By Arnold Warner
Back in 2004 San Jose’s Antonio Esfandiari burst onto the big-name poker scene when he won the Los Angeles Poker Classic and $1,399,135 during the World Poker Tour’s second season. Since then, he has become one of the most familiar faces in poker.
Born in Tehran, Iran in December of 1978, his family moved to San Jose and started over when he was only nine years old. “It was very hard to get out of Iran and my father had to sacrifice everything in order to move us to America,” he said. “He gave up everything for us. They wouldn’t let him take any of his money out. He did very well back in Iran and then he had to give it all up to give us a better life.”
He certainly is glad about the move. Not even mentioning the successes he’s had he stated, “I could be in Iran fighting some war or I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
Life wasn’t always easy in San Jose, as Esfandiari ran away from home for a while when he was 16, then started doing magic tricks at 18 and playing poker at 19. Back then he was making ends meet as a waiter, magician, and poker player (despite being under age).
“I remember when I was 19 I had just graduated high school a few months before and I was sitting there playing $2/4 limit Hold’em, and all of a sudden my psychology teacher from high school walks in. And I’m like, ‘oh my god,’ and she sat at my table and we played cards. She was so cool the whole night, and the next time I came in the casino the security guards pulled me aside and banned me from the casino.”
At age 22 he took up poker full time, playing mostly at the Bay 101 Casino as well as going to Lucky Chances Casino because that’s where you could play no-limit back then. Around this time he made friends with another young poker player who would become his best friend and yin to his yang on many poker telecasts. “I met Phil Laak many years ago at the World Series of Poker, back when it was at Binion’s. He had just started getting into Wall Street. I told him about this game at Bay 101, this spread-limit game. He went to New York and I kept telling him about the game and he decided to buy a ticket and come have a look.
“The first day of playing he broke the record for the biggest win ever. I think he won like $11,000. The next day we played again and he beat his record of day one, and he won like $13,000. He couldn’t believe this game existed! It was a really juicy game at the time.
“So the next day we go to find an apartment and we actually rented an apartment and we prepaid for about six months and that’s when Phil moved to Northern California and we started kind of drifting around together all the time, gambling and whatnot. It was just funny that he beat the record and then he beat his own record the very next day. No one had ever booked wins for more than six or seven thousand in that game.”
Esfandiari first got a taste of playing poker on television when he came in third place of the Gold Rush Tournament at Lucky Chances Casino, which was the fourth episode of the first season of the World Poker Tour. “I remember, the Lucky Chances tournament my net worth was maybe $9,000,” he said. “I put up a third of my net worth to play in this tournament, a $3,000 buy-in, and I ended up taking third place. That was what got me a little bit of air time and I got to punish Phil Hellmuth a little bit on television.”
Fifteen months later, in February of 2004, the really big break came at the LAPC. “Winning the Commerce really put me on the map. I needed to win something. No one remembers who came in third. I was 25 years old, my bankroll wasn’t that great, and I won over a million bucks. That can’t suck, right?”
He followed that up a few months later with a World Series of Poker bracelet, winning a pot-limit Omaha event for another $184,860.
In the midst of all the poker he and Laak found time for their own TV show in 2007 and 2008. It was called “I Bet You,” and ran on the now defunct MOJO network. Two seasons were aired and a third was in the can, where it has remained since the network went dark. “It was the most fun you can have, getting paid to make crazy bets with your best friend. It really doesn’t get any better than that,” he said of the experience.
Esfandiari returned to the WPT winners’ circle with a bang in 2010, winning the Five Diamond Classic at the Bellagio on his birthday. “Winning the WPT in ’10 was kind of like, okay, the kid’s still got it. There’s all sorts of great new players and the game has changed so much. To win that felt so good, to come back seven years later and say, ‘F you all, I’ve still got it!’”
One of his more recent gigs was as a commentator for last year’s WSOP coverage on ESPN. He said, “It was a lot of fun. I was actually quite humbled and flattered to be chosen as the guy to do the commentary on the final table, especially heading down from three players to one player. That’s basically when the whole entire poker universe is tuned in. And there I was with Lon McEachern and Norman Chad. I can’t even tell you what an honor that was. There are so many poker players in the world and they picked me.”
On working with fellow Bay Area personality McEachern, he couldn’t say enough about what an honor it was. He also added, “Lon and I just hosted a charity poker tournament for Bill Clinton in New York. It was a lot of fun. We went out there together and it was a great time. I love Lon McEachern. He and I have become pretty good buddies.”
