Antonio Esfandiari, a showman magician turned poker player, took down the biggest prize in Commerce Casino history by conjuring up a win in the no-limit hold’em championship finale of L.A. Poker Classic. The event drew a record 382 entrants, and first place was worth $1,399,135.
The victory was practically handed to him when he held pocket aces, made a moderate raise and got Houston pro Vinny Vinh to move in with Q-4, though he denied using hypnosis. Esfandiari, from San Francisco, came in third in a World Poker Tour (WPT) event at Lucky Chances, and has a fifth-place finish in a $2,000 no-limit hold’em event at last year’s World Series.
To use a term coined by his poker friend Phil "The Unabomber" Laak, he "felted" (got down to the felt) a player in the early going with set over set and stayed ahead of the curve, starting with the chip lead on day three and day four.
Esfandiari also gave full credit to John Bonetti for coaching him all four days. The advice, summed up by the inimitable Bonetti, was: "For the first two days, don’t do nothin’ stupid, for the third day, just survive and get down to six, for the fourth day, mix it up."
The event, which is expected to be televised at the end of May, started with blinds of 8-16k and 3k antes, with Esfandiari leading with 1,148,000 in chips. In early going, Adam Schoenfeld, a Card Player columnist, picked up a lot of chips when he forced first Esfandiari and then Vinh to fold with re-raises. By the times blinds went to 12-24k, he was in front with 1.41 million. Mike Keohan was the most aggressive, continually moving in, eventually about 10 times in all.
The WPT has tried to make their TV tournaments spectator events, and at one point they succeeded beyond their expectations. On hand 35, Esfandiari raised to 60k, Vinh re-raised 110 more and Antonio moved in for 437k. As Vinh pondered and fiddled with his chips, a crowd of Esfandiari partisans yelled for a clock. When Vinh finally folded, Esfandiari showed 10d-7d and Vinh was visibly upset. "Vinny’s on tilt!" the crowd began to chant. Imagine a Masters golf tournament with the crowd yelling, "Tiger’s on tilt!"
Six hands later, David Benyamine was the first out. With blinds now 20-40k, he moved in under the gun for 212k with A-5 suited. Keohan called with pocket jacks and flopped a set. Benyamine, a Parisian, has several European cash-outs including a win in a 2003 Grand Prix de Paris no-limit hold’em event.
At this point the five finalists were fairly tightly grouped. But then Schoenfeld left the group. After Keohan raised to 105k, Vinh called and Schoenfeld tried an all-in steal with Ks-3s. It didn’t work because Keohan had pocket kings, and now was chip leader.
Vegas pro Bill Gazes went out much the same way. Esfandiari raised to 170 and Gazes moved in for 570k total with A-8. He ran into Esfandiari’s pocket queens and couldn’t hit his ace. On hand 75, Vinh relieved Esfandiari of 525k when he moved in with pocket 8s, which held up against Antonio’s Ks-Qs.
Blinds now became 50-100k with 10k antes. It was costing each player 190k every four hands and playing tight was not an option. Keohan had a close call when he called Vinh’s raise and went all in for 235k with Kh-10h against Vinny’s 6-6. On fourth street, with a board of Jc-9h-2s8h, he still had 21 outs with four hearts, an open-end straight draw and two overcards, and caught a 7 for a straight. A few hands later, though, he moved in for 250k with a similar hand, Qd-Jd. Esfandiari and Vinh called with the same hand, K-7, checked the pot down and chopped up Keohan when the board came 9-9-5-6-10.
With two players left, the Commerce commenced its traditional bringing in the cash ceremony. This time a phalanx of young ladies in black gowns delivered the first and second-place prize money of $2,117,620 on silver platters. The bills were piled on the table, along with the traditional Remingon trophy.
When play resumed, Vinh had a slight lead of about 100k. Vinh took a bite out of Esfandiari’s stacks when he held 6-3 and two treys hit the board. Esfandiari came back and did even more damage when he had As-3s to Vinh’s 7-7 and two treys flopped. Esfandiari now had about 2.6 million of the 3,820,000 in play.
Vinh is a very tough opponent with wins this year in no-limit hold’em in Tunica and pot-limit Omaha at LAPC. But Antonio managed to hold him at bay until the final hand when he raised to 250k with A-A and Vinh moved in with Q-Q. With a K-9-2-3 board, Vinny had no outs and the magician had turned himself into a millionaire.