I was kind of on my own. I had to grow up pretty fast. I would pick up my brother from school. But I was always finding ways to make money. I had a paper route when I was eight years old, and I was a telemarketer at 11. I used to crush it on the phone. The company eventually found out I was only 11 and that it wasn’t legal for me to work. So, they let me work under someone else’s name. I was just too good a salesman at closing deals; they didn’t want to let me go. (laughs)
CT: When did magic become a part of your life?
AE: After high school, I decided that I wanted to be a magician. I loved learning magic, and I was obsessed with it. But after I discovered poker, magic became secondary. I was committed to playing cards and being the best, I could be.
CT: When did you and Phil Laak meet?
AE: I met Phil in my early twenties. I’d been in poker for a few years and met him at the WSOP and the rest is history. I was doing magic at the series the first couple years I was there, and not playing a lot of poker. I noticed Phil at one of the tables watching my hands; he was just trying to figure out how I was doing all the card tricks. After that session, we started chatting and went out for a beer that night. And that was it. We were inseparable and attached at the hip from that moment on for the next ten years.
CT: How did you approach studying the game during that period?
AE: Because of the access to the Internet nowadays, everything you learn these days is totally different from when I started poker. I had just read a couple of books and simply had a knack for it. I learned a lot when the game started to transition when all the young Internet wizards started taking over. I kind of watched what they did and adjusted to it and made it my own kind of thing.
CT: Did you and Phil talk poker hands and strategies?
AE: We never talked about it. Never. We literally have never discussed one hand in our entire life as friends. We never told bad beat stories either.
CT: That’s crazy.
AE: We spent most of our time drinking and having fun, traveling the world, and chasing women. We were just enjoying our life and poker.
CT: What’s the main thing you have learned from your dad giving up everything to come here to give the family a better life?
AE: Love. Yeah, definitely the number one thing would be love. He’s a good man and he sacrificed everything to bring us here. He was a pretty successful guy in Iran. But when you move out of Iran, they don’t let you take your wealth. They don’t want the money to leave the country. He gave all that up to come here for us.
CT: That’s pretty amazing. He started playing poker a while ago I understand. I see him at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles now and then.
AE: Yes. I remember growing up they used to play a version of poker at the house. I was always intrigued by it at the time. And then obviously when I got into it, he would play more often. He still plays. He’s 80 now.
CT: I miss you commentating at the WSOP with Norman Chad. You two had a good rapport.
AE: It was fun. But I haven’t done any of that since I had kids. I’ve tried to design my life around spending as much time at home with my family as possible. I’d rather be on the beach or skiing with my kids. My eight-year-old is crushing the mountain lately. He’s a better skier than I am. These things give me way much more joy than commentating about or playing poker.
CT: During your commentating, it was easy to see why you were such a good hand reader. I learned a lot from listening to you break down a player’s moves and bet sizings during hands.
AE: It’s all about watching people and observing them closely. The more interaction you have with people in general, the more you’re going to learn about their behaviors. I think that doing magic for all those years and learning how people react to certain emotions helped a lot with my transition into poker. It’s just one of the things that I’m decent at. I don’t have many talents. That’s just one of the one of very few.
CT: You were obsessed with being one of the best. You were popping up on all the poker shows at the time. The original High Stakes Poker battles were the best with you, Sammy Farha, Doyle, Daniel, Gus, etc. at the tables.
AE: I was very obsessed at the time with success. Twenty years ago, that was all I cared about – poker, fame, notoriety, etcetera, etcetera. Now it’s a zero out of 100. I just don’t care.
CT: The atmosphere in the games today, both cash and MTTs, is totally different than a few years ago. How do you adjust to that when you do choose to play?
AE: The robots are obviously very good, but they’re robotic in most ways. And nobody really wants to play with robots. That’s no fun. I don’t want to play with robots. I like to have a good time when I play cards.
CT: You don’t seem to keep up with the poker happenings at all as of late.
AE: Not at all. I used to have a guy on the payroll years ago who would just fill me in on the gossip once a month. Now I have nothing and not much contact with the industry at all.
