Murphy James - Bad Boys of Poker
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Bad Boys of Poker
by Murphy James

Football’s Broadway Joe Namath would party till the wee hours of the morning on game day. Tennis’ John McEnroe and umpires just didn’t always, umm, see eye-to-eye. Baseball’s Jose Canesco ratted on his steroid-using buddies.  Boxing’s Mike Tyson chomped on Evander Holyfield’s ear, skiing’s Bode Miller blabbed to 60 Minutes that he competes with hangovers, and poker’s Mike “The Mouth” Matusow can’t seem to shut off the forbidden F-word during tournament play and keep out of poker’s equivalent of the penalty box. When this happens, Mike’s chips continue to be put in the pot in the form of antes, but he’s not there to try to get them back until his penalty time is over.  So now we have bad boys in poker. Why not? Boys will be boys in any sport.

The Mouth, The Poker Brat, and The Magician

It is clear that Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, Phil “The Poker Brat” Hellmuth, and Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari do not have the “Mother Teresa Next-to-Sainthood” award hanging on their bedroom walls. They have been known to partake of a substance or two or three, look at a short skirt with more than passing interest, and trash-talk their opponents.  Are they bad boys or not?  Let’s see.

The Mouth

How much of a party boy is Mike? Oh, let’s just say, “BIG TIME!”  As he told Card Player Magazine: “In 2003, I just got back from Paris and realized that I’d been up for seven of the nine days that I was there, and when I got home, I was partying with some stripper and I was up for another two days. I figured out that I’d only slept twice in 11 days.”  In the Championship event of the 2004 World Series of Poker, Mike got into a table tiff with opponent Greg Raymer. From the mouth of The Mouth: “I got big cojones. You got tiny cojones.”  The Mouth flipped his cards Raymer’s way, and then wanted to shake Greg’s hand by way of apology. Raymer refused.  Tiny Balls won it all and took home $5 mil. Big Balls finished in 87th place with a measly $20,000 payoff, clearly unworthy of someone with such a humungous pair.

Phil "The Poker Brat" HellmuthBut Once the Mouth Got Out of Jail

The Mouth was doing well on the pro poker tournament trail up until late 2004, even picking up two World Series of Poker wins, but once he got out of jail, his career really took off.  Out of jail?  Mike’s story is that the friend of a friend of a friend asked Mike to pick up some drugs and deliver them to him. Friend Number Three was apparently a dealer well known to the local police, who were on his trail. The Vegas PD nabbed Mike and wanted him to wear a wire to take down the dealer. Mike refused. Six charges were filed against him. He plea bargained five of them away, pled guilty to one charge of possession, and spent six months in the Clark County Jail, where he claims he lost $200,000 on sports betting.  Mike often wears a L’Chaim (to Life) charm around his neck. Since his release from Clark County Jail in April, 2005, life has gotten better: Matusow racked up a couple of million dollar tournament wins, got rid of his computer after losing $400,000 playing online poker, and attributes a change in medication to controlling his temper. Oh, the wonders of legal drugs!  Hopefully he’s going to keep out of trouble for good. Otherwise he’s liable to wind up with slammer time of, say, 5-to-L’Chaim.

The Poker Brat

Phil Hellmuth, Jr., “The Poker Brat,” shows up late for the kickoff seminar of his own poker camp (Camp Hellmuth) where several hundred wannabes have plunked down big bucks for the privilege of schmoozing with him. He carries his tardiness over to the World Series of Poker, letting the dealer diminish his stack of chips with required antes until he deigns to unfold out of his limo, stroll through the casino, and join the table.  And how about when Mike “The Mouth” runs up against Phil “The Brat?”  The Mouth likes to tell The Brat that he’s a has-been. Yeah, Phil won the World Series of Poker Championship event in 1989, but that was a hundred years ago.  The Brat counters that The Mouth is ready for one of his classic blowups: screaming the forbidden F-word or flipping cards at opponents in tournament play and being assessed heavy time-out penalties.  They were at the same final table at the televised 2005 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions event. They bantered back and forth for the television and studio audience in what sounded almost like a scripted exchange.

