Antonio Esfandiari’s coronary heart was beating like a drum. There was $18m (£15.8m) on the road, the money was stacked up about 12ft from the place he was sitting.
It was 3 July 2012 and Esfandiari, then 33, had outlasted 47 different poker gamers in Las Vegas. Both he or Englishman Sam Trickett can be claiming the largest first prize within the sport’s historical past so far.
The reside TV cameras had been primed, the stress amongst followers at breaking level. The commentators held their breath because the seller ready to disclose the ultimate card. Esfandiari was about to expertise probably the most euphoric second of his life. However he nonetheless appeared like the best head within the room.
When he was confirmed because the winner, he instantly took off his glasses. Not in reduction or disbelief however to save lots of them from being crushed as his household and mates flooded in from all sides to congratulate him.
The celebrations had been wild. He was held excessive within the air by the group now gathered tight round him. Any person threw over an enormous bundle of $100 payments from the stack. Ultimately he bought his glasses again on.
Because the huddle cleared and broadcaster ESPN stored rolling, all people recognised one thing extraordinary had simply occurred.
For Esfandiari it represented the fruits of a profession which started in very totally different circumstances a decade earlier.
However Poker itself had modified immeasurably in that point too. A as soon as frowned-upon card sport now had its personal share of america’ sporting mainstream due to a increase in recognition that was maybe reaching a peak.
That is the story of the way it bought there.
In 1999, TV producer Steve Lipscomb was engaged on a one-hour documentary titled: ‘On the Within The World Collection of Poker.’
He’d additionally learn an article within the New York Instances that stated 20 million People had been taking part in poker each week.
The article, coupled with the success of his present when it was launched, led Lipscomb to imagine there was a large, untapped marketplace for the sport.
So he based the World Poker Tour (WPT).
“My marketing strategy was: ‘If we’re as profitable as bowling or billiards we’ll break even,'” he says now.
“Then again, if we find yourself just like the NBA or the NFL, then that is a rare alternative.”
The WPT wasn’t the one participant on the desk. The World Collection of Poker (WSOP) had been round for the reason that Seventies, however till the early 2000s existed virtually in isolation. You needed to go searching for it. It was rarely on TV.
By the tip of the WPT’s first televised season, operating from June 2002 to April 2003, its peak of two.2m concurrent viewers was larger than a mean NBA sport on the time, in response to Lipscomb.
“We blew the doorways off,” he says.
“We began elevating a lot cash we did not should pitch to the TV networks – they finally got here to us. All of those different sporting networks like ESPN and NBC jumped in as a result of they wished a chunk of the pie.
“Whether or not they thought it was a sport or not was actually irrelevant, as a result of all of their viewers thought it was a sport.”
Not everybody will agree in that debate, however Lipscomb’s affect was actually making poker appear to be a sport. That was a key a part of the plan: to take a card sport and form a well-known televised format round it.
Every WPT present would have two commentators, one calling the motion and one other taking a extra analytical method. They had been filmed with followers in attendance, giving it that live-sport really feel. Improvements included a digicam fitted below tables to point out every participant’s hand.
An even bigger drawback was becoming all the important thing data on display.
“It took us eight months to get it proper,” Lipscomb says.
“We needed to construct instruments that may take playing cards off the display when someone folds. Once we did it, it was a dance-in-the-halls second.
“Now you might be in a bar with the TV on mute, have a look at the display, and the graphics would inform you all the things that was taking place. That is after I imagine one thing really turns into a televised sport.
“I advised individuals we may do that, we may make poker right into a sport.”
On the similar time, the extra prestigious and traditionally revered World Collection of Poker (WSOP) was increasing too. Poker protection had at all times been restricted however, now fastidiously packaged for prime time TV, it was gleefully unwrapped by the American public.
“Inside months of our exhibits occurring air all the things remodeled,” Lipscomb continues.
“We considered televised poker as a five-act Shakespearean play the place all people however one particular person dies alongside the way in which. We made villains and heroes out of all people on the desk.
“For those who requested anybody in 2001 in the event that they knew any skilled poker gamers, they would not. However after the primary season of the WPT, the gamers on these closing tables, they had been rock stars, man.”
A kind of ‘rock stars’ was Esfandiari.
Born in Tehran in 1978, Esfandiari’s household moved to america when he was eight. The Iran-Iraq conflict of 1980-88 performed a giant function of their determination to go away.
Rising up within the US was a tricky transition. He says there was lots of hostility and racism in direction of Iranians on the time, partly due to the hostage disaster that started on the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, with 52 American diplomats and residents held for 444 days.
Throughout these tough early years, Esfandiari was launched to the sport that may finally form his life.
“My dad and his mates used to play poker after I was a child, however an Iranian model of poker,” he says.
“I’d at all times sneak in and attempt to keep up previous my mattress time, I believed it was superior.”
By age 19 Esfandiari was taking part in no-limit Texas maintain ’em at his native on line casino. Having gained a pretend ID (many US states require gamers be over 21) and digested a technique guide on poker, a complete new world was opening up.
“I noticed the reality proper there on the desk, I could not imagine it,” he says. “I used to be like ‘wow, no one can spell poker right here, by no means thoughts play it’. It was unbelievable how dangerous individuals had been. And due to the guide I might learn, I used to be in a position to earn a bit of cash.”
The extra Esfandiari performed, the extra he earned. Quickly he began to earn more money from poker than from his part-time job as a magician.
However attitudes in direction of the sport had been usually adverse. Many individuals handled those that performed it with suspicion.
Esfandiari says: “My pal Phil Laak and I, we used to roam round searching for video games. However clearly we’d have nights the place we’d not play poker and we might exit as a substitute.
