The Man Behind the Mask

A hockey goaltender's secret life as a bandit turned him into a folk hero in postcommunist Hungary
October 03, 2004

BALLAD OF THE WHISKEY ROBBER
by Julian Rubinstein
Little, Brown, 319 pages, $23.95

You could make an argument that Attila Ambrus's career as a hockey goaltender in Hungary prepared him for his life as a bank robber. The anticipatory thinking, the quick reflexes, the ability to perform under pressure, all would serve a thief well. The trouble with the argument is that, while Ambrus was a stunningly successful bank robber, he was a lousy goalie--during one six-game stretch for UTE in the Hungarian league, he gave up 88 goals.

The charming Ambrus was indeed quick on his feet, but his best move may have been turning to crime at a particularly felicitous time and place. As Julian Rubinstein's entertaining Ballad of the Whiskey Robber illustrates, the mid-1990s was a good time to be a bad guy in Budapest. These were picaresque years, when a lowly reserve goalie could pull up to the rink in a Mercedes and people would figure he was just another guy with a side deal going. In the scramble toward capitalism after the fall of communism in Hungary, everyone--even hockey players--had side deals going.

That anything-goes atmosphere is one reason why the public was primed to embrace the Whiskey Robber as a folk hero. Plus, he came across as a decent guy, even when he was holding people up. The Whiskey Robber, who earned his nickname from his pre-heist ritual of stopping by the nearest bar for a shot or two of Johnnie Walker, never injured anyone during his stickups. He contributed to his own myth by occasionally leaving red roses at the scene of the crime, in addition to notes that taunted the police. When he was finally captured in 1999 after nearly 30 robberies, he did not for a moment protest his innocence. No wonder hundreds of Hungarians volunteered to adopt Ambrus's dog after the Whiskey Robber was nabbed.

Rubinstein, a former SI reporter, smartly opens his book with a prologue depicting Ambrus in jail after his seven-year crime spree had come to a halt. The device is effective, because every time Ambrus pulls off a job and the sirens blare, the reader anticipates that this is the moment he'll finally be caught. And with each of the Whiskey Robber's escapes, the reader continues to marvel at his ability to elude capture.

In all, Ambrus stole some $840,000. He was captured while trying to carry out his largest haul, $217,800 from the OTP Bank in Budapest. Ambrus's crime wave was driven by necessity: His career in the low-paying Hungarian league, several steps down the ladder from the NHL or the top European leagues, hardly covered his expenses, and as quickly as Ambrus stole his money, he spent it. He blew much of his loot on drunken gambling binges, often followed by a visit to a local brothel. Then there were the expensive but often unsatisfying vacations he took with the women who occasionally slipped into his life and left him brokenhearted. When a teammate finally learned that Ambrus was the Whiskey Robber, the player couldn't believe that the miserable Ambrus was the criminal genius who had befuddled the police for years.

Rubinstein's account of the Whiskey Robber seems straight out of Hollywood, and indeed it's ideal for the big screen. It's got a rogue hero, chase sequences, even those romances. Best of all for potential producers, the actor cast as Ambrus would barely need to know how to play hockey.

COLOR PHOTOLITTLE, BROWN COLOR PHOTOMICHAEL PARMELEE (RUBINSTEIN) COLOR PHOTO COURTESY OF ATTILA AMBRUS PUCKISH Ambrus's off-ice escapades became the stuff of legend in his homeland.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)