Top 5 Poker Robberies: The Biggest Hauls and the Worst Losses3 years ago
Life is full of coincidences, so it was no real surprise that when I was writing the Foggy Bottom poker robbery story recently, I was interrupted by a Ukrainian friend asking for help.
He needed me to translate what Trainspotting’s psycho character, Begbie, was saying in a particular scene – the common Scottish accent being a stretch for my friend’s ‘school English’.
Needless to say, Irvine Welsh’s iconic character in the movie version of his book was indeed shouting‘Armed robbery!’
In the same way that five minutes on YouTube usually ends up being three hours of trawling from one crazy video to the next, researching specific poker stories often results in much wider ideas and articles.
So here I present you with a host of other poker robbery tales; a list of huge hauls, unfortunate killings, close escapes, and jailed bad guys.
Double the robbery, double the lucky escape!
We may as well begin with a ‘coincidence’ which really couldn’t have been – and a lucky escape for what appears to be one of the dumbest yet bravest poker players around.
Back in 2013, 32-year old Jamaican-born Florida man, Eric Riley, was doing well in his attempt to join the ranks of professional players, finally making some good tournament scores and cash game results after putting his linen business on hold as he chased a dream.
Soon however, he would be chasing the man who stole $100,000 from him and jumping out of moving cars to escape fake undercover cops!
His decision to carry his bankroll in cash as he travelled the East Coast, from Florida up to Atlantic City, was a dangerous one. $70K in rolls stuffed in a backpack is one way to avoid bank fees and transfer delays, but it’s also a sure-fire way to become a target of the shadier element who frequent the casinos looking for an easy buck, legal or otherwise.
Within a couple of weeks, he had picked up an extra $30K in winnings, but he’d also picked up an annoying ‘friend’, a fellow Jamaican named Junior who would appear by his side whenever he was playing.
He was annoying, bothering me every day while I was there playing," Riley said after his ordeal. "He would not go away."
His ordeal began when he accepted a lift to JFK airport from Junior who brought his girlfriend along for the trip. Dropping him off some distance from the departure lounge, when Riley went to get his bag from the trunk of the car, Junior floored the accelerator of the Camry, leaving Peters behind – his $100K still in the boot.
A shocked Peters managed to hail a passing cab, throwing the driver a wad of $100 bills and his credit cards as he screamed, “Follow that car!”
Down the road, a red light had brought the thieving Junior to a halt, and Peters jumped from the taxi, grabbed his cash-fill backpack from the still-open boot, and thanked his lucky stars.
Once bitten, twice shy?
Not Peters! As told by the BrowardPalmBeach NewTimes newspaper, a car immediately pulled up beside him – another Camry by co-incidence.
"We're undercover cops," the driver told Riley. "What happened?"
"I can't believe this fucking asshole," Riley said. "He's a friend of mine, but he took my fucking shit."
"Get in the car," the driver said. "We've got to get him."
An unsuspecting and shaken Peters climbed in, only to find himself with a 9mm jammed against his ribs a few moments later, being ordered to hand over the cash.
Metal clanked. Riley felt his brown Polo sweater bunch up in a fist and a hard edge press into his chest. "Don't move”, said one of the new robbers, almost certainly connected to Junior and his initial heist attempt.
The local newspaper reported that ‘Riley regularly watches AMC's The First 48, a reality cop drama that gives the play-by-play of homicide investigations. "I know by watching that show that there's nothing good that comes from leaving with a guy with a gun," he explained.
Opening the door, Riley somehow shrugged himself out of his jacket and sweater, tumbling to the road, the backpack in his grasp as the would-be thieves sped off.
Wearing only a T-shirt and paranoid the second car might return, Riley frantically tried to flag down help. After about ten minutes, a cab slowed and took Riley to police. He didn't have his ID, credit cards, or phone — just his improbable story and $100,000.
Riley has continued his poker-playing career, his $333,237 in tournament earnings showing that he’s a decent player – although a rotten judge of character!
