Esfandiari was one of 48 professional poker players and amateurs who put up $1 million each to participate in The Big One for One Drop, the Guy Laliberte brainchild that concluded Tuesday at the 2012 World Series of Poker. The 11.111 percent of the total entry fee that went to Laliberte's One Drop charity made the event an altruistic endeavor, but that was over and done with when the first cards were dealt on Sunday.
Through three days, Esfandiari glowed. He ran from table to table, joking with friends and seeming entirely at home in the largest-buy-in tournament in poker history. He seemed like a man who knew what awaited him.
"Yes, I did think [I'd win]," Esfandiari said as he basked in the afterglow of his victory. "I believed it, I declared it and I wanted to win even more since I took third [last week]. I was determined to come back and win."
Esfandiari entered the final day's play with a small chip lead over England's Sam Trickett, with whom he flip-flopped in the standings for most of the table play that was broadcast on ESPN. Malaysian businessman Richard Yong was eliminated during the first few hours of the final table. After the dinner break, 1978 world champion and City Center CEO Bobby Baldwin went out next in seventh and Esfandiari's close friend, Brian Rast, was stopped by Sam Trickett in sixth with a massive cooler.
As Esfandiari took out the event's creator, Guy Laliberte, A-K over Q-Q, he suddenly held a commanding chip lead. Phil Hellmuth's quest for his 13th bracelet ended with a fourth-place finish, and David Einhorn, a hedge fund manager who donated his prize purse to the education-focused non-profit City Year, finished third. In a match that many expected to see as the final table played out, it was Esfandiari versus Trickett for the $18.3 million. Esfandiari got Trickett all-in on a Jd-5d-5c board, holding 7d-5s for three of a kind. Trickett showed Qd-6d for a flush draw.
"My heart wasn't beating that hard actually," Esfandiari said, surprised. "I just went through the process and thought, 'Here we are. This is the moment. If you fade this flush draw, you win the biggest tournament in the history of the world. Please, Jesus, one time!' I think I used up my 'one times' in this tournament. I'm OK with that though."
Esfandiari got his one time. The diamond never came. The turn was 3h, the river 2h, and Esfandiari was the champion. He was immediately swarmed by his friends and family on stage.
In addition to the money, Esfandiari won a special edition platinum bracelet, which he immediately gave to his father. This was Esfandiari's second career WSOP title. With the $18,346,673 first prize, his total tournament winnings come to $23,245,828, the most any player has won in organized tournament history. Trickett's $10,112,001 consolation prize gives him a career total of $16,471,097, good for fourth all-time behind just Esfandiari, Erik Seidel and Phil Ivey. Trickett's cash was also the third largest single prize awarded in WSOP history behind Esfandiari and 2006 WSOP champion Jamie Gold. That the all-time standings were so effected indicates the true scope of this event.
"I think it had everything," said Mitch Garber, CEO of Caesars interactive Entertainment, Laliberte's partner in The Big One. "It had drama, charity, great poker, every major hand you could possibly see. … We had a great final table, a terrific performance by businessmen and pros alike. We put on a fantastic show and raised $5.3 million for charity so, for me, it's a total success for everybody."
"For One Drop it was fantastic," Laliberte said. "What could I expect more than that? Antonio is a worthy champion. He was great. He scooped me. When you're running good, you're running good. Like I said at the opening of the tournament, I was already a winner."
For Esfandiari, the victory represents maturation. Finding poker celebrity at a young age, his penchant for partying became a major storyline in his life. "I did some self-awareness work, tried to put things in perspective," he said. "What was important, what wasn't important. Going out and partying all the time, it really didn't make me happy. I loved it, don't get me wrong, but I kind of grew out of it. I'm 33 now. I decided to live a better life. This WSOP, I decided I was going to be focused, wake up every day, go to the gym and win a bracelet. It's 100 percent the reason I won."
Many of Esfandiari's competitors noticed the change.
"The way he started out in poker, I didn't respect," Hellmuth said of Esfandiari after being eliminated in fourth place. "You know he'd bust Phil Ivey and start shouting, 'Hit the door!' and all this crazy stuff. You know, the early days. But he's come a long way, and … he's actually turned into a really great guy. He's worked really hard on himself and he's turned into a great guy."
What of the Big One? With the phenomenal success it enjoyed and the interest it has inspired, Garber isn't shy about its future.
"You'll see it again," he asserted. "This is not about one-offs. I think that we've established that we can put on the greatest tournaments in the world, the highest buy-in events in the world, and that we can wrap in charity to those events as well. We'll do this again. It's a question of in what format, when and where. I think Guy and I need to spend some time thinking about it and we'll make a decision very quickly."
For Esfandiari, that's all down the road. With $18.3 million reasons to celebrate, he shared a shot of Jameson with friends on the WSOP's brightest stage. Even as you mature, you have to celebrate the greatest moments of your life.
Below are the complete results of Event 55 at the 2012 World Series of Poker:
Event 55: The Big One For One Drop
Prize pool: $42,666,672
Players in the money: 9
1. Antonio Esfandiari ($18,346,673)
2. Sam Trickett ($10,112,001)
3. David Einhorn ($4,352,000)
4. Phil Hellmuth ($2,645,333)
5. Guy Laliberté ($1,834,666)
6. Brian Rast ($1,621,333)
7. Bobby Baldwin ($1,408,000)
8. Richard Yong ($1,237,333)
9. Mike Sexton ($1,109,333)