Editor's note: This story was posted before the start of Day 8 and Antonio Esfandiari has been eliminated in 24th place. For complete updates on the remaining field, head to the blog.
In 2002, Antonio Esfandiari, a part-time magician, part-time poker pro out of the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, made his way to the World Series of Poker. There, he entertained anyone who would watch him perform with what -- for him -- were some pretty simple card tricks. Steve Lipscomb, the man who built the World Poker Tour, was among those who were impressed.
Lipscomb hired Esfandiari on the spot to come to a WPT news conference and entertain the assembled. When Esfandiari saw what Lipscomb was building, little did he know how entwined his professional and financial future would be with that entity.
"I don't know what I would have said if someone had told me [what would happen]," Esfandiari said upon surviving Day 7 of the main event at the 2009 World Series of Poker. "I'll never forget that night. I came to Vegas and I got sick the night before. I called Steve and I said 'Steve, I might not be able to make it because I'm extremely sick. I've never missed a gig in my life. I'm going to do my best to come.' I showed up the next day still slightly sick and did the show and in the press conference I started to dream of being a real poker player."
Whatever the tonic was that restored his health, Esfandiari owes its manufacturers one of the biggest, wettest kisses he can muster. After the introduction to the professional poker world, Esfandiari became one of the poker boom's stars. He stood up to Phil Hellmuth at the final table of the WPT Gold Rush at the Lucky Chances Casino late in '02, then won $1.4 million at the 2004 L.A. Poker Classic and a bracelet later that year.
From that point on, Esfandiari was a star.
Since that time, the man once nicknamed "The Magician" has been an automatic invite to the poker world's biggest events. Charismatic, quick, skilled and funny, Esfandiari and partner-in-crime Phil Laak have become poker's version of the odd couple. As entertaining as Esfandiari has been, however, he hasn't put up a major victory since those summer days a half-decade ago.
"I'd lost my drive and hunger to win," Esfandiari admitted. "I was comfortable in my life. I could do what I wanted, go where I wanted and got into a comfort zone. I didn't have the desire or hunger to win anymore. I just didn't care. I've always wanted to win, but hadn't really gone for it.
"Two weeks ago, on the advice of [Bluff Magazine editor] Matt Parvis, I hired a life coach," he said. "A mindset coach. For six months, I basically have to do whatever he says. He puts me through routines daily on the phone or in person. Gives me things I have to do. If I don't do them, I have to give money to my friends. There's punishment if I don't come through. The first tournament I played after I hired him, I finished 24th out of 869 and the main event is the second. Look where we are today."
Where he was today was Day 8. Esfandiari was one of just 27 players remaining from the field of 6,494, but he was eliminated in 24th place. He'll freely admit that the coach is having an positive impact on Esfandiari's self-awareness.
"It's absolutely having an effect," Esfandiari explained. "If I have a little stack, I tend to get all-in crazy. [On Day 7] I decided I was going to get through the day. I wasn't going to do that. I just kept telling myself, 'Aces are going to come to me, aces are going to come to me' -- and they did!"
Those aces allowed Esfandiari to double up, leaving him with $4,470,000. The median stack heading into Day 8 was $6,475,000 and the average stack was $7,215,555. He had his work cut out for him, but unfortunately, couldn't gain enough momentum to make a run at the November 9.
Despite the chips apparently being stacked against him, Esfandiari was making a massive gamble heading into the night before Day 8. As players and Web sites scrambled to hook up with one another in sponsorship agreements, Esfandiari's chest remained naked.
"I've had a few offers, but I'm not going to settle for something I don't think I'm worth, which would dilute myself as a brand," said Esfandiari. "I don't want to toot my own horn, but I think a patch on me is worth more than one on a random dude because I've been around for a long time and have been on a lot of poker shows. I'm a familiar face. I've worked too hard to settle for the same deal or even a slightly better deal than what some of the other guys are getting. If they want me to wear a patch, they've got to pay me heavy. Six figures or they can kiss my ass."
It's an attitude that's grounded in long-term thinking. Esfandiari has long been a sponsored player, first with UltimateBet, then with the WPT. It was only two months ago that his WPT deal came to an end. Now, he's looking for his next big contract, much in the same way a professional athlete would. When you're offering an established brand, you don't accept a one-time deal.
"This is a bit of a gamble for me, but it's not about the money; it's the principle," he said. "I know my value and my agent feels the same way. We've been offered a pretty sweet amount of money to put on the patch and I've said no. The length of the deal definitely has something to do with it. I'm a free man. I'd rather get a long-term deal with a site. I'm not going to suddenly slap on some other patch, devaluing me for a longer deal."
Esfandiari is represented by poker superagent Brian Balsbaugh and his firm, Poker Royalty, which includes among its clients Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and a host of poker's other biggest stars. Esfandiari was Balsbaugh's second client.
"Antonio's the total package," Balsbaugh said. "Very few players have the charisma, the résumé and the desire to work. He has all three. Very few players do. It's a classic parlay question: Does he take a little now, or hold off until he gets a lot more later?"
However, Esfandiari showed up to play on Day 8 with a DoylesRoom.net patch. Apparently, the risk of not making any money off his performance so far wasn't worth it.
Esfandiari would have been the perfect player to take full advantage of the opportunities the November Nine final table can offer. "He would be the best, by far," Balsbaugh enthused. "There isn't another player who will be able to capitalize on being in the November Nine better than Antonio can, because he has the charisma and attitude that it takes."
"I enjoy talking to the media," Esfandiari said. "I love doing press conferences and appearances and whatnot. I think making the final table will be a great opportunity for me, one I'll be able to cash in on. I'm pretty good at talking to people. Put me in, coach! I want to do these things! I want to be on Letterman!"
Esfandiari played a dangerous, heads-up, all-or-nothing game with the biggest sites in the online poker industry, one almost as fascinating as the poker tournament he came short of winning. Regardless of the result, one has to think the kid working that long-ago news conference would have been happy just to have his chance to play.
Gary Wise is covering the WSOP for ESPN.com.