PCA 2016: The longest lunge

Editor's note: A new full statement from Antonio now appears at the end of this piece

It was just after 11:15pm Sunday when Antonio Esfandiari looked at the three marble steps leading into the Coral Bar at the Bahamas' Atlantis resort. They were barely stairs at all. A few inches high at most.

They might as well have been the Cliffs of Insanity.

At 37 years old, Esfandiari is healthy and able. On a normal a day, he might've been able to walk down the steps on his hands, blindfolded, while sawing a woman in half. He's a wealthy, trained magician with seemingly not a care in the world.

But last night, Esfandiari couldn't walk. His father trailed him with a wheeled desk chair in case of an emergency sitting necessity. If the magician was going to make it the ten meters to the table, he was going to have to lunge there. If he moved in any other way, it would cost him $50,000. On a day where it was impossible to calculate just how much he had lost, Esfandiari wasn't going to blow it in the last 45 minutes.

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Esfandiari with his father

Esfandiari, clad in a yellow t-shirt and black pants, took a deep breath, descended the steps, and took three long and perfect--if slightly wobbly--lunges to the bar table where he collapsed in a padded chair looking like the pure misery he earned.

This was how one of the most confounding days in recent poker memory came to an end, and if you were looking for anyone to blame for it, you could look right at Esfandiari himself. If you needed anyone else, you'd need to find a hedge fund millionaire everyone calls Perky.

***

Bill Perkins knows how good he has it. At 46 years old, he's 6'1", good looking, and has more money than he needs. The man from Houston once worked for oilmen, started his own hedge fund, and today is a man who wears "Man of Leisure" as a badge of pride.

He also plays poker against some of the best sharps in the world.

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Bill Perkins

With a seemingly bottomless well of cash, Perkins--Perky to his fellow gamblers--spends some of his idle hours testing his mettle against the kind of card players who are happy to pay $100,000 tournament buy-ins. Public databases show Perkins has booked more than $2.5 million in winnings, but without a reliable accounting of his buy-ins, it's impossible to know how much of that--if any--is profit.

Put another way, the best poker players in the world really like it when Perkins shows up to a game. He is not a pro, and his style of play is, in a word, non-standard. This very week, he bought into a $100,000 tournament four times and walked away with nothing in return.

Nothing, perhaps, but a story about how he started Esfandiari down a lunging path that took an historic, controversial, and embarrassing turn no one saw coming.

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To understand what happened, you have to understand the world of proposition wagers, known to those in the business simply as prop bets. They are what happens when you take the schoolyard "I bet you won't jump off the jungle gym," add adults, and sprinkle in some money.

There was the guy who went vegetarian for a year. Another guy who played four straight rounds of golf in the Las Vegas summer sun. And yes, there was once a man who got breast implants.

This is not something gamblers do just for fun. They take it on as they would a dare for which they get paid handsomely.

For poker players, prop bets are born of long boring hours at the table when every other well of conversation has been tapped. When the nights get long, a game of "I bet you won't..." can fill fifteen boring minutes.

That's how it came to be that Perky bet Esfandiari $50,000 he couldn't go 48 straight hours lunging everywhere he went.

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Lunging to work

Esfandiari is already a legend in poker. When poker exploded onto Joe Public's TV screen 13 years ago, the kid magician was in a unique spot to become one of that game's stars. Charismatic, talented, and fearless, Esfandiari was a poker celebrity within months.

He won his first million in his mid-20s and has won more than 20-times that since then. He's one of the commentators for ESPN's World Series of Poker coverage. He is almost universally liked and respected both for his talent and his love for the game.

And that's why what happened on Sunday was one of the most jaw-dropping things that has occurred in the game of poker in recent memory.

***

Embarrassing news spreads quickly in a room full of gamblers and reporters. Within minutes of it happening last night, it was clear what happened was never going to be a secret.

Esfandiari had made it 42 hours into his bet with Perkins. He only needed to survive--lunging the whole way--another six hours to collect $50,000 in real money. It looked like a lock.

If you have never done a proper lunge, you won't understand what was happening to Esfandiari's body. It requires a hyper-extended step, followed by a deep knee bend, followed by recovering into a standing position. Now, repeat that for every step for two straight days of walking.

No matter who you are, that's a bad 48 hours. When you're a poker player competing on the expansive Atlantis resort, it's $50,000 worth of torture. A stroll from one's hotel room to the tournament area can be 15 minutes when walking like a normal person. When lunging, it's almost inconceivable.

Yet, that is exactly what Esfandiari did. He's one of the kings of side wagers, and when Perkins put up the cash, Esfandiari set his head toward achieving the goal.

There was just one thing he didn't think about long enough.

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Stretching, miserable

Esfandiari spent almost all of Sunday competing in the 2016 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event, a $5,000 buy-in tournament that will pay the winner more than $800,000. With 90 minutes left to play before the event would finish for the night, tournament officials took a 30-minute break to allow the staff, TV crew, and players to grab a quick bite to eat and go to the bathroom.

There was only one problem.

Esfandiari couldn't move.