CT: What was your proudest moment of your career to date?
AE: Probably winning the WSOP One Drop event. Because it was a very special moment with my father.
CT: I had heard it was like a Babe Ruth moment. When Ruth predicted he would hit a home run once and pointed to where it was going to go over the fence.
AE: It was. I told my father I was going to win the event. We were looking at the bracelet on display before it all started. I told my dad I was going to win this for him and give him that bracelet. That was really satisfying to achieve that for him.
CT: When you won the One Drop event for $18,000,000 did you seek out investment advice? How did you deal with that kind of influx of capital?
AE: I’m not a good investor by any means. I have a firm that I basically use, and they approve or disapprove of any investment that I want to make. I learned that the hard way because previously I’d invested a bunch of money that didn’t work out.
CT: Your first major win was at the LA Classic, correct?
AE: Yes. That was more monumental than the One Drop win was for me, as far as life shift goes. I went from having $30,000 to, you know, having a million bucks. That was a big shift.
CT: You’ve never had backers?
AE: I’ve never really dealt with backers. I just kind of started on my own thing for most of my career. I had one little deal way before when I was in my early twenties, but it was very minimal.
CT: What was your craziest moment at the tables?
AE: I remember when I was playing $3/$6 limit hold’em. I saw the ugly side of gambling. The wife of a guy (a massive fish) at my table showed up and took the electricity bill and started smacking the guy in the head. She was shouting that they can’t pay the electricity bill, yet he was there gambling. I was 19 years old, and I felt really, really bad for the guy. That’s one I’ll never forget.
CT: How did this affect you at the time?
AE: There was a period of time when I was in the casino every day when I wasn’t waiting tables. I was in there day after day for about three to four months straight. Then one day, I had this enlightening moment where I’m thinking to myself, “What am I doing with my life? This is not what I want to be.” I then took a step back from the game and was way more calculated in my gambling decisions from then forward.
CT: Was that when you started to play in more tournaments?
AE: I just started playing them once in a while. I would play a tournament or cash games. It made no difference to me.
CT: How have you dealt with the usual variance every player has experienced during their career?
AE: I’ve been pretty good about the emotional swings of poker. It’s just a part of the game, right? You have to surrender to it. I’m a big believer in what’s done is done. It’s in the past. If I lose a big hand or if I get knocked out of a tournament with a bad beat, life goes on. I’ve learned to surrender to what is.
CT: Do you have a certain life philosophy you follow per se?
AE: I’m just a simple man trying to make my way through the universe. I mean life is short, right? I try and maximize my life units (energy) as much as I can because life is short. I’m 44. And I know one day I’ll be 50 and then 60 and then 70 and then dead. I might as well just maximize whatever time I have in this world to the fullest. I try not to let things I can’t control bother me. Most of all, I try to suck the juice out of all social situations.
CT: The juice?
AE: The positive energy. But I also like to mess with my good friends. I like to poke and needle them a lot. All in good fun, though.
CT: What has been one of the lowest points of your career?
AE: It was at the WSOP Main Event Europe. We were down to 13 or 14 players left in the championship. I was holding the K♦️J♦️ and Dan Shack had the 6♦️3♦️ I had a straight draw and a flush draw and king high, and he had a six-high flush draw. We got it all in for this massive pot and a three came on the river and paired him. I was out. At the time that was a lot of money for me. I won about $50,000 when I could have won about a million. I stayed in my room for two days and was very, very depressed.
CT: That’s brutal.
AE: Well, there was one other time that really hurt. It was at the second One Drop WSOP event. I had won the year before and now I was chip leader with 12 or 13 people remaining. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh. Maybe I go back-to-back.’ But I didn’t even cash. That was tough. Dan Coleman went on to win.
CT: You seem very happy with your life. Enjoying each moment. I know you’ve said your wife, Amal, has had such a huge impact on your outlook and happiness. When did you meet her?
AE: In 2011 I was doing commentary at the WSOP. I saw her in the audience, but then we didn’t meet until the following year. I just thought she was a very pretty girl. We said hello on a break at a tournament, but it turned out she was engaged. But I still made my move. It worked out. She left her fiancé and now we’re married for ten years with three kids. I think we’re the happiest couple I know.
