Poker has an undeniably rich and storied history, having been played for centuries in one form or another. Its tremendous staying power is mainly due to its remarkable strategic depth; players must always remain vigilant if they hope to defeat the competition. 

With so much tactical complexity, it’s no wonder that poker has become firmly embedded as one of the most popular games around the world. Its strategic profundity and longevity have fostered an incredible competitive scene, with tournaments like the World Series of Poker (WSOP) having histories filled with legendary moments and stories. 

In this article, we’ll look at one of the many ubiquitous personalities to grace the game: Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari. 

Player Overview

Antonio Esfandiari is an Iranian-American professional poker player. He’s also a former professional magician known for his elaborate tricks with chips and cards. As a poker player, he has an illustrious career with over $27.8 million in tournament earnings, ranking him in 22nd on The Hendon Mob’s all-time money list. 

He has no shortage of impressive showings, with three WSOP bracelets and two World Poker Tour (WPT) titles. His most notable tournament result was winning the inaugural Big One for One Drop, a $1,000,000 buy-in charity tournament for the One Drop Foundation. 

This feat earned him the second-largest payout in poker tournament history, an astonishing $18,346,673. He was briefly at the top of the all-time money list before being dethroned by Daniel Negreanu in 2014. His tournament career aside, he has also appeared on various poker television shows and worked with fellow pro Huck Seed on a poker strategy app for mobile players.

Early Life

Antonio was born in 1978 as Amir Esfandiari, in Tehran, Iran. When he was nine, his family moved to San Jose, California, only a year after the Iran-Iraq war ended. Shortly after, his mother left the family, leaving his father, Bijan, to raise him and his brother. 

Antonio loves and looks up to his father, whom he considers his hero. This love for his family became the driving force behind his poker career. Antonio had a hard time fitting in with his peers, which led to a brief stint in jail after he got caught selling marijuana. Learning this valuable lesson early in life, he resolved never to do anything illegal again.

The Birth of a Magician

When Antonio was 17, he was working as a waiter when he saw a bartender performing a magic trick. Amazed, he immediately sought out a magic shop to discover how the trick worked and fell in love with illusions. He began integrating tricks of his own into his waitering job, receiving extra tips for the added entertainment. 

By the time he reached the age of 19, his tips had outgrown his actual salary and Antonio became a full-time magician. It was at this time he changed his name from Amir to Antonio as it sounded mystical. He also got a nose job to look less foreign.

It was around this time that his roommate gave him a copy of the book Winning Low Limit Hold’em by Lee Jones. Like magic, poker sparked his curiosity, pushing him to study and practice relentlessly. He put his magic and tell-reading skills to good use and started to steadily win games. 

Soon, poker became his primary career and magic became a side interest that he used to entertain the players at his table. He met fellow poker pro Phil “Unabomber” Laak, who also had an interest in magic, at one such table. Laak was mezmerized by Esfandiari’s tricks and would spend his time and trying to figure them out. This annoyed Antonio at first, and he even changed tables to get away from him. But Laak followed, and after some further banter, they connected and became good friends. 

Poker Career

In 2002, Esfandiari began his early career with a third-place finish at the 3rd Annual 49’er Gold Rush Bonanza of the WPT, earning $44,000. The following year, he made his first WSOP final table at the $2,000 No Limit Hold’em event, finishing fifth. His first big break came in 2004, winning the $10,000 No Limit Hold’em Championship – WPT for over $1.3 million. This made him the youngest player to win a WPT event at the time. 

Antonio made the decision to move to Las Vegas in 2004, and around the same time, he secured his first WSOP bracelet in a $2,000 Pot Limit Hold’em event. After a string of success, he began regularly appearing on poker TV programs. He made frequent appearances on High Stakes Poker, battling against household names like Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu. He also appeared on the ESPN WSOP broadcast and made a reality show, I Bet You, with Phil Laak, where they constantly put each other through increasingly outrageous wagers and dares.

The Big One for One Drop

In 2012, Esfandiari cashed in six times at the WSOP and made two final tables. These achievements, however, were overshadowed by his run in the inaugural Big One for One Drop tournament at the WSOP. With a $1 million buy-in, this was the biggest buy-in poker tournament at the time, holding an enormous margin over any other event. Against 47 other players, Antonio made it to the final table alongside huge names such as Phil Hellmuth, Brian Rast and Sam Trickett. 

Esfandiari and Trickett had the largest stacks going into the final table, which concluded with the two of them duking it out heads-up. The match only lasted 16 hands. After a series of re-raises, both players were all-in on a flop of J♢5♢5♣, with Trickett holding a Q♢6♢ for a diamond flush draw against Esfandiari holding 7♢5♠, good for a set of fives. The Magician’s luck held as the turn and the river brought the 3♡ and the 2♡. Esfandiari walked away with the single biggest cash in tournament poker history, to that point.

Since this win, Esfandiari had taken a step back from poker to spend time with his wife and child, but he can still be seen at the WSOP and other high roller events like the Triton High Roller series and the Aria Super High Roller Bowl.