The poker player's white Nikes had just hit the concrete outside New York's John F. Kennedy Airport the night before Thanksgiving. The sky was bruising over with twilight. Terminal 5 was a hectic holiday beehive of passengers hustling for last-minute JetBlue hops. And there was Eric Riley, Jamaican-born, 32 years old, and a skinny six-foot-three, in jeans and a brown Polo sweater.
One moment he was popping out the passenger door of his friend Junior's blue Camry and walking to get his backpack from the open trunk. The next he was watching the car speed off. His backpack was still in the car. The backpack held $100,000 in cash — his winnings from two weeks in Atlantic City. The backpack, the Deerfield Beach resident realized, had just been boosted.
Nearby, a cab's door was open. Riley tossed everything in his wallet — four crumpled hundred-dollar bills, credit card, license — at the driver as he climbed in. "That guy stole my money!" Riley bellowed. "Follow that car!"
Riley's bizarre day was far from over. Soon he'd be feeling the bad end of a 9mm handgun.
The incident would serve as a cautionary tale in the world of big-money no-limit poker, where the payouts are fat and the casinos from South Florida to Atlantic City are haunted by shady hangers-on with hidden agendas.
Poker cash games — the regular rounds of casino play, as opposed to organized tournaments — regularly see big pots. In May 2012, pro player Tom Dwan scooped up a record $3.8 million from a Chinese billionaire in Macau. A month before at the same casino, Sam Trickett won $2 million.
"You regularly hear about pots in casinos that are hundreds of thousands," says Donnie Peters, a writer for PokerNews.com. "Fifty thousand to 200,000 isn't out of the norm."
Although most casinos can wire funds to a winner's bank account or allow players to keep winnings in lockers onsite, some players opt to take their winnings in cash. So heists sometimes happen.
In 2006, famous card stud Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston was chased by a gunman outside a casino in Texas. The '72 World Poker Champion threw his car into reverse and peeled off while the assailant fired three shots into the then-70-year-old's car. In 2010, Thomas Gigliotti was trailed from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino to his home in Plantation. Two masked men attacked the poker player in his driveway before making off with $4,000 in winnings. The 74-year-old gave chase before losing the robbers.
Riley's interest in poker grew out of a competitive edge whetted early. At age 11, he immigrated with his mother to Miami Lakes. He picked up soccer and was first on the practice field and last to leave. "I always tried to be the best player on the team," he says. "I would be stressed out about losing. I take it really hard."
The same no-lose mentality reawakened when Florida passed no-limit poker. By then, Riley owned his own business, First Choice Linen Service, and made occasional trips to casinos. But in 2010, the state allowed games with no cap on bets.
Suddenly, there was serious money to be made. Riley watched national names like Chris Moneymaker and Doyle Brunson pile up millions. He wanted in, deciding he'd become a "grinder," a card room regular who plays poker for a living.
Riley began entering serious tournaments in 2011 but didn't do well at first. Fellow grinders said he needed a big score. His mother consoled him by saying his time would come. "It doesn't matter how good a player you are — if you're not showing the results, it's meaningless," he says.
The hands started going his way this year. In July, Riley entered a $2,300 buy-in no-limit hold-'em tournament at Isle Casino Pompano Park. He finished second, walking away with $95,255. Next was a $5,300 buy-in tournament at the Seminole Hard Rock — his largest event yet. He won $14,544, 109th place out of 2,384 contestants. In October, again at Pompano Park in a $2,300 no-limit contest, he came in fourth with $82,038.
"That showed I could do it on a consistent basis," he explains. "Just to make it to the final table with a lot of good players, that says a lot. But to do it back-to-back says even more." So far, he's racked up $282,203 in winnings. Bluff.com ranks him 538th worldwide.
The wins attracted attention. In every casino, clinging to the fringes of the action, is a shady subset of regulars. Whenever a player cooks up a hot streak, they home in, cheering, fetching drinks, boosting egos. In return, they expect a couple hundred dollars for their own games, PokerNews' Peters explains. "Mostly, they'll ask, 'Oh, hey, you just won $100,000. Can you stake me $1,000 for this game?' "
In Riley's case, he was often flanked by fellow Jamaicans. One in particular, a baby-faced 40-something with a two-inch Mohawk who went by the name "Junior," stuck to his side. Riley would let him hang around and even stake Junior in small poker games.
In November, the poker pro decided to take a road trip, working casinos from Florida up the East Coast to a tournament starting November 24 at Borgata Hotel Casino in Atlantic City. Rather than wire buy-in money ahead of time, which could result in delays, bank fees, and needing to find a bank branch in an unfamiliar city, Riley opted to travel with cash so he'd be flexible to enter any promising game he stumbled across. He stuffed a backpack with $70,000.
"Whenever there's a big tournament in town, the cash games get larger," Peters explains. "Big-name pros come into town to play the tournament, bust out, but then play in the cash games."
At the Maryland Live! Casino outside Baltimore, Riley came out $10,000 ahead. In his first week in Atlantic City, he brought his $80,000 up by about $25,000. Junior, who had moved to Brooklyn, arrived to cheer him on. When Riley and other card players went out to dinner or grabbed drinks on the boardwalk, Junior was there. "He was annoying, bothering me every day while I was there playing," Riley says. "He would not go away."
In the second week, Riley busted out of the tournament. Bummed, he decided to leave. A friend had taken his car to Maryland, so Riley planned to head to JFK and buy a JetBlue ticket at the counter. His phone then buzzed with a call from Junior, who happened to be in Atlantic City. He offered to give Riley a ride to the airport.
Instead of heading straight for JFK in Queens, the men, along with Junior's girlfriend, went to Brooklyn for the day, running errands, Riley says. He remembers Junior spotting a Lexus GS in traffic. "That's a nice car," Junior told his girl. "One day I'm going to buy you one of those."
That afternoon, Junior and Riley headed for JFK. At the airport, Riley pointed out open parking spaces near the beginning of the terminal. Instead, Junior parked the car at the very end of the departure area. Riley told Junior to open the trunk and then got out to fetch his bag. That's when Junior sped off and Riley jumped into the cab in pursuit.
The chase didn't go far. Ahead, Riley saw the Camry sandwiched in by rows of cars snagged at a red light. The trunk was still open. He jumped out of the cab, sprinted to the Camry, and grabbed his black nylon backpack. The light changed and the traffic lurched. Riley ducked to his left and landed on the concrete shoulder.
Then things got weird. Another Camry, this one piloted by two guys in dark jackets with fur-lined hoodies, arrived. "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."
Riley climbed into the back seat. The black Camry plowed into traffic. "Dispatch, shut down the airport," one of the guys seemed to say into a cell phone. Riley leaned forward as the car picked up speed to about 40 mph. Then the guy in the passenger seat slid the hoodie of his jacket over his head. Metal clanked. Riley felt his brown Polo sweater bunch up in a fist and a hard edge press into his chest. "Don't move."
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 explains.
He opened the door. The gunman held onto his shirt. The sweater and jacket lifted up and off Riley as he scooted backward out of the car. He somehow tumbled out with the backpack.
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.
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The Port Authority Police Department is investigating the attempted robbery and declined to comment.
On poker message boards, Riley has been blasted for being naive. "It was more of a story that should remind players that they don't need to be carrying this kind of money around in public," PokerNews' Peters says. "It seems like Eric just didn't take the necessary precautions."
Riley says he'll never again travel with that amount of cash. He's not sure whether Junior and the men in the second car were working together, but he thinks back to the day in Brooklyn when Junior boasted to his girlfriend about buying her a car.
"All along, this guy is planning to rob me and buy his girl a Lexus."