WSOP star Antonio Esfandiari gives back to less fortunate

After winning the largest cash prize in poker history — $18,346,673 — in last year’s inaugural Big One for One Drop $1 million buy-in tournament at the World Series of Poker, Antonio Esfandiari spearheaded a trip to Central America to see work being done by the water awareness charity organized by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte.

“I live a pretty fortunate life. I’m probably one of the luckiest guys on the planet, so when the opportunity came to go to El Salvador and Honduras and see where that money was actually going to, it was a no-brainer. I had to go,” said Esfandiari, who donated $222,000 to One Drop at last year’s event. “It was a really eye-opening journey I’ll never forget. It was very humbling, because when you get back to the life you have, you appreciate it a lot more. We’re incredibly lucky to live in this country that has running water, food and supplies. Down there, it’s all about survival for these families. How can we eat today?

“When you have no outs, to use a poker term, and you’re drawing dead, you kind of give up. What One Drop has done is given them a sense of hope they’ve never had.”

Jeff Gross, Esfandiari’s close friend and fellow professional poker player who happens to be housemates and best friends with 18-time Olympic champion and burgeoning poker player Michael Phelps, joined him on his journey.

“I like volunteering and going to Third World countries to see different areas and get perspective on things,” Gross said. “It was really interesting and a great experience to go down there. The people were amazing, just seeing how proud they were of having a garden.

“They don’t have running water or electricity and, especially playing poker, where we talk about taking a bad beat, it kind of puts everything in perspective.”

Esfandiari, 34, and Gross, 26, are entered in Wednesday's One Drop High Rollers tournament at the WSOP at the Rio Convention Center. The three-day gold-bracelet event is scheduled to start at noon and expected to feature more than 100 players who will pony up a $111,111 buy-in — the largest at this year’s WSOP — for a total prize pool of more than $10 million.

The $1 million buy-in event will return in 2014.

“It’s like the Olympics to us,” WSOP spokesman Seth Palansky said of the Big One for One Drop. “We want to keep it highly anticipated and meaningful, and we felt every other year accomplished this.”

The High Rollers event still shapes up as the “highlight event of the summer,” said Gross, who has made more than $1 million playing poker.

“I’m really excited. It’s going to be a nice mix between pros and amateurs and businessmen,” he said. “It’s one of the best value tournaments of the year.”

Gross spoke on the telephone from Baltimore on Monday night as he and Phelps headed to see the movie “The Internship.”

Wading into shark-infested waters instead of Olympic swimming pools, Phelps played in two early WSOP events, without cashing, and considered entering the High Rollers event but will be at a charity golf tournament instead.

“I’m sure over the next several years you’ll be seeing more of him,” Gross said. “(Poker) is a hobby he enjoys — the skill of the game and the competitive factor of tournaments, in particular. And he’s good at it.

“I know his competitive nature and spirit, and if he puts in the time, he’ll be real good. People will be surprised how well he does.”

Esfandiari also is friends with Phelps and is impressed with his poker skills as well.

“He takes his poker very seriously,” he said. “He definitely puts in the hours and studies. He really loves the game, and he’s good at it.”

Esfandiari, poker’s all-time winningest player with more than $24 million in career earnings, said the main thing his historic win allowed him to do was spend more time with his father, Bejan, who — when Antonio was 9 — moved the family from his native Tehran, Iran, to San Jose, Calif., during the Iran-Iraq war (1980 to 1988).

“He gave up everything to bring us to this country. He’s my hero in life and my best friend,” Esfandiari said. “I remember many nights there were bomb warnings, and we would have to hide in the basement, and the next day buildings down the street would be crushed.

“It wasn’t exactly the best environment for a child to grow up in. My dad gave everything up to take us to America, because the (Iranian) government doesn’t let you leave with any wealth.”

Known as “The Magician,” Esfandiari, who changed his first name from Amir to Antonio for professional reasons, worked as one before turning to poker.

“I wanted to be the next David Copperfield, but once I discovered poker, I put magic on the back burner,” he said.

Esfandiari actually was performing magic tricks at a poker tournament when he was invited to play. Not long after, in 2004, he won $1.4 million at a World Poker Tour event and has been making opponents’ stacks disappear since.

He said he loves his chances in the High Rollers event.

“I’m on a very good routine,” he said. “I work out every day at 10, and I’m super healthy. I can’t wait to punish them.”

Three percent of the entries for the High Rollers event will be donated to One Drop, and Esfandiari and Gross have pledged to donate 1 percent of their winnings to the charity.

Gross also plans to enter the Little One for One Drop, a $1,111 buy-in event scheduled for July 3 and 4 that will feature unlimited re-entry. From each buy-in, $111 will be donated to One Drop.

He hopes his fortunes change soon at the WSOP, where he has been busted in his past three events with pocket kings by pocket aces.

“I’m getting the bad run out of the way,” he said. “I feel I’m playing the best I’ve ever played this year.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.