Column: Poker gets a million dollar night

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By TIM DAHLBERG, Associated Press

It was just coincidence that the operator of what was once one of poker's biggest websites was arrested the same week 48 players each plunked down $1 million in cash to sit down in a Las Vegas casino for what was billed as the biggest payout in tournament poker.

The poker industry needed the "Big One for One Drop" to restore some vitality to the game, which has suffered in the wake of a government crackdown on online poker sites. And what could be better than a national television audience with poker pros and poker wannabes battling it out for a first prize that rivaled those paid Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao?

Indeed, the final table Tuesday night at the Rio hotel didn't just include the usual sharks who hang out in Las Vegas poker rooms. There was a Cirque du Soleil owner who dreamed up the whole thing and a hedge fund operator who donated his $4.3 million winnings for third place to a charity helping students in high risk urban schools.

"It was fun," said David Einhorn, president of Greenlight Capital, who played behind mirrored sunglasses. "I mean, you've got a poker tournament you put together with 48 terrific players. Most of them have lots and lots of experience, and then they invited a few guys like me in and said 'let's have a poker party.' "

The invite came with a catch: Players had to put up $1 million to get in with no guarantee they would get any of it back. That was enough to give pause to even the highest rollers in the poker playing fraternity, including the eventual winner, whose original plan was to do TV commentary on the tournament, not play in it.

That plan changed for 33-year-old Antonio Esfandiari when he decided to round up his investors and enter the tournament at the last minute. He then wore down 47 other players over three days to emerge with the $18.3 million first prize organizers say is the biggest in tournament poker history.

"Believe it or not, I never once thought about the money," Esfandiari said.

The tournament was the brainchild of Guy Laliberte, the Cirque du Soleil founder whose shows are ubiquitous on the Vegas Strip. Laliberte, who Forbes ranks as the 11th richest Canadian with a worth of $2.6 billion, saw the event as a way to both bring excitement back to poker and to benefit the charity One Drop Foundation, which he founded to promote access to clean water around the world.

The one person who benefitted the most, though, was Esfandiari, who emigrated to the United States from Iran at age 9 and was a professional magician before turning to poker. He played barefooted before a large group of supporters that included his father, who cheered wildly every time he won a hand.

The last man sitting with Esfandiari was Sam Trickett, a 25-year-old Englishman who once played professional soccer and is regarded as one of the game's young stars. Only in America, as boxing promoter Don King would say.

Trickett was fading to begin with and running out of options in the Texas Hold'em event when he went all in against what would be a winning hand of three 5's. Trickett was trying to draw to a diamonds flush, but both the last two cards flipped over were hearts, touching off a celebration by Esfandiari's supporters, who held him aloft.

The final table of eight went quickly, too quickly for Brian Rast, a good friend of Esfandiari who finished sixth and had to settle for $1.6 million on his $1 million investment.

When you're a professional poker player, though, you have to accept bad beats. It's part of the game, though this one stung more than most.

"The difference between sixth and first is like 17 million. It hurts," Rast said. "When you gamble for a living for eight years you have to get used to the fact stuff doesn't go your way on a regular basis."

Tournament poker has always drawn a strange assortment of characters, back to the day when guys with nicknames such as Texas Dolly and Amarillo Slim battled it out at Binion's Horseshoe Club in downtown Vegas in what was the original World Series of Poker. Those tournaments were as famous for their $10,000 entry fees as they were for the side games that went on in poker rooms around town that often involved a lot more money than in the official game.

The tremendous growth of online poker — some studies say several million Americans played for money online at least once a month before the government crackdown — helped fuel the popularity of the tournament, which drew 6,865 entries last year, down from a peak of 8,773 in 2006, when Jamie Gold won what was then a record $12 million.

But the major poker websites are now either shut down or shut off in the U.S., and earlier this week Ray Bitar turned himself in on charges his Full Tilt Poker site operated a Ponzi scheme that stole hundreds of millions of dollars from players.

That bit of unpleasantness was set aside as play began at the final table. Poker was again being broadcast in primetime by ESPN, even if most of those watching across the country had no place themselves to play legally.

There wasn't a whole lot of drama, perhaps because players were dropping so quickly. Esfandiari came into the final table leading in chips, and ended up with all the chips by the time it was over.

For one night, though, poker looked like a million dollars once again.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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