Antonio Esfandiari lives a lifestyle in his adopted home of Las Vegas that most young men dream about. A 27-year old professional poker player, Esfandiari skips the line at clubs, sits in the VIP section, and mixes the most expensive drinks with his crew, dubbed 'Rocks and Rings.'
"If you're gonna go out, you might as well go out in style," says Esfandiari, the 'president' of Rocks and Rings. "It's just so different when you have to go out and wait in line or sit in the back of the club. That just takes away from the experience. If you get treated like a rock star, it just makes the party so much better."
The party hasn't ended since Esfandiari won the 2004 L.A. Poker Classic, claiming $1.4 million in prize money. Known as "The Magician" on the poker circuit, Esfandiari has amassed more than $2 million in tournament winnings in the last three years. He also lays claim to a World Series of Poker bracelet, winning a pot limit Hold'em tournament in 2004.
Esfandiari enjoys the fruits of his success with his Rocks and Rings crew as often as he can. But there was a time when he was fast and loose with his money before his game could support his freewheeling lifestyle. In the foreword to Esfandiari's recently released book, In the Money, former roommate Phil "The Unabomber" Laak details Esfandiari's spending habits prior to his tournament poker success.
After becoming friends during the 2000 World Series of Poker, Laak invited Esfandiari to New York City for a week out on the town. Esfandiari told Laak that the $7,000 he brought with him for the trip represented his entire net worth, but Laak didn't believe him once he started dropping $400 a day at restaurants and in clubs.
After a full week of partying, Esfandiari told Laak he had to hurry back to the poker tables near his home in northern California because he needed to make back all the money he'd spent. At that point Laak realized that Esfandiari wasn't lying about his financial situation, and he was shocked that his friend had just spent "40 percent of his net worth on nothing but memories."
Laak took the opportunity to teach Esfandiari some lessons about money management, telling the young phenom that he was "destined for ruin" if he continued his reckless spending. Esfandiari listened to his friend and started to build his bankroll.
He used some of those savings to buy his way into the Gold Rush Tournament at Lucky Chances Casino in November 2002. Esfandiari made his televised debut in the tournament, the fifth event in the first season of the World Poker Tour. His performance was a memorable one, as he tormented "poker brat" Phil Hellmuth throughout final table play. After knocking out Hellmuth, Esfandiari finished third, winning $44,000.
A year and a half later, Esfandiari became the youngest poker player to win a WPT title when he claimed the top spot at the L.A. Poker Classic, calling Vinnie Vinh's all-in bet with pocket aces. Also the youngest poker player to claim a $1 million prize, Esfandiari saw his life change overnight.
"Everyone wants to be (my) friend and wants to be nice to (me)," Esfandiari says. "It opens a lot of doors and spoils you in a way. I don't want to toot my own horn, but it's nice."
Esfandiari didn't always have so many open doors. Born into a wealthy and powerful family in Tehran, Iran, in 1978, Esfandiari has fond memories of his early childhood. But his birth coincided with turbulent times, as the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1979, and the Iraq-Iran War began in 1980.
"I remember there were bomb warnings all the time," Esfandiari says. "Every couple weeks we would have to go down in the basement and hear bombs going off down the block, which is pretty scary."
His family moved to San Jose, Calif., when Esfandiari was nine. While he could avoid the air raids in the U.S., he couldn't restore the value of the Iranian Rial, which plummeted after Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power. When Esfandiari was born, 1,000 Iranian Rials was worth about $14 in the U.S. By the time he was six, the same 1,000 Rials was worth about $1.05. The unfavorable exchange rate meant a substantial loss in wealth when the family moved to America.
Esfandiari says he the change in economic status after the move didn't bother him, in large part because of his youth. His given name of Amir, however, was a different story. Seeking to fit in better with his American peers, he changed his name to "Anthony," and it didn't take long for him to accept America as his new home, despite the fact that he knew very little English when he arrived.
