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News | Iranian American Antonio Esfandiari Wins Biggest Poker Prize Ever

by DAN GEIST

04 Jul 2012 12:15Comments

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AntonioEsfandiariWPT.jpg12:15 p.m. IRDT, 14 Tir/July 4 Tehran-born Antonio Esfandiari, now a resident of Las Vegas, won by far the largest tournament prize in poker history Tuesday night, taking $18,346,673 in the Big One for One Drop. The 33-year-old poker professional came out on top of a field of 48 players, comprising 28 other professionals and 19 very wealthy amateurs, who each put up a $1 million buy-in to participate in the Texas hold 'em event.

Born Amir Esfandiari, he moved at the age of nine with his family from Iran to San Jose, California, in the late 1980s. His new first name, which he adopted in his teens, reflects the influence of the sizable Mexican American community in his new home. Known as "The Magician," his victory Tuesday makes him the number one all-time earner in organized poker. The tournament was organized by Cirque de Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, whose charitable One Drop Foundation, which supports safe water access programs and awareness around the world, received 11.111 percent of the buy-in total -- over $5.3 million.

Esfandiari entered the last day of the three-day tournament with a small lead in chips over English professional Sam Trickett. The two traded the lead back and forth for several hours as the other players at the eight-seat final table were successively eliminated. In the tournament's final hand, Esfandiari's three-of-a-kind prevailed over Trickett's unsuccessful flush draw. ESPN's Gary Wise reports,

Malaysian businessman Richard Yong was eliminated during the first few hours of the final table. After the dinner break, 1978 world champion and City Center CEO Bobby Baldwin went out next in seventh and Esfandiari's close friend, Brian Rast, was stopped by Sam Trickett in sixth with a massive cooler.

As Esfandiari took out the event's creator, Guy Laliberte, A-K over Q-Q, he suddenly held a commanding chip lead. Phil Hellmuth's quest for his 13th bracelet ended with a fourth-place finish, and David Einhorn, a hedge fund manager who donated his prize purse to the education-focused non-profit City Year, finished third. In a match that many expected to see as the final table played out, it was Esfandiari versus Trickett for the $18.3 million. Esfandiari got Trickett all-in on a Jd-5d-5c board, holding 7d-5s for three of a kind. Trickett showed Qd-6d for a flush draw.

"My heart wasn't beating that hard actually," Esfandiari said, surprised. "I just went through the process and thought, 'Here we are. This is the moment. If you fade this flush draw, you win the biggest tournament in the history of the world. Please, Jesus, one time!' I think I used up my 'one times' in this tournament. I'm OK with that though."

Esfandiari got his one time. The diamond never came. The turn was 3h, the river 2h, and Esfandiari was the champion. He was immediately swarmed by his friends and family on stage.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "It's euphoric. I'm so happy right now, and I don't even think it has set in."

Esfandiari had already been involved in some high drama early on Monday. As reported by the Las Vegas Sun's Case Keefer,

He got in a pre-flop raising war with Miami pro Jason Mercier while both ranked in the top five in chips.

Both players ended up all-in with Esfandiari flipping over pocket Aces to Mercier's pocket Kings. The Aces held up to give Esfandiari a 23-million chip pot and change the complexion of the tournament. [Each player's $1 million had bought an initial stack of 3 million in chips.]

"The definition of just bad luck," Mercier tweeted.

Bad luck for Mercier, perhaps, but also the fruits of a change in lifestyle for Esfandiari leading up to the tournament: well known on the poker circuit as a heavy partier, he began regular morning gym workouts and started consuming a healthier diet. And then there was the attitude of detachment he mastered for the Big One, with its unprecedented stakes: "It's the same thing as a $10," he said. "You get two cards and one guy is going to win at the end, so what's the difference?"

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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