Living to tell such a tale is an achievement in itself. Not everyone is so lucky when the bad boys turn their attention to the world of poker…
Gunned down in defence
Running illegal poker games is one thing, but robbery and murder are quite another thing entirely. Unfortunately for Kearn Nedd, trying to protect the organizer of an unlicensed event led to his death, an 11-year sentence for the man responsible for the robbery plan, and a life sentence for the actual gunman.
The small-scale underground tournament at the Rozz Banquet hall in Brampton, Ontario had been promoted by flier in the local area, and 28-year old Brian Funes decided to send in a couple of armed thugs to steal the prize-money.
Unfortunately for all concerned, when good samaritan Nedd started to fight off the first of the thugs attacking the event organiser, an accomplice shot 9 times through the window –killing Nedd pretty much instantly.
As reported at the time by Cardschat.com:
22-year old gunman Marcus Alexis, Along with a 14-year-old accomplice… began pistol-whipping innocent bystanders in the venue’s hallway before opening fire. As a wave of bullets ripped through the tournament area, Nedd was struck and died at the scene as the three criminals made off with an unspecified amount of money. Following the robbery, Funes was in charge of disposing with the bloodstained clothes and guns, as well as convincing people to misdirect the police and cover for the trio.”
At the sentencing of Funes, the court was told that Nedd was only at the banquet hall to enjoy playing cards, according to Crown Prosecutor Cornelius.
In the course of doing so, he encountered something that most people would have gone in the other direction from,” he told the judge. “Mr. Nedd chose to do something to try to assist. That was the only thing that Mr. Nedd did that cost him his life.”
Justice Fragomeni also made note of Nedd’s sacrifice in trying to help the organizer of the tournament during the course of the robbery.
Not only did he lose his life in doing so, his parents and family and all those who knew him… have also lost a part of themselves,” the judge said. “This murder was tragic and senseless, and took the life of a young man who had his whole life ahead of him.”
It’s not always the robbers who come out on top, however, when things turn nasty and bullets start flying.
Beware the concealed carry
When Dennis Mendoza Jr. hosted one of his regular small-scale poker tournaments at his home in Camelot Place Apartments in Saginaw County, Michigan, he had no idea that four of the men were intent on robbing the place.
What the robbers didn’t know, though, was that one of the players had a concealed carry permit and had brought his own gun to the game, a detail which spelled very bad news for 25-year old would-be thief Ramon Vasquez
The entire robbery plan was revealed at the trial of Christopher Talkington earlier this year – Vasquez’s accomplice spilling the beans as part of a prosecution deal to nail the others.
Talkington explained how the four men – also including Jason D. McGowan and Jesse M. Bobian – had discussed robbing the game after Bobian brought up the subject, having played at Mendoza Jr’s previously.
The best laid plans of mice and men…
Bobian was to play as he normally would, with Talkington only there to let McGowan and Vasquez into the apartment later, according to his testimony.
The plan backfired almost immediately, Talkington claimed, when Vasquez walked up to the players and said, "You think this is a game?" before firing a bullet into a wall of the apartment. The poker players were "shocked" and started to scatter, Talkington said.
As game organiser Mendoza got up to flee, Bobian grabbed him and threw him to the ground, according to Talkington, the money falling to the floor.
Talkington said he collected between $2,000 and $3,000 - all in $100 bills - while Mendoza, on the stand before Talkington, claimed the men robbed him of $9,000. The money turned out to be the least of the concerns as it transpired.
Mendoza, face down on the ground, heard “loud gunshots” and was sure it was the robbers executing the players one-by-one. However, i t was actually a fellow player who had started shooting at the robbers, two of whom he hit.
A “justifiable killing”
Vasquez made it out the door, but collapsed shortly afterwards in the stairwell and died in hospital. Fellow conspirator, Bobian, was hit three times in the leg. The self-defence shooter’s name has never been released because Saginaw County Prosecutor, John McColgan, found the fatal shooting in Saginaw Township “justifiable”.
According to local newspaper reports:
While McGowan and Talkington have remained jailed since the days after the incident, Bobian has not.”
