Last year, she couldn’t get a visa to the United States to play in the World Series of Poker because of her Iranian passport. This year, the dreaded coronavirus pandemic gave her an opportunity, and she seized it. Melika Razavi took down Event #82: $1,050 Beat the Pros for $239,180 on Natural8 – GGNetwork without having to set foot in the US. The former beauty queen, magician, and poker pro talks about her unusual life story.
Interview is by Gaelle Jaudon
Somuchpoker: Melika, there are so many things to say about you! You definitely have `a very atypical profile in the poker world. You’re an Iranian woman and also a magician and a pageant beauty queen, with over half a million followers on Instagram, and you recently won a WSOP bracelet in Event #82: $1,050 Beat the Pros ($239,180). So there is a lot to talk about!
Can you talk a bit about your background and family, I know you moved to South Africa when you were 15, and that you went from beauty pageants to poker.
Meli Razavi: Sure, first, a lot of players know me as Meli Razavi. That’s my Instagram page, and it was a bit confusing for the WSOP when I won because they used my nickname. I moved from Iran to South Africa when I was 15 years old, but I always had a passion for poker. Poker came first in my life, and then came magic and beauty pageants and all of that. Poker was always in my life, but as time went on, I realized that I had a very deep connection and passion and love for this game, and I decided I could use it more at the age of 22. At the age of 24, I started to travel the world for events, and started to take it more seriously. I was more of a cash game player at that time. I still am, but recently, for about a year, and also due to the lockdown, I’ve played more tournaments.
SMP: I would like to talk about your background, because it’s really interesting. Basically, everything that you do is forbidden in Iran, playing poker, doing magic, and participating in beauty pageants. I guess it says a lot about your personality, to have a strong will and keep doing what you want, no matter what. Did you have to struggle a lot to do all of that? What were the biggest difficulties you had to face?
MR: My biggest difficulty, I guess, has been to adjust to a completely different culture at a young age, since I was originally from Iran. It was just me and my mother that moved to South Africa, and I had to find myself as a person and as a woman, with all the struggles we had to face. Dealing with my strength and weaknesses, with everything we’ve been through, wasn’t easy. I have always wanted to be an independent woman, making my own money, be strong and be able to travel the world by myself. So, coming from a country where everything has always been forbidden, and wanting to come out from that shell and be different, proving to myself that I am able to do all those things was not an easy task, specially knowing that the decision I was making could have a huge impact, like not being able to go back to my country and see my family again.
It’s important to add that, for me, nothing is impossible when you put your mind and your full energy into it. So many things were impossible for me when I was a young girl, because I was told that it was impossible. When I grew up, my mind was the only thing that I had, because no one could control that. So, I told myself, “I know that I can, and I will”, and no matter what people told me, I never gave up. I’m getting there today, and it’s just the beginning of my poker journey, and I’m not gonna let anything stop me. Like, last year I couldn’t get a visa to go play the WSOP because of my Iranian passport, even if I had won a package to go play the Ladies’ Event. It was a real disadvantage for me, not being able to participate in something I’m so passionate about, but for me personally, the WSOP Online this year, because of COVID, was a great opportunity!
SMP: Let’s go back a bit to your victory. How are you feeling and how was your final table? It was quite a tough field, with players like Mike Leah, Elio Fox and Dylan Linde.
MR: Winning that bracelet was a massive step for me, and I think miracles are possible! This year, without WSOP Online, I wouldn’t have been able to go to Vegas, and I would never have experienced that amazing feeling of winning a bracelet. I think it’s important to think about the opportunity that online events represent for so many people who can’t travel to the US; women and men, for many different reasons. I think having WSOP Online is more fair and brings more people to play from different backgrounds.
To be honest, all that mattered for me was to stay focused all the time, play my A game, never tilt, just take a deep breath when I had a bad beat, and refocus right after. Obviously, you have to take into consideration everything at the final table; the ICM, the stack levels, etc. It was quite a difficult final table, but I arrived at the final table in a good position. As a chiplead, I was very strong mentally and I was very happy about my game. Three times during the tournament I was down to only 3 BB. So, yes, obviously you also need to have luck on your side in those moments, but I never gave up and, even with 3 BB, I was focused. The next day I wasn’t.
SMP: Do you think you also reached a new level in your game recently, that you had what we call a key moment? How did you study?