The Brat Never Quits

Antonio "The Magician" EsfandiariAt one point, down but not yet out, Phil exclaimed, “I never quit. I never quit.” They zdeclared war on each other.  When it appeared that The Brat wasn’t getting enough sympathy from the crowd, he turned to them and promised to buy them 30 bottles of Dom Perignon if he won. The crowd cheered wildly.  How did it all sort out? The Mouth picked up a million for a masterful first place finish while Phil picked up $250,000 for a third place exit. Mike made no brash promise to buy expensive champagne for anyone. The crowd went thirsty. The Brat went away.

Phil considers himself the greatest poker player of all time. He has been known to tell opponents disgustedly that they can’t even spell poker. When he went up against Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, another World Series of Poker Champ, in the final match of the 2005 NBC National Heads Up Championship (let the record show that Phil won this event and pocketed $500,000); he fell off his chair and flopped on the floor over a dramatic losing hand.  Phil’s wife is a psychiatrist. Some say she needs to do a little work on him. In fact, Phil has been in counseling. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he loves his therapy sessions: he gets to talk about himself for an hour!  Phil acknowledges - hell, he brags that - “beautiful women throw themselves at me.”  Yet, he claims not to be a Bad Boy in one way: “I’ve been faithful to my wife for all the years of our marriage,” he says.

The Magician

But hang on, guys and gals. Here comes The Magician. Unlike The Brat, he’s single. Unlike The Mouth, he’s quiet and well-mannered. But boy, oh, boy, is there ever a new bad boy in town.  Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari begins a blog with: “Gambling! Drinking! Women! Fasten your seat belts ladies and gentlemen. I am about to take you for a ride; a journey into the life of a professional poker player.”  The journey begins with Antonio and his entourage rolling up to Bellagio’s toney nightspot, Club Light. They cruise past a line of a hundred or so mere mortals to catch the attention of the host, who is trained to recognize VIP guests at 30 paces. Antonio is then escorted to Table 34, “my home away from home.”   Favorite waitress, Elizabeth, asks, “The usual?” which is three full bottles of Grey Goose (“World’s Best Tasting Vodka!”), the special stuff that hits your credit card at 300 bucks a pop. “Beautiful babes are everywhere! The go-go dancers are shaking their booties. Life is goooood!!”

Antonio "The Magician" EsfandiariThis 28-year old native of Tehran, Iran came to the United States with his family at the age of nine. After high school there was a year of college. Then he came across a magician and was fascinated. He practiced tricks for 12 hours a day and performed in restaurants and at private parties. Fascinated with cards, he found another use for them by playing poker in northern California card rooms.  There was the usual poker route of losing, winning, losing. Then the “W” word began to be used more frequently than the “L” word. In early 2001, he parlayed a few hundred bucks into a $20,000 bankroll and headed for the World Series of Poker. He shot his wad and came home broke but he was hooked. Poker was his game.  What about his poker chops? The Magician won the $2000 Pot-Limit Hold 'em event at the 2004 World Series of Poker. He also became the youngest player to win a million dollar prize in a poker tournament and the youngest player to win a televised World Poker Tour event.

One Part Aladdin, One Part Bugs Bunny

When Bluff Magazine called at his home they found him in boxer shorts, playing online poker. Bluff’s take on Antonio: “One part Aladdin, one part Bugs Bunny.” They observed that Bellagio chips, ranging from $10 to $1,000, were scattered all over the coffee table, serving as drink coasters. There was a rubber-banded, two-inch thick wad of $100 bills sitting on one of the cushions of the sofa. It looked as if somebody just tossed it there and forgot about it.  Antonio leads a (not so) secret society, Rocks and Rings (R&R), consisting of “a posse of guys who really know how to party and seem determined to teach the world this skill, one nightclub at a time.” A major tenet of R&R: there's only one class. First.  Another: Dutch treat is forbidden. You gamble for the whopping bar bills.  One more, on relationships: "If it ain't working, you've got to just kick 'em to the curb and move on!"  Does this poker lad have style or what? And what shall we call it? Bluff came up with the perfect tag: “Poker like a Rock Star.”

The Next Generation of Bad Boys

Is Bad Boy-ism on the upswing or decline?  Well, who’s getting the ink, digital and otherwise? Who is scribbling autographs? Who’s got the chicks?  In the summer of 2006, more than 6,000 players will sign up for the Championship Event of the World Series of Poker at the Rio in Vegas. Are there more bad boys among them?  Will there be loud mouths, whiners, nightclub and strip joint devotees . . . or perhaps some originals with behaviors, bad, of course, that haven’t even been thought of yet?  And aren’t we overdue for some bad girls of poker as well?