He’s looking forward to returning again to the Bay 101 for the Shooting Star tournament in March. “That’s my hometown. That’s where I started playing, was the Bay 101 really. If it wasn’t for the Bay 101 I would not be able to live the life that I live today. I love the Bay 101 and I really miss Marko [Trapani]. He was the main guy there, the owner, and the guy that ran it. When I go there I get a sense of being home.”
As for what the future holds, besides more poker, Esfandiari had this to say: “I’m getting older. I’ve gotta find a wife and have some kids or something.” It sure sounds better than being in a foxhole in Iran.
Bay players bring home hardware
By Raymond T. Akers
Northern California was once again well represented at the Los Angeles Poker Classic (LAPC) which took place at the Commerce Casino from Jan. 17 to Feb. 29. Many cashed, but three came home with the hardware and first place prize money.
The first to take down a title was David Forster of Alameda. He won Event #32, $340 Knockout Bounty No Limit Hold’em on Feb. 17. There were 531 entries creating a prize pool of $98,235 along with another $53,100 in bounties. Forster’s first place was good for $21,750 along with another $1,100 in bounties, plus the trophy and watch.
Forster was the chip leader when they got to heads-up play and he and his opponent agreed on a chop of $21,750/$18,655 and then competed for the hardware and title.
“On a 9-7-5 flop he overbet the button and goes all-in,” Forster recalled. “One thing I’ve realized in these smaller buy-in tournaments is that players tend to, on the flop, if they want you to call, they’ll bet about half the pot. If they don’t want you to call they’ll overbet the pot, and in this case, go all-in. So that’s what he did and I figured my A-Q is probably good and I called. And sure enough, he had king high, he had K-8 for a gutshot straight draw and I held up.”
Forster moved to the Bay Area from Houston 12 years ago and works as a real estate agent in San Francisco in addition to playing poker. He moved to Alameda about five years ago with his wife and son (Zachary  is very proud of him).
For the last three or four years he’s made his living mostly from poker, saying it’s been “a lot more fun.” He also currently works as a prop at the Oaks Card Club in Emeryville, although he also can be found playing at the Bay 101 Casino and Lucky Chances Casino. A regular in the $30/60 limit games, he also likes to enter the higher buy-in tournaments.
Some of his past accomplishments include winning the Bay 101 Open main event in 2010 which netted him $48,000 and a $10,000 seat in the 2011 Shooting Star tournament. In 2009 he placed 14th in the Shooting Star for $35,000 and in 2010 he came in 10th for another $43,000. Each of those totals included one $5,000 bounty. In 2009 he eliminated Annie Duke and in 2010 Jason Mercier fell to him. “So I have nice little t-shirts with their pictures on them,” he added playfully.
In the very next tournament, Event #33, 6-Handed Pot Limit Omaha with Re-buys, held Feb. 17–18, Los Gatos’ Chris Swan was crowned champion. There were 78 entries, 136 re-buys, and 56 add-ons, creating a prize pool of $129,600. Swan took home $50,540 for first place.
“I asked for a chop when we were even in chips, and he said ‘let’s play it out a little longer,’” Swan commented. “Then I ran good. In the next four hands I got aces twice, both against queens, heads-up in PLO. That was just the end of it.”
Reflecting on the victory he said, “It was pretty cool. It didn’t hit me for a while. It took pretty much halfway through the next day for me to realize … oh, crap, that’s a lot of money!”
Swan grew up in Almaden, then left for a few years to attend San Diego State University. He’s finishing up his marketing degree at Holy Names University in Oakland while playing poker to pay the bills. His poker career began when playing online back in San Diego and he realized he was making more per hour doing that than selling bagels.
After turning 21 and moving back to the Bay Area he quickly became a regular at the Bay 101 Casino. “I play at the Bay 101 when I’m home because it’s where all the players go to play,” he said. “Brian Gudim I think is the next Matt Savage, so to speak. Him and Sam Quinto are pretty much two and three as far as any floor men I’ve ever met and I’ve met a lot of them.”
Also winning in Pot Limit Omaha was Weikai Chang of San Francisco. His Event #39 victory (Feb. 20–21) was good for $37,550. There were 52 entries for this $2,080 buy-in tournament, making for a prize pool of $100,880.