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?' "