Esfandiari And Laak Go Way Back

3 years ago
The Magician And The Unabomber Go Way Back
19 Apr

The story you’re about to read is about two of the most entertaining poker figures in history: Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Laak. As some of our readers probably know, they also happen to be best friends. They’ve made many TV shows together and they’ve played against each other at countless poker tables and in a variety of environments, from the most dangerous underground poker venues, to the WSOP in Las Vegas and WPT across the USA. But how did they meet? And how did they become best buds in such a tough and competitive environment? This is their story from complete unknowns trying to figure each other out, to poker icons finishing each other's sentences.

Note: The real facts of how they met and how they became best friends are based on the interview Laak and Esfandiari gave to All In Magazine’s writer Jonathan Grotenstein back in 2007.

The Magic Show

“Hey Antonio, do some magic for us man,” he heard as he was crossing the big hall of the famous Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas. It was the early summer of 2000 and all the gamblers were gathered together for the World Series of Poker. Antonio wanted to try his luck too, but he wasn’t really sure if the game was indeed his calling. He had already fulfilled his dream to become a professional magician but this was hardly easy work, especially if you were trying to make a living out of it. He liked Texas Holdem, he even won some money playing it, yet he was still reluctant to embrace the career of a professional poker player. The WSOP was a place of legends like Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, ‘Amarillo Slim’ Preston, ‘Texas Dolly’ Brunson or Erik Seidel. All of them performed magic of their own on the green felt, the type of magic Antonio was unfamiliar with.

“Buddy,” Antonio smiled at his friend. “Gents,” he bowed down like a true magician at his viewers who were sitting comfortable at a poker table, most of them unaware of his nickname “The Magician.” He took his deck of cards, looked at everyone at the table and asked: “Who wants to help me?” The magic show was on…

“Please pick a card sir,” he politely asked the man who offered to help him.

“How about picking a hand?” he responded. “How about pocket Aces?” and all the table laughed.

“Nah man, pocket Aces are overrated,” one guy at a table broke the laughter. “How about nine-six suited?” His name was Gus, a 25-year-old from Northern Europe with a very aggressive style. When he was playing poker, Gus was a true degenerate, but the kind of degenerate that was actually winning. Behind him was a friend of his, Phil who looked interested in what was about to unfold in front of him.

Antonio started to perform his tricks, deceiving the audience and making them look the wrong way, but he immediately noticed that Phil wasn’t doing what he should: looking away when he talked.

“This guy is trying to figure me out,” Antonio thought as he saw Phil looking at his hands. “I must get away from here.” So ‘The Magician’ decided to cut his act short and find a much more suitable audience, one more ready to cooperate with him.

Ten minutes later, Antonio was somewhere else trying to amaze another group of poker players, but he was being followed. Phil was trying to get the best angle and discover the real magic behind the ‘magic.’ Since he was a child, Phil was a magic enthusiast, reading all the magicians’ books that existed in the library in his hometown on the East Coast. He knew the basic tricks but couldn’t quite figure out this strange fellow nicknamed ‘The Magician.’

“This frickin’ prick. He’s really trying to heckle me,” Antonio thought as he saw Phil again. So to protect his illusions, he had to break the show short yet again. “How can I possibly get rid of him?” he wondered.

“Sir, excuse me,” Phil finally broke the ice after the audience returned at the poker tables. “I’ve watched a lot of magic in my time, and that was some of the tightest, coolest, close-up magic. I couldn’t figure out most of it, I thought it was slick, polished,” the man from the East Coast complimented the magician.

Surprised and humbled, Antonio tried to deflect the compliment.

Hey, my name’s Antonio. How about getting a beer and tell me all about the magic shows you watched?”

Name’s Phil. And that sounds like a great idea...”

Pulling Phil Back In

Rrring, rrring, rrrrring…

“Oh no, not Antonio again,” Phil thought as he was looking at his cell phone. “Didn’t he call me like three days ago?”

“Yes Antonio,” Phil answered with a voice that showed clear displeasure.

“Yo Phil, what’s up man? What are you doing joining the real world man?” a voice from the other end of the line echoed in the man’s ear. That voice however was much warmer and joyful.

Didn’t you ask me the same question three days ago?” Phil asked visibly irritated. “It is what it is. I don’t know if the whole poker business is for me in the long run man...”

And Wall Street is?”

Phil was silent. He knew Antonio was right. Being just another white collar on Wall Street wasn’t his dream job. But he had a stable salary and he earned much more than he had earned during the time he tried out the poker career. And that time was over, he had tried for a year and wasn’t that profitable at all. Now he was back drifting off to Wall Street to find his place… his fulfillment. Except, he realized, his fulfillment couldn’t be found on Wall Street.

