I looked back over my left shoulder. Ty Stewart, Executive Director of the World Series of Poker, was asking about the hand in progress, what would turn out to be the decisive hand of the biggest poker tournament ever held.
“Esfandiari,” I answered. He leaned forward to see the cards on the screen above the table below a little better.
Timmy, the dealer, had spread the flop . I had only just arrived a couple of minutes before Stewart, having been back in my room watching the “almost live” (or “moments ago”) coverage on ESPN of the final table of Event No. 55, the $1,000,000 buy-in “Big One for One Drop.”
Finally enjoying a day off, I had spent some of it away from the Rio relaxing a little and getting other work done, then had been in earlier in the afternoon to do an interview about WSOP history (and other topics) with Tatjana Pasalic. (I believe some videos including segments with me and Nolan Dalla will be appearing over on the Calvin Ayre site shortly, if you’re curious to see those.)
I’d briefly been in the Amazon before and after the interview to watch some of the final table at that time, then had gone back to the room and watched until Esfandiari and Sam Trickett had reached heads-up.
The stacks were fairly deep at that point. Esfandiari had a more than 2-to-1 chip lead to start heads-up play with better than 102 million to Trickett’s 41.5 million. The blinds were 400k/800k, though, meaning Trickett still had more than 50 big blinds. The sucker could end at any moment, of course, but I figured there was a chance it might go on a while, and so decided to drive back over to the Rio and see if perhaps I could get there to witness the end in person.
My timing turned out perfectly. What ESPN was showing was on a 15-minute delay, and I left right as the first hand between Esfandiari and Trickett was being dealt.
About 15 minutes later I was standing there in the media tower, watching Trickett check-raising that flop and Esfandiari coming back over the top. Trickett was in the tank for a short while before announcing that he was reraising again to 15 million. That’s when Esfandiari quickly pushed all in and Trickett called.
We were already standing in the media tower, watching as everyone else sitting in the “mothership” suddenly rose to their feet at Trickett’s call. The cards were turned over and pushed forward near the flop so they could be seen on the screens up above. Esfandiari held -- he’d flopped trip fives. Meanwhile Trickett had for a flush draw. That’s when Stewart asked who was leading.
“This could be it,” said Stewart, and we all leaned forward to watch Timmy deal the turn and river.
Timmy is one of the better dealers at the WSOP, a guy I’ve seen and talked to for several summers. He’s dealt lots of big hands at the WSOP, although none with so much on the line in terms of prize money before. No one had.
I had stopped in on the Big One on Day 2 during a break when they were down to two tables. Timmy was practicing dealing flops (see pic). He was joking about how he was so “OCD” that he couldn’t resist nudging the community cards to make them perfectly even after spreading a flop.
“I’ll bet out of 100,000 flops I’ve only left one alone,” he said. The dealer at the other table joked that Timmy even turns the aces around so they appear right side up when he deals. He doesn’t do that, but he is obviously a bit of a perfectionist, a trait that no doubt helped make him one of those chosen to deal at this prestigious final table.
I squinted to see the flop again, noting how the cards were perfectly even. Then I watched as Timmy rapped the table, burned a card, and carefully slid the turn card into place beside the first three.
A slow rumble began to build during the several seconds that passed before Timmy again hit the table, burned a card, and turned over fifth street... the .
Esfandiari began to run around in a circle, hands on his head, and about two dozen friends and family rushed forward to surround him. The arena lights began flashing on and off, and soon Esfandiari was up on the group’s shoulders.
As the scene settled, the CEO of Caesars Interactive Entertainment Mitch Garber came out to award Esfandiari the bracelet and first prize, which he noted was the “greatest... in all of sports.” Esfandiari immediately motioned for his father to come forward, saying how he was giving the bracelet to him.
I remembered Esfandiari’s Dad from last summer when I’d covered an event in which Antonio had final tabled and he had been there. He had a big grin on his face then, and it was even bigger now.
Kara Scott then briefly interviewed Esfandiari as we all stood in silence. Their words weren’t broadcast over the public address, and so we couldn’t hear them. I noticed Esfandiari was barefoot as he responded to Scott’s questions. A little later he’d slip back on the flip flops he’d been wearing, which along with his green hoody contrasted severely with the setting and situation.
Soon pictures were being taken of Esfandiari hugging the mountain of cash sitting before the table, such as that one to the left snapped by Joe Giron (WSOP). Earlier in the afternoon, Jess Welman had characterized the stacks of cash bricks as looking like a fireplace, which it did, and I’d said they couldn’t possibly have put it on the table as it would collapse under its weight.
As those pictures were being snapped, we speculated in the media tower about how it was not really $18,346,673 sitting there on the stage. Nor was Esfandiari really winning that amount, either. Someone sounding as though he was in the know suggested Esfandiari had only 17% of himself, and we all nodded.
More interviews followed, but I noted Esfandiari taking a moment to shake hands with the dealers -- Timmy and Shaun -- standing off to the side. I’d joke with Rich afterwards that Esfandiari was right to shake their hands, since besides playing well, he’d been dealt some nice cards, too, at that final table.
I then saw Timmy with his phone out snapping photos just like all the rest of us were. Was a special moment, one that seemed worth chronicling. Indeed, I think those of us snapping photos weren’t so much doing it to have our own pictures. Other, better photos were being taken all around by Joe and others.
Rather, I think some of us were taking them just to prove we were there, too.
I left soon thereafter, thinking of that “All-Time Money List,” a list that had already been thrown all out of whack some time ago when all of those “super high roller” events began to happen.
And how when someone now asks “Who’s ahead?” there the answer is also “Esfandiari.”
At least until the next million-dollar tournament.