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Antonio Esfandiari is one of only four players to have played every season of High Stakes Poker. We talk to him about playing $600k pots, battling with Tom Dwan and paying Phil Laak’s bills
Antonio Esfandiari, along with Barry Greenstein, Daniel Negreanu and Doyle Brunson, is part of an elite group that played all seven seasons of High Stakes Poker. The appeal of ‘The Magician’ was easy to see for the producers of the show back in 2006 when it first aired. As a talkative, good-looking kid who was prepared to gamble, Esfandiari quickly became one of the poker world’s big stars.
His famous friendship with fellow high roller Phil Laak created some of the show’s funniest moments, as they battled it out with their mouths as much as their poker skills. Yet, while Esfandiari may have been more notable for his entertainment factor in early episodes, it soon became clear that the American had some serious game too. He made great hero calls, battled it out in the toughest line-ups and shipped one of the biggest pots in High Stakes Poker history. In an exclusive interview, we find out what the $18m inaugural Big One for One Drop champ had to say about his memories from the greatest poker TV show of all time…
PokerPlayer: You were there from series one and played every season. How did you first hear about the show and what were your initial thoughts on the concept?
Antonio Esfandiari: Mori [Eskandani], the producer, called me before its inception and asked me what I thought about a TV cash game – I told him I did not think it would work. Boy, was I wrong! To this day I still think it’s the most liked TV poker show because it is so real.
When you first played in 2006 you were better known for your tournament success. Were you playing much cash at this time in your career?
I like cash games but historically I don’t find myself playing that often. I am not one to travel just to play cash. And it’s rare for me to go down and play in the casino in Vegas, where I live. Back then I didn’t play a lot of cash and I still don’t. [Playing on High Stakes Poker] didn’t feel like a risk though, I felt that I was a favourite in the game.
Why do you think you were one of the players that Mori wanted to be on the debut season?
My guess is that I am one to talk and that makes for a better TV poker show environment. A bunch of stiffs sitting around with no banter is no fun to watch – everyone knows that.
Do you think your dynamic with Phil Laak added a lot to the shows? And did you enjoy playing versus Laak or was it awkward playing big pots versus each other given your friendship?
For sure it helped. He and I together is a CRUSH compared to one of us solo. I loved playing with Laak. I love to punish his ass…although historically I can never beat him! He is the luckiest player I have ever met and the one guy that holds over me like never before.
You are famous for constantly talking and being outgoing when playing poker on TV. Is that the real you or is it a persona you put on in front of the cameras?
I would say I was being me, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I ‘turned it up a notch’ when the cameras were on. But I am one to always talk and try to have fun – poker is boring without banter. Poker or no poker, you can always choose to have fun doing whatever it is that you are doing, so why not have fun while you’re at the office?
You were one of only four players to appear on every season of High Stakes Poker. Is that something you’re especially proud of?
Not really, I haven’t given it much thought. When there was a game I just showed up and played. I loved it.
Out of all the opponents you played against on High Stakes Poker which player was the toughest?
I thought durrrr [Tom Dwan] was the toughest. It’s hard to play someone that is super good and doesn’t care [about money]. I didn’t stay out of his way on purpose though, just because he is tough and fearless it doesn’t mean I don’t want to play a pot with him.
What were your results like over the entire High Stakes Poker series?
I was a net loser. I ran real bad every season and I think I only won once!
You’ve had some amazing success since the show ended. When you look back on the old version of yourself how do you think the 2014 Antonio would do?
I would play a much more aggressive game, these young wizards have really brought out the maniac in me!
Esfandiari’s hands from High Stakes Poker
Hand 1 – Soul reading negreanu
Antonio Esfandiari vs Daniel Negreanu, High Stakes Poker Season One
Pot size: $173,900
Phil Hellmuth opens the action by raising to $3,200 with A♦-2♠ and Daniel Negreanu calls behind him with K♦-T♦. Antonio Esfandiari is on the button and makes it $12,000 with J♦-J♣. Hellmuth folds and Negreanu calls.
Negreanu checks in the dark and the flop is Q♠-6♠-T♣. Negreanu instantly starts talking, saying that he might move all-in if Antonio bets $15,000. Antonio bets $15,000 and, true to his word, Negreanu now decides to move all-in for around $50,000 more. After shoving, Negreanu keeps on talking and even calls out Antonio’s hand as pocket Jacks.
Antonio tanks for two minutes, staring and talking to Negreanu all the time. Finally, Negreanu says, ‘I’ll show you a card after you fold.’ That immediately gets Antonio’s attention and he calls quickly, as Daniel admits that he gave the game away.
The turn is a safe 2♦ but the river is a brutal K♥ to ship Negreanu the $173,900 pot, despite a great call from The Magician.
What do you remember about this hand?
It’s my favourite hand I played on the show. I soul read Daniel and he got there on the river… But that’s beside the point!
How much experience did you have of playing with Negreanu at the time?
I hadn’t played with him a lot but I knew I had him. There was actually a singular moment in the hand when I realised it [when Negreanu said, ‘I’ll show you a card when you fold’]. If you watch the hand you can see the moment that I realised the truth.
I felt his weakness and I just knew that he did not want a call. The trick to poker is to find out what your opponent wants you to do, and to do the opposite.
Do you think you call his all-in if Negreanu keeps his mouth shut?
I really have no clue. Probably not, unless I manage to get another tell from him.
It’s really interesting how much attention you have always paid to physical tells. Do you think that’s something that a lot of poker players don’t pay enough attention to?
Correct. These days it’s all about math and players miss so much.
It was a $173k pot and it looked like it really hurt when Negreanu got lucky on the river…
$173k was a ton of cheese back then. It still is today! I have always respected money. I don’t really remember if it was one of the biggest pots I had played at that point.
Hand 2 – Biggest draw in the world
Antonio Esfandiari vs Barry Greenstein, High Stakes Poker Season Seven
Pot size: $593,900
Antonio Esfandiari raises under the gun with 8♥-7♥ to $2,500. Phil Ruffin, David ‘Viffer’ Peat, Vanessa Selbst and Barry Greenstein (holding 4-4) all call. The pot is $13,300 going to the flop. It comes down T♣-6♥-4♥, giving Antonio a flush draw and double gutshot, but also giving Greenstein a set of Fours. Antonio continuation bets $6,200, Viffer calls and Greenstein raises it up to $30,000. Antonio thinks for a while before reraising to $106,000. That gets rid of Viffer but Greenstein moves all-in for $287,200.
Antonio calls and asks Greenstein if he wants to run it twice but is declined. The turn is the Q♥, giving Antonio a flush. The river does not pair the board and Antonio ships a $593,900 pot.
How well did you know Barry Greenstein and what do you think of his no-limit hold’em game?
I think he’s amazing. There was a time when I thought he was the best. He can make big laydowns, he can make big moves and he’s very good at knowing where he’s at. He’s a beast.
This turned into a huge pot. What do you remember from this hand?
I had a double gutshot and a flush draw. I knew that Barry had a set but I thought, ‘Whatever, I came here to gamble!’ I decided to get it all-in and pray. It worked out that time.
Did you ever think about just calling his raise or is it always best just to get it all-in with a draw like that?
In the long run I think calling is probably better because I was in position. Out of position it’s best to always get it all-in, but I wanted to gamble.
Each hand is different because each situation is different though. I will say that in tournaments every single hand counts, so if I get a massive draw like that I am happy to get it in – I know that if I win that pot I am in a better position to win the whole tournament.
Would you have run it twice if it was against anyone other than Greenstein?
Yes! It was a $600k pot!