C’mon man, didn’t we have fun in Las Vegas? Remember after we got that beer and started wandering the Vegas streets with a deck of cards in our hands, having fun and meeting new people? Remember how I did all the magic and you did all the talking?”

Phil smiled. “We did have some fun times, didn’t we?” After the WSOP experience, he couldn’t remember if he actually had fun while trying to make a living on the East Coast. He didn’t, he realized.

But here is the real money Antonio. I can’t get near those numbers while playing poker.”

Antonio tried to convince his new friend:

Look man, you should be here in California playing Holdem. Do I have to remind you how much money I make here? You know, the little bubble at Bay 101? There are some sick people here.”

Antonio, no one makes that kind of money. I went to every casino in the world, practically, for the last year or so and I haven’t seen anybody making that much in the long run.”

See for yourself Phil. Come here for a few days, I’ll show you around and I’ll introduce you to the right people. That’s all I’m asking. Just for a few days. If you aren’t satisfied, you can go back to the life you’re currently living.”

Phil liked the idea to meet with Antonio yet again, play poker, at the end of the day have a few beers with him, and most importantly, have fun. He wanted to have fun while making money and Antonio was definitely the right person to be around to achieve his dream.

OK, Magic Boy, here’s the thing: I’ll make plans to come there next week. Just for a few days to see your magic place. But if it doesn’t work...”

“It will Phil, trust me. It will,” the voice at the end of the line reassured the Wall Street guy.

Best Friends For Life

Phil couldn’t believe it. He was making so much money that the whole Wall Street gig seemed like a joke to him. He had run hot for the last couple of days but he did his calculations: if he ran average, he would still crush his Wall Street money-making dream. And things with Antonio were going on so well. Antonio was the social guy, charismatic, and a real networker while Phil was the calculated guy who loved numbers and reason. A perfect match, as many had said so far. How could Phil possible pass up this immense opportunity to make money while having fun?

I’ll tell you man, you’re sicker than those people down there,” Antonio said laughing as they left the Bay 101 cardroom. “I mean you come here, your first day right, and you already set up a record for the biggest win in one day for like, the last five years. And then, you come the next day and break your own record? You’re sick, sick, sick!”

Phil smiled:

C’mon man, easy game. They’re so easy to read. I mean when they bet, they bet max and if I check, they always bet. Are you kidding me? Where in the world did you find this game?”

“Magic Phil...magic,” Antonio responded pulling a red scarf from his buddy’s pocket. “Stay here and you’ll witness some more,” the Magician said as he showed to his friend a wallet coming out from the red scarf.

Phil checked his inner pocket anxiously:

"Why you… You’ll have to tell me how did you do this now that we’re moving together.”

"Never Phil, never. A magician never reveals his tricks. Check your side pocket.”

Phil did that and was amazed once more. His wallet was now in his side pocket.

"It’s all set and done then?”

Antonio winked at him.

"I spoke to the lady landlord for that place five miles away from here. We’ll prepay her six months worth of rent and we’re set. We can move in starting tomorrow. I’ve also spoken to my former roommate and he’s ok. No hard feelings.”

"Good,” Phil said. “Now I have to call my buddy in the Wall Street world.”

"And what will you say to him?”

"I’m taking a sabbatical.”

Antonio chuckled: “How many years?”

“Probably lifetime,” Phil answered and laughed.

"That’s my boy. C’mon, let’s prepare the place for our arrival.”

The two best buds got into the car and drove off. Life was wonderful, just as Phil had pictured it when he was young growing up on the East Coast and reading puzzle books.

“You know, we should enforce a rule,” Phil broke the silence as he was driving to their new cosy place.

Already? We haven’t even moved yet!”

Hear me out! At least one hour per week to forget about it all. No phones, no poker talk, just hang out, have a barbecue or whatever.”

Antonio smiled: “We’ll see, we’ll see… C’mon, let’s eat some fish tacos first at Rubio’s. Best in the business.”

Phil learned San Jose extremely well after just a few days living there and he was already familiar with Rubio’s, so he found the place with ease and parked.

“Hey, hey, you can’t park here. It’s a fire lane,” Antonio warned his best friend.

“Hmm, the chance of getting a ticket are probably $600 to $100,” Phil calculated aloud.

Antonio’s eyes lid up. “Seven to one! I’ll take that.”

Phil frowned. “So you like to gamble… You’re on, Magic Boy, you’re definitely on...”

Articles 96

Florian is a freelance journalist and avid poker player with a strong passion to create unique and appealing stories.He is an experienced researcher on various topics, from business and the financial markets to psychology and the gambling industry.He blogs at more


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