01 September 2010
“Big wins can make you walk on water; big losses can hammer you into the ground like a tent peg. But only if you let yourself care. As long as you realize that money means nothing, you’re ahead.”
They say poker’s gone all respectable these days. Thank God, then, for Devilfish and his new autobiography Devilfish: The Life and Times of a Poker Legend. With his tales of Humberside villainy and dark, dangerous cash games, Dave Ulliott has written a devil of an autobiography. Here’s the man himself in all his unapologetic, foul-mouthed, wise-cracking, safe-cracking glory.
Has writing this book been a cathartic process, Devil?
I don’t know. It’s weird how much stuff you remember at the time, and now I’m remembering so much more I forgot – I could do another one if I wanted. There’s that much stuff that you just forget about, you know? I like autobiographies, and I’ve read a few, especially when I’m sitting on a plane, but I always think, “My life’s been much more interesting than yours,” and that’s why I decided to do it.
Was it difficult revisiting the “naughty” stuff from your past?
Not really, I mean, I fell in with the wrong guys when I was about 16 and everyone has a past and does stupid stuff, but I’m done with those folk when all is done and dusted. Like I say in the book, back in them days everybody was up to summat.
Was poker your saviour? Would you be banged up now if it weren’t for poker?
I wouldn’t say that, necessarily. I think becoming a married man helped me more. Before poker became big I managed to open a jewellery shop and pawnbrokers with my wife, and by that time I was going pretty straight and life was pretty good. I won’t say poker saved me – in fact, it probably cost me my marriage in a way, because when I got known I started going away a lot more, so… it’s brought good things and bad things, like anything in life – there are good and bad things…
Of course poker helped me get known a little bit which helped me to write this book because, obviously, no one would want to read the book if I hadn’t been on the TV and stuff. So I guess there are always sacrifices to pay…
Were you born to gamble?
Well, you either have it inside you or you don’t, I guess. My grandfather was a crazy gambler, my father was a recreational gambler and my mother likes a bit of bingo, so you can say it’s flowing though my veins. I’ve always liked to gamble on anything that moves, but also, with everything I’ve ever done, I’ve always just tried to be really good at it.
What was it like playing the cash games up north in the early days?
It’s nothing like it is now. A different world. Sometimes I’d go by myself, or sometimes with a friend or a driver for protection. I’d grab a gun and it used to be a buzz going down that motorway. There used to be these places and everyone had had a brew, you know, and I used to like going in there and cleaning them out.
What was the most dangerous situation you found yourself in?
Well, the thing with me is I actually used to walk into a game with a gun in my pocket, and a friend with a baseball bat on his shoulder behind me, so people generally picked on other people rather than me. Most dangerous stuff happened to other people, which I heard a lot about. I walked out of a place called Pappa’s after a big win one day and I could hear them waiting for me in the alley, so I fired a gun in the air and they scattered like rats.
One time three guys burst into Stevie Yeung’s place, The Rainbow, looking for me because I’d won all the money there, but I wasn’t there, obviously, because there was no need to be because I’d already won all the money. I was pretty smart and I tried to be really careful.
Then you went to Vegas and made a name for yourself?
Before I went to Vegas I was playing a game with at Taffy’s in Nottingham with Lucy Rokash, Dave Colclough and Micky Wernick. Funnily enough it was the same line-up at Taffy’s as it was in Dave Baxter’s game in Birmingham – exactly the same people – but I used to have amazing form at Taffy’s place and lousy form at Dave’s. I actually pretty much wiped Taffy’s place off the map, and that’s where I got my bankroll for Vegas. Then I went down to the Vic for their Christmas tournament, which I won, and I won in the cash games as well, so now I had this stake and I went to Vegas.
I didn’t win masses the first time at the WSOP, but I won the Omaha tournament and beat the Men the Monkey [He means Men “The Master” Nguyen – Ed.] heads up, and that’s where I got the name Devilfish – and I’m not going to tell that story again, I’m getting sick of it.
I went back again in April for the World Series and won a bracelet and then I played Lyle Berman heads up for a lot of money and managed to beat him. So all of a sudden I went from these games in Birmingham where you’re grinding your balls off and flying by the seat of your pants and just trying to get home safe for two or three thousand quid, to winning big money in Vegas, and suddenly those games didn’t seem that appealing anymore.
You became a cult celebrity through Late Night Poker in the UK. Were you suspicious of the show at first?
It was a funny situation and I thought, “Why should I show my cards to everyone?” but then I thought, “Well, it’s only Texas Hold’em,” and I didn’t even play much Texas Hold’em back then. In those days we’d always played dealer’s choice mixed games, where they could call any one of ten or 12 variations, all of them a lot more complicated than Hold’em. People these days that think they can play poker would have been totally lost.
