The inside story of the poker boom: ‘We blew the doors off’

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Antonio Esfandiari’s heart was beating like a drum. There was $18m (£15.8m) on the line, the cash was stacked up about 12ft from where he was sitting.

It was 3 July 2012 and Esfandiari, then 33, had outlasted 47 other poker players in Las Vegas. Either he or Englishman Sam Trickett would be claiming the biggest first prize in the game’s history to date.

The live TV cameras were primed, the tension among fans at breaking point. The commentators held their breath as the dealer prepared to reveal the final card. Esfandiari was about to experience the most euphoric moment of his life. But he still looked like the coolest head in the room.

When he was confirmed as the winner, he immediately took off his glasses. Not in relief or disbelief but to save them from being crushed as his family and friends flooded in from all sides to congratulate him.

The celebrations were wild. He was held high in the air by the group now gathered tight around him. Somebody threw over a huge bundle of $100 bills from the stack. Eventually, he got his glasses back on.

As the huddle cleared and broadcaster ESPN kept rolling, everybody recognized something extraordinary had just happened.

For Esfandiari, it represented the culmination of a career that began in very different circumstances a decade earlier.

But Poker itself had changed immeasurably in that time too. A once frowned-upon card game now had its own share of the United States sporting mainstream thanks to a boom in popularity that was perhaps reaching a peak.

This is the story of how it got there.

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