Poker player Esfandiari poised to pounce

Strange is it sounds, winning a record poker jackpot of $18.3 million might seem like chicken feed over the next few years for Antonio Esfandiari.

Brian Balsbaugh, the CEO of Poker Royalty, the Las Vegas-based firm that manages the careers of poker players, said Esfandiari’s victory in the World Series of Poker’s $1 million buy-in "Big One for One Drop" event last week at the Rio "catapults him into the stratosphere of poker celebrity."

Thanks to victories on the televised World Poker Tour and a stint behind the microphone as a television color commentator for ESPN’s World Series of Poker Main Event coverage last year, Esfandiari was already a high-profile poker commodity.

That recognition rose even higher when he topped a field of 48 players and a final table that included 12-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth Jr., 2011 Poker Players Championship winner Brian Rast, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte and MGM Resorts International executive Bobby Baldwin – winner of the 1978 World Series of Poker.

Now, Esfandiari, 33, can cash in outside the poker room.

"Antonio was already one of the game’s most recognizable A-list players," Balsbaugh said. "He’s a great talker at the table. He’s not one of these Internet poker hoodie kids who doesn’t say a word. Antonio is going to make more money away from the table because of this win and his great personality."

He’s sure to attract a crowd today at the Rio when he enters the World Series of Poker’s Main Event, the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em World Championship.

Esfandiari, who was born in Iran but grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, left college at age 21 to become a professional magician, but he eventually caught the poker bug and moved to Las Vegas.

Esfandiari won a World Series of Poker individual championship bracelet in 2004, but had only mild success in the tournament before this year, earning less than $1 million and cashing 14 times.

Vowing to make 2012 his best year ever at the tournament, Esfandiari began working with ChoiceCenter Leadership University, a Las Vegas-based business that provides personal development and leadership training, focusing on elevating a person’s emotional intelligence.

"I took a self-awareness course," Esfandiari said. "It helped me set specific goals and to visualize what I wanted and what I needed to do to get there. Going into the tournament, I was able to visualize what I needed to do to win."

He also needed ChoiceCenter President Corrine Clement. During World Series of Poker play in May and June, Esfandiari talked with Clement multiple times daily to help focus on winning. She was on the phone from California with Esfandiari during the three-day "Big One" tournament.

Clement said Esfandiari was "coached on his mental game every two hours during every tournament he’s played in. We have grounded and debriefed what was working and not working seven times a day to make quick course corrections."

It paid off.

Leading up to the "Big One for One Drop," Esfandiari had cashed in five events, including a third-place finish in a $3,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em Shootout. He earned $151,613, but had the chip lead before a couple of mistakes cost him the bracelet.

However, the setback focused him for the "Big One."

"I went into it totally zoned in. One hundred percent of my focus was on winning ‘One Drop,’ " he said. "At the reception party for ‘One Drop,’ I looked at the bracelet and visualized giving it to my dad."

The moment was captured in prime time on ESPN when Esfandiari gave the custom-made platinum bracelet to his father.

As for the $18.3 million? Esfandiari isn’t saying how much he kept and what percentage went to backers who helped fund the $1 million buy-in.

"There is this little thing called the Fifth Amendment," he said.

Esfandiari almost didn’t play in the event. He was scheduled as ESPN’s color commentator. Instead, the network reported on his victory.

"I’m a poker player. How could I not play? I know I had to be part of this event,” he said.

In one swoop, Esfandiari is the tournament’s all-time leading money winner with more than $19.38 million in World Series of Poker earnings, with two bracelets and 20 career cashes.

Hellmuth, who has World Series of Poker highs of 12 bracelets and 91 career cashes, is fourth on the list with $10.8 million in career earnings.

Before he found success at the World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour provided Esfandiari with a platform, which included a first-place finish in the 2010 Five Diamond Classic at the Bellagio. His earnings on the World Poker Tour have topped $2.5 million.

Now, Esfandiari is focusing on winning the Main Event, though he’s already signed on with ESPN to provide color commentary at the final table in October.

"I won’t be able to do it because I can already visualize myself playing at the final table," Esfandiari said.

The personality and positive focus could drive Esfandiari into other business opportunities. Balsbaugh books him for corporate events more than any other player because "he always gets invited back. He does a fantastic job at those events."

Balsbaugh said the potential legalization of Internet poker in the United States would be a perfect marketing vehicle for Esfandiari, who didn’t have any ties to the online gaming websites that were shut down to American players by the federal government last year.

"There are very few guys in a position to be the front man for U.S. Internet poker," Balsbaugh said. "Antonio clearly fits within that category."

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal .com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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