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Playing Under the Gun?

by Jennifer Mason |  Published: Jun 01, 2010


EPT Berlin RobbedIt made headline news when masked robbers burst into the European Poker Tour Berlin in March, unsurprisingly. The initial report I saw on TV may have referred to “the jackpot” as having been stolen, which is somewhat confusing in poker terms, but it’s quite a good word really for the large sums of cash floating around the modern top-end poker circuit. Six and even seven-figure prize pools were always going to be attractive to more than the tournaments participants, and questions about the security of the live game are being raised almost as often in this heist’s aftermath as those concerning the largely unregulated ocean of virtual money wagered and stored on the Internet.

Modern casinos appear to be tough places to rob, what with the eyes all over the sky, the security teams everywhere and the fortress-like cashier’s desk, but more and more often these days the purpose-built casinos of Europe simply cannot cope with the numbers turning up for high-buy-in and/or televised events. EPT London recently moved from the Vic to the Hilton’s huge conference area, and the venue for Berlin was the Grand Hyatt Hotel (opposite the Spielbank Casino). There’s simply no equivalent here to the mammoth Amazon Room in Las Vegas, and if tours want to expand they need to find the space in which to do it. Berlin, however, came at a cost, and makes for an eye-opening story — Dana Immanuel was reporting there and was watching the TV feed from the main room when everyone started ducking under tables or running for the fire exits.

“We were in the press room watching the live feed,” she said. “Then we heard a load of crashing and shouting in the hallway. So all the guys ran out to see, thinking it was a fight. Then apparently one of the robbers ran at them waving a gun or machete and wearing a ski mask, so they all came running back in like little girls and we barricaded ourselves in. Then they cut the live feed, and we had literally no idea what was going on. It was very scary.”

Possibly one of only a handful of players unfazed by what turned out to be an injury-free crime was Ilya Gorodetskiy, who was playing on the feature table at the time. “Eh, I am from Russia. We had a civil war in the streets not long ago. Did I tell you that I was the victim of one of the biggest armed robberies ever in Moscow a few years ago…?” He might have displayed experienced sang-froid, but most of the players there were young, Internet-trained, and about as far from the risk-taking (in the life-or-death sense) road-gambler of old as you can get.

You can find video footage online (incredibly, facing armed robbers people do actually get out their mobile phones) and even though the initial reports (there was a bomb, grenades, automatic weapons) were untrue, the situation shook everyone present. So why did it happen in Berlin rather than another similar venue elsewhere?

Due to local restrictions, players could only buy in to certain events an hour before the start of the tournament, in cash. This included the side events and the €10,000 buy-in high-roller tournament, and led to a very large amount of money indeed being held on the premises for a short amount of time. It was long enough for the robbers to grab bags and make an immediate run for it, although a great side story involves the 19-year-old work experience employee who tackled one of the robbers on the way out, retrieving half a million euro in the process. I hope he got a full-time job.

Back in July 2004 the Aviation Club in Paris was the victim of a similar crime, when two masked gunmen targeted the World Poker Tour event and the €76,000 or so there on the day. Nowadays the security there is tight as an under-the-gun nit (airlock doors, fingerprint scanners, the works) but smaller venues face different challenges to the big tours’ rented arenas. It’s just not possible to frisk 600 players going on a simultaneous break every two hours out of multiple exits into what is usually a hotel’s forecourt.

Probably keeping the presence of cash to a minimum would be the biggest deterrent — online registration and the transfer of winnings via cheque or wire transfer would make this sort of hit-and-run less attractive. Poker players, however, tend to have a lot of cash on their person and in the form of huge ostentatious watches, and little can be done about this. It’s probably a good thing many look like students. (On a tangent which is nevertheless one of my favourite tour stories, a well-known but poorly-dressed player was once stopped by police in Warsaw for loitering outside the casino. He proceeded to try to prove to them he was playing, and up to the gills with cash, at which point they became convinced he was dealing drugs and he had a narrow escape).

The Berlin robbers were caught (see Inside Straight), but just weeks afterwards a casino in Basle, Switzerland, was held up, losing a six-figure sum. Pessimists might see the start of a trend but the exact situation facing the organisers in Germany this year is unlikely to reoccur. Even the money poured onto the final table of the World Series of Poker Europe was (rather sadly, in a way) fake. It’s not like gambling for high-stakes was ever a totally secure undertaking. Ask any of the older pros what it was like in the early days of the game (even Doyle Brunson recounts being held at gunpoint) and it seems that poker nowadays has benefitted from its social makeover and shift from the underground.

Live tournaments will continue to attract high-rollers and their high rolls, and it’s up to event organisers to provide a safe environment. Anywhere with stockpiles of cash (banks, security vans, or main events) are targets for this sort of crime in theory, and while I wouldn’t recommend retreating from the thrill of the brick-and-mortar events, I might suggest leaving your watch in your hotel room. Spade Suit

Jen Mason is a part of She is responsible for its live tournament coverage in the UK and abroad.