Caught in the Berlin poker heist

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Eyewitness account tells how news of raid on card game was broken on Twitter

There were millions of euros at stake and some of the world's best poker players squeezed into a hotel ballroom, under the gaze of the massed gambling media and tens of thousands of enthusiasts online.

As always, the tension was high, although you could not see it: racing hearts and frazzled nerves were concealed behind mirrored sunglasses, hooded tops and 500 poker faces. It was silent, but for the distinctive chirruping of riffled chips. Everything was standard on Saturday afternoon in Berlin, where the German leg of the European Poker Tour event was into its fourth day. But it was soon to become very different indeed, like the kind of Hollywood heist movie that usually plays so fast and loose with the realities of the high-stakes tournament scene. Men and women whose livelihood depends on their ability to keep their emotions in check were suddenly sent running for their lives.

At about 2pm, four masked, armed men invaded the tournament area of the Grand Hyatt in Potsdamer Platz, threatened the staff at the cash desk and seized whatever money they could find. They were apparently seeking the prize pool from the largest poker tournament ever held in Germany, which offered a guaranteed €1m for the winner.

In the media room, reporters were laboriously updating their websites with details of the tournament when three terrified members of the hotel staff sprinted past, shouting. With the full extent of the danger unknown, half of the media pack ran towards the incident, expecting to see old-fashioned fisticuffs, which is uncommon but not unheard of in a poker room.

They soon turned on their heels, diving under tables and barricading doors. Some said there were handguns and machetes, and after a security guard pinned one of the robbers to the ground, his accomplice returned wielding a pole. The guard loosened the headlock and the men fled, apparently running out of the hotel through a neighbouring shopping arcade. The tournament's final stages were being filmed for television and broadcast live on the internet. Word quickly spread inside the arena that a robbery was in progress, and panic followed a rumour that the robbers had grenades.

They did not, but occupants of the almost 50 poker tables – more than 450 people – raced for the exits, scattering chips across the floor, jostling one another and collapsing a television set, all of which went out live on the internet. The only minor injuries were sustained during this melee, and were not than inflicted by the robbers. Within five minutes, hundreds of accounts of the incident were emanating from various sources. Some players had been posting details of the raid on Twitter from beneath tables as they took cover (one fearing an earthquake); the television announcers called it as they saw it from their commentary booth one floor above; and staff in the tournament room each had their own versions.

This much is true: it was an audacious daylight raid targeting the richest, most prestigious European poker tour. There were four tournaments in progression when the bandits struck, and all the leading European players were in Berlin at some point this week.

Most, however, had been eliminated days earlier, including the former tennis star Boris Becker. What is not true is that Kalashnikov assault rifles were used and €1m was stolen. The gang did not get away with the full prize pool but did escape with €240,000. Police were still hunting the gunmen last night as the tournament concluded.

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