One on the run
Hospitalized for nearly a month, Bobian was released on a $250,000 personal recognizance bond by District Judge, Kyle Higgs Tarrant, “including a tether that only would allow him to travel back and forth to medical appointments.”
While awaiting trial last summer, Bobian apparently cut off his tether in June, just days before the preliminary hearings were due, and authorities believe he fled to Texas.
Although Saginaw Township's Lt. Rich Herren described it as “a peaceful place where murders don’t happen very often,” and McColgen revealed that “buy-ins for the home poker game in Saginaw Township were minimal”, it’s not the first poker robbery gone wrong there.
36-year-old Michael Kuhlman was killed back in 2012 while hosting a poker game, after Quintel A. West attempted to rob participants at Michael’s home near Hemmeter in Saginaw Township. After West shot and killed Kuhlman, he was charged with first degree felony murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Messing with the big boys
It’s not just local games and part-time pros who get hit, some of the biggest names in poker have stared down the barrel of a gun or been faced by a blade-wielding thief intent on taking their hard-earned cash.
The biggest (in many ways) was 2004 Main Event winner Greg Raymer's brush with the dark side of poker. The Fossilman’s pants were bulging with dollars after a successful night at the Bellagio when he was confronted outside his hotel room.
Apparently he “fought tooth and nail” to protect his $150,000 wad, refusing to hand over anything despite having a gun stuck in his face throughout the incident. “Fat and strong” prevailed over the two gun-wielding thugs to use Raymer’s own description.
After finally being saved by security scaring off the would-be robber, Raymer posted about the incident online, saying:
I don’t write this to brag, I just want any robbery-minded people out there who hear about this to know that I’m a tough mark, and they won’t get that much off me even if they succeed."
David Sklansky took a different approach, a more analytical one as you might expect from the deep-thinking author of the ‘Theory of Poker’. Having prepared himself his whole career for the ‘inevitable’ robbery attempt.
Awakened by a burglar in his Las Vegas bedroom who appeared to be holding a pistol, Sklansky was ordered: ‘Don’t look at me'. Face down in his pillow he replied, ‘I have no intention of doing so.’
“The robbery reminded me of high-low split,” Sklansky later told Michael Kaplan of PokerPlayer magazine, admitting that he had often run such a scenario through his mind.
In a non-qualified high-low split, you need to make sure you don’t lose the low hand and recognise that the high will take care of itself. These guys knew that getting the money was easy enough as long as they didn’t get caught.” Sklansky continued: “The thief told me that if the cops come, he and I will both be dead. Just as I do in poker, I put myself in the other person’s shoes. I realized he was concerned about getting caught, so I put him at ease. I said, “If the cops come, you’re my cousin George.”
Handing over his $8K in cash winnings, the seasoned poker genius told the gunman:
This will be the easiest robbery you ever do,” explaining to Kaplan that “I didn’t want to make him feel small, but I also wanted him to know that I would not be fighting back. He and his partners,” said Sklansky, “were professional. They didn’t ransack the place. They didn’t even wake my girlfriend, who slept in the next room. They actually allowed her to sleep through the burglary.”
Sklansky seems to have been unluckier than most when it comes being confronted by robbers, but somehow successful in avoiding anything more serious than a hole in his wallet.
This was his 5th robbery, others including “a cop, a thief, a gambler, and an ex-wife” and he has somehow found a way to keep the situation from becoming bloody every time.
“‘I think he was pleasantly surprised with how cool I was, and, at the end, the thief was kind of joking with me,’ remembers Sklansky. “He asked if I would mind him taking my Jaguar for a spin”, and Sklansky duly handed over the keys.
“I have no personal animosity toward these guys. They used the absolute lowest level of force necessary to accomplish their purposes… if this is being read by the robbers, I would request that they mail me those few things (photos, etc.) that are of no value to them, but are to me,” wrote an optimistic Sklansky afterwards.
Other big names who have faced down gunmen and survived to tell the tale include the legendary Doyle Brunson who feigned a heart attack to escape the worst of it, and WSOP bracelet winner Scott Montgomery who was cornered by a knife-wielding robber in the restrooms in Vegas’ Bellagio Casino. Ordered to hand over the $2,000 in his wallet, Montgomery did as asked, tweeting afterwards:
Security pretty much just said oh well, life sucks, have a nice day. I’m pretty annoyed.”