MR: I definitely think I reached a higher level. I spent hours and hours studying and discussing hands with other players. I feel really good and focused recently. For example, I didn’t sleep at all after my victory. I was feeling good and went straight on to play the other event, the $10,000 No Limit Hold’em – WSOP Super MILLION$ (Event #83), where I finished 13th for $80K. That was a really crazy two days. I’ve studied a lot of videos on Upswing Poker and I am also coached by top poker pros, with private and online coaching. I can’t give you their names because they don’t want me to. They don’t usually give coaching, and I’m very privileged to be able to learn from them.
SMP: You started your poker career recently, your first Hendon Mob line was in 2017, a very small cash win in Barcelona, and you have already achieved impressive results in a short time. What are your next goals?
MR: I set goals for myself, to be better. I work to be better every day, and I learn from my mistakes, to accept them and move on. I’m always amazed by poker, because it’s a game you just never stop learning about. Every day, when I talk to poker players about hands, I’m always amazed by all the new things I can learn. You can never say that you have studied everything, so my goal is first to get involved in getting more women into the poker world. It’s not just a male game, and every year that goes by, more women are proving they can play in tough fields. Like, just look at Wenling Gao, who came second in the WSOP Main Event online. Every year women are getting closer and closer to winning big events and the main event, so I want to encourage that, especially by promoting the online events, because many women don’t have the opportunity to travel to play poker.
SMP: Talking about your background, we usually never speak about beauty pageants during a poker interview, so I think it’s really cool. You won Miss Global Iran in 2016 and Miss Power Woman 2017. What did those kinds of contests teach you, and what did you want to show or to prove through that?
MR: My goal when I choose to participate in Miss Power 2017 was to get there to represent all the women in my country, all those beautiful women who don’t have a voice, and can’t get up there and talk for themselves because of the Iranian Government who has oppressed them. I wanted to show another side of Iranian women that people are not used to seeing. Women are not allowed to sing, not allowed to dance, to ride a bicycle, or even to go to stadiums to see sports events. So, I wanted to be a voice for them because we don’t like it! We want to do all those things, and it was a great opportunity to represent Iranian women because we are strong, we are open-minded, we are creative, we are nothing less than European people, and whatever some people may think I wanted to prove them wrong. The competition was about having a powerful mind, and we had many different challenges, and I was really happy to win, because I was representing the women of my country. It was not about me, but about all those Iranian women.
SMP: As you said, you were more of a cash game player. What kind of limits are you used to playing, and where?
MR: Obviously, I started with really low stakes, but I moved to up to stakes of 50/100; 100/200 is the maximum I played. I played a lot in private cash games and I also run my own private game sometimes, it’s invite only.
SMP: As we said, you’re also a magician. I saw some YouTube videos of you performing magic. Are you still doing it? Does it help you in some way when you play live, to find tells, for example, or keep a poker face?
MR: Yeah, magic has always been something I’ve loved. I spent many, many hours playing with cards and creating magic tricks that I performed on stage. From the body language of people in public, to the experience of controlling the attention of the audience on what you want them to focus on; it’s all about learning reads on people, which you also do playing live poker. Sometimes, when I was showing some magic tricks at my poker table, people were joking about the fact I was doing mind reading, and they didn’t want to play against me! I get a lot of those reactions, and that’s why I love magic so much, to see people’s reaction and surprise! I used to travel the world to perform at big events, but I don’t do it anymore. I stopped about four years ago, because now I’m really focused on my poker career, and that’s it. I like to still do it at parties, and for friends but that’s it.
SMP: Interesting fact; you are also writing a book, and you are doing motivational speaking in schools and universities, I think, especially to young girls. Can you tell us more about that project?
MR: I’ve decided to write my own life story because of everything I had to go through just to be here today. Many people would think it’s impossible and it’s from a movie! I think that telling my story could encourage people, especially women in Iran and other countries, to believe in themselves a bit more and start doing what they want, to not allow the government or their family to brainwash them anymore, and make them believe they are not capable of achieving things, and they don’t have the right to do this or that. Since they were little kids, they have been raised with all of that in their heads. That was my goal with my book, to encourage women. It was meant to be finished last year, but for some personal reasons it was postponed, and it’s gonna be published soon.
SMP: Self-confidence is really an important aspect of your life. On your Instagram page you have a lot of motivational posts and posts about your mother as well. Did your family always have an important role in your motivation, and support you in everything you did?
