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From immigration 'cage' to newest poker champ at Hard Rock. An Afghan refugee's luck turns

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 1/29/2021 Charles Rabin, Miami Herald
Ilyas Muradi, winner of the World Poker Tour’ s first post COVID-19 Texas Hold‘ em poker tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel& Casino earlier this week. © Joe Giron/Joe Giron Photography/TNS Ilyas Muradi, winner of the World Poker Tour’ s first post COVID-19 Texas Hold‘ em poker tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel& Casino earlier this week.

MIAMI — The hard luck life of a refugee from Afghanistan whose father was killed in a bombing there took a considerable turn recently because of a missed flight and a pair of cards.

Ilyas Muradi, who just over a year ago was behind bars in solitary confinement after federal immigration agents determined his residency card had expired, waded through a field of more than 1,500 players to win the World Poker Tour's first post COVID-19 Texas Hold 'em poker tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino earlier this week.

His haul: $620,000.

Reached Thursday, Muradi said it's hard to explain how he felt when the final hand was over.

"It's rare. The excitement. Then energy. It's like you're numb," said Muradi, who told the online poker site that his victory showed "anyone's dream can come true."

For poker nerds, Muradi ousted his final opponent, poker pro Robel Andemichael, who went all in before the flop with the ace and six of diamonds. Muradi, who called the all-in with a pair of fours, won the hand.

But even more incredible than his victory Tuesday night is the story of what Muradi, 32, went through before and during his journey to poker fame.

In May of 2019, the International Consortium of Journalists published a YouTube audio interview with Muradi, after, he said, he had been wrongly detained by ICE agents who picked him up for outdated residency requirements. During the interview, which uses animations instead of images of Muradi, he spells out his name, said he had been incarcerated since 2017 and had spent four months in solitary.

"It's like a cage, you know," said Muradi.

The video doesn't say where Muradi was held. Its producers say immigration officers told them Muradi was placed in a solitary cell seven times while he was detained, for acting up.

"Sometimes you sit down and be sad and cry," he said in the video.

Muradi, who said he lost his father to a bombing when he was a child, came to the U.S. as a refugee when he was 12 or 13, which would have been just after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan post 9/11. He said he lost his green card in high school in 2007 after he was busted for possession of marijuana. He spent the next decade stateside by applying for work permits.

Then in 2017, he said he met an attorney who promised to help him get his green card back. During the application process, he said he was working as a truck driver and during one trip to Laredo, Texas, Muradi and some friends decided to take a cab across the border to Mexico, just to let off some steam.

The trip back was troubling. At the border at about 3 a.m., Muradi said, custom agents told him to step out of the car.

"They told me I self-deported to Mexico," he said.

Muradi spent the next 27 months in detention, most of it in Laredo. Then he was transferred to a facility in Oklahoma, but only for a few weeks before finally being released in October 2019 after the federal government determined it couldn't deport him back to Afghanistan.

A request for information on Muradi to ICE had not been answered by Thursday afternoon. The online poker site Casino City Times posted a story on Muradi's victory that said he was from Fort Wayne. By Thursday afternoon the story of Muradi's journey to poker stardom was rocketing through the poker world's social media pages.

He said he couldn't play while he was detained, but he never lost his love for the game.

"I missed it a lot," he said. "The moment I learned this game I fell in love with it."

Muradi's victory and the story of his immigration detention, now the stuff of legends, was posted on the Twitter page of a prominent poker player named Ryan DePaulo, who goes by the moniker "Degenerate Gambler." Another poker player named Johnny Moreno, who goes by the name Johnnie Vibes and who also lives in Fort Wayne, posted on his Twitter page that Muradi's journey began in war-torn Afghanistan.

Moreno, who calls himself a "micro-celeb'" because of his content creations on YouTube and who finished 93rd in the same tournament as Muradi, said the two had been communicating through social media platforms for a couple of years, but that they only met in person this week when the tournament started.

Muradi said he's been playing poker for a little over a decade, but mostly plays online tournaments. His victory at the WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open at the Hard Rock only came about because he didn't make it to the airport on time and decided to plunk down $400 in a smaller tournament in which the winner was awarded a spot in Tuesday's event, according to a story on the World Poker Tour website.

"I got an opportunity because I missed my flight. I played a satellite and here I am," Muradi said. "This is just the beginning. You guys will be hearing a lot more from me."

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