Pass the chips…
The Bellagio was also the scene of one of the biggest and most brazen robberies in modern casino history when $1.5million in chips were robbed at gunpoint with the helmet-wearing thief escaping on a motorcycle afterwards.
In the 10th robbery of the year in Vegas, police suspected the same man was also responsible for a similar heist the week previous, when $20K in chips were robbed from the Suncoast Casino poker room cashier.
This time, the stakes were much bigger – a high-stakes craps table was the target when the robber entered at almost 4am. A police spokesperson explained what happened next:
He pulled a gun, told everyone not to move and took approximately $1.5 million worth of casino chips. The suspect then ran back out to the motorcycle and exited westbound on Flamingo Boulevard."
The incident was caught on security cameras, and quite how the robber expected to cash in his chips is unknown. "Casino chips are not like cash. At some point they must be redeemed," MGM spokeswoman Yvette Monet told Reuters.
Strict controls make it difficult to cash-in large amounts of stolen chips with the IRS regulations requiring casinos to track and report cash transactions involving more than$10,000 – but doubtless, accomplices would be involved somewhere down the line in the attempt to ‘monetise’ the huge haul.
…and the cash!
As mentioned in my Foggy Bottom story, the biggest cash heist of a poker game occurred at the 2010 EPT in Berlin, a huge tournament which saw American Kevin McPhee pick up the €1million Main Event 1st prize.
The organisers had to dig deep in their pockets, however, as someone had already made off with a huge chunk of that, with a German newspaper photographer witnessing the 6-man gang attack, and stating:
I was at the entrance to the poker hall when they stormed in. I saw three masked men struggling with security personnel in the room where cash is exchanged for chips. I saw one of the men stuffing 500 euro notes into a backpack. A second pinned down a security guard with a machete to his chest.”
The attack, in broad daylight and caught on security cameras, continued according to photographer Olaf Wagner:
As they ran one of the security men pulled a robber to the ground. I couldn't decide if this was all a PR stunt or not
The entire attack was caught on CCTV but photographer Wagner had his own close-up of the action:
I got my camera ready. As the security guard was on the floor a hotel page boy came along and took the bag he had been carrying. I saw next to the robber was his gun, a revolver. As they struggle the robber calls for help and the others return. One of them has an empty glass bottle he waves in the face of the security man. They force him to release their accomplice. Then I see them, unmasked, running into the tourist filled shopping centre. They left the hotel through the emergency exit."
The fun was short-lived for the robbery gang, however, after “an unnamed 21 year-old turned himself in and revealed the names of his accomplices,” according to police - disclosing that the almost €250,000 taken was still being sought. The haul would have been much larger except for a brave security guard grabbing a bag containing€500,000 from one of the attackers.
One of the unnamed criminal's partners-in-crime, Ahmad el-Awayti was arrested in a Berlin subway station and police then arrested his accomplices as they voluntarily flew back to Germany to hand themselves in, 20 year-old Mustafa Ucarkus arriving on a flight from Istanbul and eight hours later, the fourth and final suspect, 19 year-old Jihad Chetwie on a flight from Beirut, both men informing police through their lawyers that they would be traveling back to Germany.
A report by the Berliner Morgenpost claimed the heist may not have been planned by the four robbers themselves, instead suggesting that an Arab crime family had been the masterminds behind the theft.
Two members of the family are alleged to have stayed at the Grand Hyatt Hotel tournament venue prior to the heist, apparently recorded on surveillance cameras, while a rival criminal group are alleged to have provided the police with tips on the robbers’ identities.
So, there you have it: murders, deaths, and near-misses, huge hauls and even bigger sentences – all courtesy of the gambling world’s dodgiest elements.
Now it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be involved in such robberies yourself, but if you are, it’s probably best to follow Sklansky’s approach. Me? I’ll stick to the “fat and strong” approach of Raymer!
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