With their ski masks and dark clothing, the four men who burst into a televised poker tournament in Berlin last week looked only slightly more sinister than the hooded, sunglassed guys at the card tables. But the audacious heist at the 5.4-million-euro (about $7.5 million) European Poker Tour event was no act of idle melodrama: the robbers stormed into the Grand Hyatt hotel wielding machetes and pistols, fighting off security guards and sending participants diving under tables. Then the men dashed into the streets of the German capital with an estimated 242,000 euros in cash. As of Tuesday, they were still at large.
The stunning spectacle, which unfolded before TV cameras and a live Internet audience, sent a chill through an industry that had up to this point lived a charmed life. Televised poker tournaments like the European tour are part of a rapidly globalizing gambling sector, whose companies stage the events mostly to promote their online gaming. With cameras practically everywhere in the room, Ocean’s Eleven-style robberies seemed unlikely, if not downright foolhardy.
No longer. Clips circulated on German news sites show the robbers were unfazed by the knowledge they were being filmed, gathering around a registration desk where the money was kept to fill several handbags with cash. The men then become embroiled in a melee with a burly, balding security guard, who throws what appears to be his cellphone at them. He can then be seen wrapping one of the bandits in a headlock, letting the man go only after another threatened to bash the guard with a stand-up lamp.
The broadcast itself is equally chaotic: a bewildered player in the main picture looks up from his cards to see what’s causing the racket, before jumping to his feet and scurrying out of the frame. Behind him, a cloth backdrop tears away, exposing a mob of people heading for the exits while security staff chase the robbers. No one was seriously hurt. But the guard who administered the stranglehold suffered a minor knife wound. And while police later dismissed the robbers as amateurs, they were clever enough to evade the law, reducing authorities to making a public request for photos or footage taken by people who were in the room.
The heist has left the $50-billion online gaming industry in a quandary. Kirsty Thompson, a spokeswoman for the European Poker Tour, promised to step up security efforts. One obvious response is to keep most of the money off-site when holding events at hotels, says Gokhan Ozturk, an assistant manager at Regent Casino in Bucharest, Romania, who is overseeing security for an upcoming event sanctioned by the U.S.-based World Poker Tour. “But I don’t know how many organizers will do that, because [the money] is part of the spirit of the event,” he says. “Remember this is kind of a show.”
For that reason, some organizers hold their events at casinos, which have their own security infrastructure. Others substitute the gaudy stacks of dollar bills handed to winners with props meant exclusively for the benefit of the television audience. Yet few casinos have the space to hold events like the 50-table, 945-player extravaganza in Germany, or the Romanian event later this month, which will take place at the Bucharest Novotel. Ozturk plans to comb his staff rosters for suspicious absences or additions, while adding a second metal detector. “We want to give out the message that everyone arriving at our event location will be safe,” he says.
Another concern is the welfare of celebrities and sports stars the gambling tours court to bring cachet to their tournaments (retired tennis star Boris Becker was among the contestants in Berlin). Will the rich and famous now stay away? Not likely—they’re too well paid for their presence. But the lesson of the holdup in Germany applies to them as surely as it does to the Internet tycoons who hold the events: when there’s enough money at stake, people will take enormous risks to get a share of the pot.