Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Ordinary Players, Extraordinary Characters

Robert Rath | 13 Dec 2012 12:00
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What made Attila Ambrus extraordinary wasn't that he robbed 29 post offices, travel agencies, and banks between 1993 and 1999. It wasn't that he took more than $800,000 over the course of those heists. It wasn't that he rubbed shoulders with mobsters, became a folk hero, or because he earned his earned name by getting tanked at nearby pubs before performing his heists. What made Attila "The Whisky Robber" Ambrus extraordinary was that he did all this while keeping his day job as a professional hockey goalie for UTE, a team sponsored by the same Interior Ministry that chased him for six years.

Attila probably came closer than anyone to actually personifying a GTA character. From the moment he entered Hungary seeking political asylum from his native Romania (he crossed the border by jumping on a moving freight train and hanging on underneath the coupling six inches above the track) his life became a cavalcade of mishaps, strange characters, odd jobs and criminality. Eventually, Attila landed a place as a second-to-third string goalkeeper for UTE, less because he was a good player-in fact he may have been the worst professional goalie in the history of the sport-but because he was a hard worker, accepted a salary of $0 a week, and agreed to serve as the stadium janitor in exchange for the privilege of living in a supply closet. During these early days he perfected the moneymaking side-quest by selling pens, serving as superintendent for an apartment building, and digging graves. His first big break, however, came when he started to make a tidy profit smuggling animal pelts across the Romanian-Hungarian border. When that enterprise collapsed, leaving him in a mountain of debt, he robbed his local post office dressed in a wig and a pair of sunglasses, wielding a cigarette lighter that looked like a gun.

Then, when he ran out of money, he did it again. And again. For six years.

Attila's continued success was due to careful planning-he knew all the escape routes from each target, as well as how long it would take the cops to respond in rush hour traffic-as well as the limitations of the Hungarian police force. Attila would show up at a bank or post office at closing time, present the female tellers with a bouquet of flowers, wave his Tokarev 9mm around, say "please" when he asked employees to open the safe, kiss the hands of any pretty women, lock the place up and be gone inside three minutes. Newspapers and TV shows loved him, calling him an honest thief compared to the corrupt politicians that were disgraced on a seemly daily basis. Attila played up the media attention, leaving bottles of wine addressed to the chief of police and once pulling a job dressed as Lajos Varjú, the head of Budapest's robbery squad.

Meanwhile Attila and his accomplices (usually his cousin or another UTE player) were living it up with mob figures at western-style casinos and The Cats Club, a high-end brothel that catered to members of parliament. His associates were sensational, Rockstar Games-ready personalities: Uncle Béla, the Romanian "Pelt King," a goateed, Armani-suited brothel-keeper who eventually died in a car bombing; a string of girlfriends clad in leopard-print fabric; Varjú, the harried-but-honest cop chasing him, who trained his squad with dubbed episodes of Columbo; and Bubu, his hulking Transylvanian teammate whose only function on the UTE roster was to find the opposing team's best player and beat the bejesus out of him. Attila's life was a whirl of roulette wheels, parties, booze, bank heists, narrow escapes, lost hockey games and fan riots. He drank constantly and barely slept.

It couldn't last. Attila was caught in 1999 after his 26th robbery, trying to drive across the border into Romania with his Bernese mountain dog Don in the back seat. He stayed in custody long enough to give up the info on all his robberies and do some press interviews, then escaped from prison and hit three more banks. During his three months on the lam, his lawyer announced Hollywood script deals and started negotiating a Whisky Robber energy drink endorsement. After being caught again and serving a 12 year sentence, Attila was finally released in January of this year.

Now, imagine you saw that story in a game. Would you believe it?

The problem with reality is that our perception of it is heavily based on our own life experience. We work, we go to school, we raise kids, and we unconsciously develop an understanding of what could and could not happen in the small sphere of the world we inhabit. Sure, we hear about bank heists and war-we even see them on TV-but that's a fundamentally different experience than actually living them, and their distance makes these events feel less possible. Our disconnect with game characters comes when we compare them to ourselves, the often ordinary people who puppeteer them, rather than the extraordinary people they're meant to resemble. When we play games we're not playing people like us, we're playing as the Dan Inouyes and Attila Ambruses of the world, extraordinary people living extraordinary lives. Does that make Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto realistic? Of course not-it's still absurd that players can wade through bullets and commit crimes with such limited consequences-but it's worth remembering that reality is often far more sensational than any videogame.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.


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