At the poker table, Antonio Esfandiari has been a thorn in Phil Hellmuth’s side for about 18 years. Away from the table, they’ve become close friends.
They’re at the poker table this week.
Hellmuth and Esfandiari are meeting in the second round of “High Stakes Duel” at the PokerGO studio next to the Aria. The heads-up match for $200,000 will be broadcast on PokerGO at 6 p.m. Wednesday. PokerGO is a subscription service for poker content, but the match will be broadcast for free on the app, as well as on PokerGO’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.
Hellmuth won the first round in July, but Esfandiari had the right to a rematch at double the stakes. The loser of Wednesday’s match will also have the right to a rematch with the stakes doubled.
“We’re very good friends, but when it comes to poker, we still go at it as hard as two people can,” Esfandiari said.
Hellmuth and Esfandiari are two of the most recognizable names in poker. Hellmuth, 56, is the all-time leader in World Series of Poker bracelets with 15 and has more than $23 million in live tournament earnings, according to the Hendon Mob Poker Database. Esfandiari, 41, is a three-time WSOP bracelet winner with more than $27 million in tournament earnings, including more than $18 million for winning the $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop in 2012.
They first crossed paths at a magic show.
Hellmuth said he hired Esfandiari as a magician for a party in 2001 or early 2002. Esfandiari surprised Hellmuth by offering to play him heads-up for his fee — a brash move against the all-time bracelet leader. Esfandiari won, though Hellmuth is quick to point out that his pocket aces were cracked by Esfandiari’s pocket fives.
The rivalry became real when both made a World Poker Tour final table in San Francisco. Esfandiari constantly reraised Hellmuth and antagonized him during the broadcast.
“That was hell for me. That one really hurt,” Hellmuth said. “… Antonio could be a little hard to deal with in the early years.”
Esfandiari said he “was probably a little bit overly aggressive as far as antics and behavior at the table.”
“I remember being at the final table and thinking, ‘Wow, if I can torture Phil Hellmuth, I’m going to get some recognition,’” he said.
Hellmuth defeated Esfandiari at the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2005 en route to the title, but he also has a list of times Esfandiari outdrew him in key pots at other tournaments and cash games.
“Do we have time for all these bad beat stories?” Esfandiari said jokingly on a joint conference call Tuesday.
The friendship between them grew gradually, especially over the last decade. Hellmuth said he even got former President Bill Clinton to call Esfandiari during an event Hellmuth was attending.
Hellmuth said he is confident in beating Esfandiari again, as he is against any opponent. However, “probably I’d rather play most anybody in the world except Antonio,” Hellmuth said. “I just know how tough he is.”
A 46-year-old Arizona woman, Svitlana Silva, was arrested in August on suspicion of stealing about $1 million in cash, poker chips and jewelry from Esfandiari and his father at their Las Vegas condominium in July, according to a police report.
Esfandiari had no comment Tuesday about the incident.