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Dahlberg: Poker receives positive boost for one night

Thu., July 5, 2012

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

There wasn’t a whole lot of drama to this contest, perhaps because players were dropping so quickly. Esfandiari came into the final table leading in chips, and ended up with all the chips.

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

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