“On these nights if we ever met any girls, again in our single days, they might say ‘what do you do?’ Once we’d inform them, they would not need something to do with us.”
In keeping with Esfandiari, the WPT “single-handedly” and “indisputably” performed the largest function in altering poker’s fame.
“Abruptly poker exploded on TV, you had all these celebrities taking part in and it turned a cool factor,” he says. “It was not appeared down on.”
A variety of elements fused collectively to kind the facility behind poker’s enhance in recognition round this time, generally known as the ‘Poker Growth’.
Motion pictures comparable to Rounders (1998) starring Edward Norton and Matt Damon introduced the sport to a wider viewers. The expansion of the web spawned on-line play, making it extra accessible worldwide than it had ever been earlier than.
And an accountant named Chris Moneymaker gained the 2003 WSOP predominant occasion, pocketing $2.5m (£2.19m) after qualifying on-line. It impressed novice gamers throughout the planet; in 2003 there had been 839 entrants, in 2006 there have been 8,773 – a file that also stands.
A sport as soon as maligned by most people was being broadcast and making headlines across the globe, past poker circles.
And the prize cash on supply was going by the roof.
Esfandiari appeared within the WPT’s debut season from 2002-2003, nevertheless it wasn’t till season two that he began to achieve recognition.
In February 2004 he outlasted 381 different gamers to win a $1.4m (£1.22m) first prize. Followers took footage with him, they wished his autograph and commenced to comply with him as they might a favorite sports activities group.
“For a child who was fairly insecure rising up and going by the issues I needed to expertise, it was extraordinarily validating,” says Esfandiari, who was 25 on the time.
“Folks would come as much as me and say: ‘I really like to look at you play, I tune in to look at you play.'”
The $18m win of 2012 was at a WSOP occasion – the Large One for One Drop, which helped elevate a reported $5m (£4.38m) for a water charity. It remained a file prize till Bryn Kenney of the US gained $20.5m (£17.99m) on the Triton Million of 2019.
Esfandiari describes it as “the final word, most euphoric out-of-body expertise of my life”.
“As a result of it wasn’t simply me,” he provides. “My complete household, my mates, my entire world and all people in it was up. Financially, socially, all the things.
“The entire world was watching. Newspapers in France, Israel, Germany and all over had been writing that someone had gained $18m (£15.7m) taking part in poker.
“With all of the experiences I’ve had in my life, none of them examine to that first minute after realising I had gained that event.”
Esfandiari, now 43, lives along with his spouse and youngsters in Venice Seashore, California. He says the poker scene has “fully modified” for the reason that early 2000s.
“Again then poker was so recent that in case you gained one occasion you had been an on the spot star,” he says. “Quick ahead to right this moment, you’ll be able to win 4 and no one is aware of you.”
He believes the usual has additionally improved – “there are not any dangerous gamers left” – owing partly to “the web and the huge data accessible, all of the coaching movies”.
He additionally believes it is not as fascinating. Esfandiari and others have been essential of some newer gamers adopting the Recreation Idea Optimum method, which closely attracts on arithmetic in its technique. Those that favour it have been accused of missing charisma and innovation – two of the important thing parts that helped develop poker’s recognition on TV.
That there are gamers like Esfandiari, gamers who’ve loved constant success over numerous years, helps the case that poker requires ability and technique. However nonetheless the sport at all times comes with huge dangers – comparable to that of drawback playing.
A 2018 research revealed in Australia discovered 39% of the common poker gamers it surveyed had reasonable to extreme playing issues, whereas round 1 / 4 had brought about monetary issues for themselves or their households.
Lipscomb, who offered his stake within the WPT in 2009, says they might “spend time ensuring, significantly in event poker, that you may solely pay a certain quantity and it is all you’ll be able to lose”.
He additionally believes drawback gamblers are much less prone to be discovered amongst skilled poker gamers.
One current case exposes the restrictions behind that argument.
Dennis Blieden, a former WPT champion, was sentenced to 6 and a half years in jail in June 2021 for embezzling $22m (£19.3m) from his employer StyleHaul, a media company, the place he was accountable for accounts.
In a letter to the choose, Blieden, 31, outlined how his playing habit had began at a younger age, earlier than worsening in step with his poker profession.
He described how he “idolised” the celebrities of the ‘poker increase’ and have become “obsessed” with matching their achievements.
With stolen funds he entered high-stakes competitors and gained $1m (£8.77m) within the LA Poker Basic of 2018. The “validation” that introduced was “little doubt an accelerant in my playing”, he wrote, including: “I did all the things I may to maintain that fame alive.”
Esfandiari recollects a time when as a youthful man he nervous he may need a playing habit. However over 20 years on he says “skilled gamers do not see poker as playing, it is a calculated danger”.
He provides: “For a couple of month and a half after I was 21, I used to be taking part in poker each single day. I used to be ready tables, participant poker, ready tables, taking part in poker, and I realised it was an excessive amount of.
“I realised I did not wish to find yourself as somebody spending their entire life within the on line casino, shedding all their cash, despite the fact that I used to be really successful. So I made a decision to tone it down.
“However while you sit all the way down to play roulette, craps or blackjack, any of these kind video games, you are in opposition to the on line casino. Each time you guess $100, you are shedding two, three, 4 5 bucks mathematically
“Poker gamers however, we imagine we’re the on line casino once we sit down.
“If you play poker in opposition to good gamers and also you’re a foul participant, you are going to lose cash in opposition to the great participant. It may not be that day, however by the tip of the 12 months the professional will take the cash.
“You must put within the work. You may’t simply present up and assume you are going to beat the very best.”