MR: Growing up, I always saw myself as being very different. My parents divorced when I was nine years old, and after that I didn’t see my mother for six years, because my dad wouldn’t allow it. As a nine-year-old kid I had to stand my ground. I started working when I was 11, and all of that made me a strong person. My mother made a huge impact in my life when she took me out of Iran when I was 15 years old. She had always been a very different kind of woman in Iran, and it had a big influence on me. She always taught me the religion of love, how to be always kind to people, and to absolutely never give up. That has always been my motto in life, even in the darkest moments. And when I say, my family, I mean my mother. She’s the only person who has ever helped me to be where I am today, and she’s always been my biggest supporter. Everything I accomplished is thanks to her. Everything I did was considered as “bad”, and poker is considered as gambling, which is forbidden. So, for an Iranian mother to support her daughter, as much as she has, is simply amazing and I’m so grateful to her. Without her I would still be in Iran today, probably married with 3 kids at home. I don’t know what my life would have been, because, no matter how strong and intelligent you are in that country, as a woman, they will break your soul, and you will have no control over anything in your life. So, I am so thankful to my mother, and also to God and myself that I am here today, because I always trusted myself and life, and fought very hard for that.
SMP: How would you describe your life philosophy and mindset in a few words?
MR: As Mohammed Ali always said, “I am the greatest and I’m the best!” and that’s my motto in life. I will always go for that, my religion is love, give love to everyone. It doesn’t matter where you are in your life, don’t forget where you’ve come from and what you stand for.
SMP: You’ve had many different activities and passions, so is poker the only thing you want to focus on now in your life?
MR: My number one passion has always been poker, and it will always be. I have some business on the side, some properties in South Africa, but I’m not gonna let that get in the way of my poker career. Poker is definitely my number one, and I believe this is only the beginning of my poker career.
SMP: You’ve had success in different areas, and you’ve now won a WSOP bracelet, the first gold bracelet for Iran. Is it painful, maybe, for you to think you don’t have the recognition of your country for what you achieved? What could happen if you go back there?
MR: I’m glad that you asked that. I actually feel that I could have been even happier, if it wasn’t for all of that, but I’m okay with it now. I don’t get acknowledged in my country for the things I’ve done in my life, but for me it’s okay because I’m not here to get other people’s approval. I’m here to prove to myself that I can do it, and that I’m able to do what I want. As long as I prove this to myself, and I’m happy with what I’m doing, no matter who sees it, I’m content with myself. As long as I can show the world, even if it’s a little bit, that Iranian women are not what the world thinks they are, and that I can be a voice for them, I’m really happy with that. And on the other hand, I cannot actually go back to my country and see my family there. If I travel back to Iran I will be imprisoned. Why? Because I got number one in the world in Miss Power Women, and I won at poker, because I’m a strong woman. This is something that should be acknowledged, but not in Iran. Because you have done powerful things, you’re forbidden in Iran, you become evil. They don’t want to see a strong woman, they want to destroy strong women and diminish them. Personally, I’m really happy with what I have achieved in my life, and I’m so grateful to my mother, to myself, and the universe around me. I believe in the law of attraction, and whatever you put out there, you are going to receive. Be kind, be generous, be good and you will get what you want!
SMP: I saw one of your old Instagram posts where you listed different wrong perceptions people had about Iranian women. What are the most common clichés you hear from people when you say you’re from Iran, and that annoys you the most?
MR: Oh…There’s a lot of things, but one of the things that hurts me the most is that people’s minds are being controlled by their governments and their media. You see people from America, for example, or from other countries that have a completely different mindset about Iran, because they are fed with wrong information; 90% of the news you are watching is not true. I just want to tell people they should get clarity, seek information, and research more about it. Don’t be closed-minded, saying “people from your country are terrorists”. When was the last time an Iranian woman did an attack? They have no answer to that! Also, so many people think I’m from Iraq when I say I’m from Iran. They are completely different countries! We have the same religion, even if they are more Sunnites, and we are more Shiites, but there are no other similarities between us. Iranian people are very open-minded people. Like, the majority of Iranian people drink alcohol, but the world doesn’t know that. And people think women wear the fully-covered hijab, which is also not true at all. Please study a bit more about us, and don’t let the media forge your opinion. And I really want to say to the world that Iran is a beautiful country, but it’s just run by a wrong government. Iranian people are lovely and kind, and I don’t want them to be judged wrongly because of a bad government.