He would recall later, "I literally couldn't make it to the bathroom. I couldn't walk."

This is where everything fell apart.

At some point during the course of 48 hours of lunging, Esfandiari's judgment waned. A man known for making some of the best calls in poker made one of the most startling decisions anyone had ever heard.

With his father blocking one side of him and another friend shielding the other side, Esfandiari covered himself with a towel from the hotel room and relieved himself into a receptacle hidden under the table. Some people said it was a bottle. Esfandiari called it a bucket. It didn't matter what it was.

The man urinated. Into a receptacle. In public.

For those who don't know poker, consider some other star of a game--an Aaron Rodgers, Kobe Bryant, or Lionel Messi--making the decision to let it fly on the field of play. It's like that, but, in a way, worse, because Esfandiari wasn't doing it for the good of the team or to win a championship for the home crowd. He was doing it to cash a bet.

It's unclear at this point who turned Esfandiari in to tournament officials, but it doesn't matter. It's not like he could really keep it a secret. Some people said they could still (and there's no polite way to put it) smell it in the air when he returned to the table.

Tournament officials had no choice. It didn't matter that Esfandiari is one of the most respected members of the game. It doesn't matter that his reputation is spotless. Esfandiari had just breached a rule of etiquette that no one had ever written down in the Tournament Directors Association book of rules. There is no protocol for something like this. Public relations manuals don't discuss it. There are no TED talks explaining the phenomenon. These were shockingly ridiculous uncharted waters.

Within minutes, Esfandiari had been disqualified from the tournament. He was forced to surrender his stack of chips, one that could've earned him anywhere between $8,000 and $800,000 over the next few days. He was asked to leave the tournament area and told not to return until the people in charge had some time to develop a policy on public poker micturition.

And so, with no other choice, Esfandiari stood and slowly, painfully lunged away.

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Esfandiari sipped on a beer in the Coral Lobby bar, not seeming to enjoy it, waiting for the clock to hit midnight. His dad and another high roller, Jason Koon, sat beside him, all smiles.

Esfandiari had already owned his mistake. He gave a video interview apologizing. Although he'd given up a possible $800,000 win, he had nothing bad to say about the tournament officials who kicked him out. He knew he'd earned his disqualification.

"If I ran a tournament, I would have DQ'd me too," he said.

In Hollywood, this story would've had Perkins waiting in the wings hoping Esfandiari would slip up and walk normally in the 11th hour. Instead, Perkins was nowhere to be seen when the clock hit midnight.

It was quiet in the Coral lobby bar, and there were a few people who had no idea what was happening at 12am when Esfandiari stood on wobbly legs, put his fists in the air, and yelled, "I win!"

The clapping started slowly and crescendoed, an applause--perhaps for the first time in recorded history--for a man and recent public urinator who had just won $50,000 for lunging for 48 straight hours.

Before he left the bar, Esfandiari stood and asked a small group of people if they knew they story. They did.

He nodded. He just wanted to make sure people knew he wasn't a disgusting idiot. He'd covered himself. He'd been as private as he could. He simply just couldn't walk to the bathroom.

"I used hand sanitizer," he said with an exaggerated shrug.

In the end, he knew it was a serious lapse in judgment, one that maybe cost him a lot of tournament money, but one that definitely won him $50,000 from a high rolling hedge fund tycoon.

Exhausted, Esfandiari hobbled back toward those little marble steps. He raised a hand and said, "I gotta go to bed."

Then, $50,000 richer and legendary in one of the weirdest ways ever, Esfandiari walked...yes walked...away into the Bahamian night.


Update: Today, Esfandiari released the statement below.

"It makes me quite sad to write this. All the things you have heard are all true. I can sit here and try to explain and justify but at the end of the day my actions were completely unacceptable. What's done is done. All I can do is learn from my mistakes and grow from them. I have apologized to anyone and everyone who may have been affected and will continue to do so.

This happened because of a big prop bet I had with my buddy Bill Perkins that mandated I lunge everywhere for two days. I cannot explain the pain I felt in my legs. I did what I thought was the best play at the time. Looking back now I realize it was a terrible judgment call on my behalf. I am a new father now, and this is not the kind of example I want to set for my son.

I am embarrassed of the actions I took to win that bet. On paper I won, but in life I lost. No matter how much one loves a prop bet there is a limit to how far you should go. And in this case I failed.

Getting disqualified from the tournament is not something I contest. I believe PokerStars made the right call. I would do the same in their position. Knowing that I let people down is what hurts. Sometimes we as humans get caught up in the moment. I let this bet get the best of me.

I won the prop bet and $50,000, but I lost my way. It was a grueling two days, both emotionally and physically, but that is no excuse.

I have been mulling over how to have some good come from this sorry situation and to this end I have decided to donate the entire amount to charity.

25k is going to One Drop, which provides drinking water to impoverished nations, and the other 25k to REG, a charity dedicated to reducing suffering in the world. Both are amazing organizations that I am passionate about. I believe in balance, and my life would not be in balance if I kept this money for myself.

Ty all for taking the time to read this. Lesson learned."


is the PokerStars Head of Blogging.