CT: What do you love the most about her?
AE: I love her calmness. I’m the exact opposite. I want to just go, go, go. She just wants to chill. We are polar opposites. She’s an amazing mom, too. Which makes my life easier. I never have to worry about my kids.
CT: I can tell you adore your children. What do you share with them that’s the most fun for you?
AE: It’s probably skiing. We’ll go for the weekend and ski from 9:00 AM until 4:00 PM every day. There are no half days. We maximize the mountain. I push my kids to maximize everything and get the most juice out of it. My eight-year-old is amazing. He can crush the blues and he’s doing blacks now and jumps. My favorite thing is to do anything outdoors and athletic with my boys and my daughter. So, in the summer, we’ll do a lot of trips. We go to Big Sur and El Capitan. We’re going to Hawaii this year. And then every weekend we’re here we’ll do a beach day.
CT: Do you plan to play in the WSOP Main Event this year?
AE: I wanted to play but it looks like I might have a conflicting engagement. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it or not. We’ll see.
CT: Why do you enjoy the game so much? You always seem to be having so much fun when you play.
AE: I don’t know a single person that plays poker who doesn’t enjoy it. I love it because it’s always a new formula, a new situation. Right? No matter what, each hand is always new. And there’s a certain element of intrigue with that because it’s not repetitive. You have to live in the moment. I also love the fun and the abuse that you get at a poker table, especially with your friends. There’s no place else where you can get that kind of entertainment. When my buddies and I do play, we have so much fun. We needle and poke and slow roll each other. That’s just so much fun to me.
CT: I do see you on a live stream now and then at PokerGo or on Hustler Casino Live.
AE: Yes. Once a year or so, I play on the streams. I get invited to all those TV shows, but I say no 95 percent of the time. I’d rather be home with my wife and kids.
CT: I’ve watched you in a few televised games playing with Bill Perkins. I love his energy and sense of fun at the table. He seems to be very genuine. You two have become good friends from what I’ve heard.
AE: We met at the Atlantis in the Bahamas many years ago. We just hit it off and now he’s one of my best friends. He’s definitely had a big impact on my outlook on life.
CT: How so? Because of his philosophy of life? I read his book – Die with Zero. It’s pretty enlightening and inspiring, to say the least.
AE: It’s all about maximizing your life units and creating memory dividends. Which is what I’m doing with my wife and kids. In the past, I would always look for good deals, such as when I rented a house, etc. Ever since I read his book, I’m just way freer in regard to spending money on experiences; it doesn’t matter what the cost is. I think that comes back to you in a way, too.
CT: Do you still stay in touch with Phil Laak?
AE: Of course. I saw him a few weeks ago at a birthday party at my home. But we haven’t hung out in a while. But we’re still good friends.
CT: Does your wife play poker?
AE: She has her own game she plays with friends, now and then. The truth is, she was playing poker before she met me. Her father made a WSOP main event final table. She loves to play. She enjoys poker, but you know, she’s so busy being a mom. So, she doesn’t really play that much. She does everything. She wakes up in the morning and takes the kids to school. There’s no nanny. Because no one else but her raises our kids. Which is something that I love about my wife.
CT: You’ve settled into a wonderful home life with your family after so many years of traveling the world playing poker. It must be very satisfying for you.
AE: It definitely is. I love being a husband and a father. I love picking them up at school and doing everything together. I’m pretty lucky. Yeah, maybe I’m biased, but they’re amazing.
CT: Is there any advice you would give a young player just starting to play who has their heart set on being a professional player?
AE: I would tell them to find another career.
CT: That’s surprising, coming from you.
AE: Well, I started playing when I was a teenager, years ago. It’s a whole different game now. These days everyone is good. When I started playing poker, nobody knew how to spell poker. There were no training sites, none of that stuff. There’s so much access to information now, that the extraction of money is significantly more difficult. You have to not only be great, but you have to be great and lucky. It’s just a very hard time to make a living playing poker.
Photos by PokerPhotoArchive