Soon after graduating from high school, Esfandiari became obsessed with magic. He spent 12 hours a day practicing tricks, becoming a master of the craft. He once again changed his name, this time to "Antonio" to fit the part of a magician.
While building his magic skills and supplementing his income by waiting tables, Esfandiari was introduced to the world of tournament poker by his roommate. While he had played a little poker, he had never played in a tournament before entering -- and winning -- a $30 buy-in event at Garden City Club in San Jose. Esfandiari found the game captivating, and his focus shifted from spending 12 hours a day learning how to fool people with card tricks to spending 12 hours a day learning how to fool people in card games.
The decision was not a popular one in the Esfandiari family.
"It wasn't pretty," Esfandiari says. "I come from a Persian family. If you don't plan on going to college and then Med School or to get your Master's or Ph.D., then you're not really respected in the Persian community. It's very success-oriented. So when I started gambling, (my family wasn't) too happy about it."
After becoming confident in his poker skills, Esfandiari changed his father's opinion of his profession with a demonstration at the table. He invited him to come to the casino to watch him play, and before the players showed down their cards he would tell his father what each player was holding.
"I was right nine times out of 10," Esfandiari says. "I was really focused that day. He said he was proud of me, and that was about a year before I won (the L.A. Poker Classic). He was accepting of me playing poker well before I won any tournament or got in the spotlight."
While his life has changed dramatically with his success, Esfandiari seems to have a good perspective on his status, insisting that he isn't much of a celebrity.
"A celebrity would be recognized many times in a night," Esfandiari says. "If I'm away from the poker room, I would say that I get recognized about five or six times a night. I think I have the perfect amount of minimal fame."
He has, however, managed to capitalize on his status within the poker world, writing a book (In the Money) and endorsing products, such as the online poker site UltimateBet.com and the dietary supplement 'kickbutt amped energy ballz,' advertised as "the perfect poker food" on the Fun Energy Foods Web site. He also recently produced a DVD titled "Magical Poker" that promises to reveal the secrets of poker cheaters.
Despite his busy professional schedule, which requires a great deal of travel to poker tournaments and endorsement engagements, Esfandiari still has a hunger to learn. He recently started taking lessons in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a mixed martial art combat sport made famous by Royce Gracie, who won the 1993 Ultimate Fighting Championship. Carlos Gracie, Royce's great uncle, is credited with founding the discipline, and 25 members of the Gracie family have reached Third Degree Black Belt status.
"I went and had a class with a Gracie," Esfandiari says. "It was really interesting to me. I wish I had the time to sit there for three hours a day and learn how to fight like these guys. Not to fight, but just to understand it and be able to protect (myself) in certain situations."
Esfandiari has a proven track record of rising to the top when he dedicates time and energy to learning something new, so it isn't a stretch to believe that Esfandiari could quickly become an accomplished student of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. But don't expect him to give up his "day job." A rock star in the poker world, Esfandiari is having too much fun to shift his focus now.
The Magician's Tricks:
Esfandiari Quips and Quotes
Ultimate Goal: "To have a wife and some kids and the whole picket fence thing one day."
If he could change anything in poker: "If anyone ever told a bad beat story, they would be fined $1,000 on the spot."
On winning the first tournament he entered: "I kind of think it was a fluke. I knew that I didn't know what I was doing."
After winning the first tournament he entered: "I took my ex-ex-ex-girlfriend to Hawaii."
On living with former roommate Phil "The Unabomber" Laak: "We'd wake up whenever we woke up, go down and gamble until whenever we decided not to, then we'd go back and chill at the house and do whatever, then go and gamble. It was the funnest few years I've ever had."
Making good decisions about which game to play: "When I first started playing poker, I thought I was the nuts. So if there was a shorthanded game with two really good players, I couldn't wait to get in there and destroy them. And that's kind of just being young and cocky and arrogant. There's always a better game, there's always a better spot. Instead of wanting to beat the best and trying to prove something to the world, why not just play the worst players and actually make some money out of it?"