So I went along and I wore my black suit, black shades and black tie and I won the first three shows I did, and the next thing you know I’ve got a fan club. I mean, those things were pretty much pure luck. Who knows? If I hadn’t won those first three tournaments, which apparently was really good for the viewing figures, poker might not be where it is now.
Did you enjoy the fame?
Well, I’ve never really been shy. I’m always the one who jumps up on the stage with a guitar at every opportunity – they have to drag me off. I’ve always been a bit of an entertainer. Once I saw those TV lights I was away, which was useful because some people freeze on TV.
It seems like you’ve always been good at making those high-pressure decisions. Is the nerve something you’re born with?
I don’t think you’re born with it because, in the old days, if I’d been asked to make a decision for a couple of hundred grand it would have been quite a nervy experience, but a couple of hundred grand now… it doesn’t bother me. It’s part and parcel of playing poker. If you’re scared to put your money in the middle, the game you’re playing is too high and you’re never going to beat the game.
What’s the biggest bluff you’ve ever made in life?
When I first met my wife, Mandy, for the first eight months before we settled down and opened our pawnbrokers’ shop, I told her I was a truck driver. If I’d been caught doing anything wrong – turning over a safe or whatever – that would have been the end of that, because her mother and father were very straight. Every night I night I was out doing a safe and she thought I was doing some long-distance lorry driving.
We've got an exclusive extract from Devilfish: The Life & Times of a Poker Legend below. Enjoy!
Midnight to Midnight: the Five-City Run
When we set off from Hull that Friday evening it was already dark because it was winter and it was freezing and slashing it down with rain. Typical cheery English scene, then. If we’d been in America, we might have been heading down Route 66 with the top down. Instead we were aquaplaning down the M18 with the heater on.
As usual Gary was driving and, as usual, I was talking ten to the dozen on the phone, ringing ahead to find a game. One hour and sixty miles later we were in Bona- partes in Sheffield. But it was an action game, and that’s all that mattered.
I sat there with rain steaming off me for the first five minutes, and over the next few hours I hammered the fuck out of every player there. Poker players are not the most attractive bunch at the best of times but they all look as pretty as a picture when you’re leaving them behind potless at a table you’ve just cleaned out. It’s not about how you carry the wins, though, but how you carry the losses. Big wins can make you walk on water; big losses can hammer you into the ground like a tent peg. But only if you let yourself care. As long as you realize that money means nothing, you’re ahead.
We left Sheffield at midnight with me about three grand ahead and set off for home. But I knew I had more good games in me, and everything felt right – it felt like one of those times when you should take advantage of how well you’re rolling. Gary thought we should call it a night.
I was ringing round everywhere, looking for the next game. I found it.
‘Nottingham, Gaz!’ I said. He gave me one of those looks. He knew we were going to a Chinese Triad-run game. Their idea of a Chinese takeaway is to get your arms and legs and take them away from the rest of your body. Put it this way: you wouldn’t want them running a crèche.
You can see how driving through the night towards this game might have not been first on Gary’s wish list, but forty minutes and forty miles later, we were there. The game was being played in a private house around a big table, and the game was 5-Card Stud. 5-Card Stud is the game that’s usually seen in old cowboy films – it started out in the Old West – but it isn’t played much any more. It was my best game – I’d been playing it for twenty years. Anyway, I’d play any kind of poker with any player, any place. Even in a Chinese Triad kitchen full of knives, choppers, meat cleavers – and an egg whisk. Don’t laugh. If it stuck where the sun don’t shine – that would be a bad ‘beat’.
The place was full of Chinese guys (surprise, surprise), and there’s no one on earth with a better poker face than a Chinaman. You could set off a firework in their boxers and they wouldn’t twitch a nostril hair. Trying to get a ‘tell’ of these fellas was like flogging a dead horse. Which, funnily enough, they were already doing in the kitchen.
Everyone turned to look at us, which I didn’t mind, it just gave me a better audience when I walked up to the table and slapped down £3,000 in cash. As a sign of acceptance, a woman approached and offered us something to eat. By now I was so hungry I could’ve eaten the arse off a low-flying duck. We were looking forward to a full banquet of crispy duck, barbecue ribs and dim sum. The full Eastern Monty. Five minutes later she came back with two bacon and fried-egg butties.
The oddest thing about the game was that underneath the table was a huge bucket. When we got nearer I saw it was full of £50, £20 and £10 notes and casino chips. The dealer was the owner of the game, so after every hand he’d take his rake and throw it under the table into the bucket.
A few hours later, there were a few more signs of emotion in the players’ faces because I was about £14,000 ahead. I was starting to feel the pace a bit and Gary said that I looked exhausted. I said, ‘OK, we can go home now.’
We didn’t go home.
Go home after only playing for ten hours straight, only being £17,000 up, and only eating ten bacon butties? I was on a roll and wanted to keep on rockin’. I sent us on a game hunt to Leeds. Sixty miles later we ended up in a backstreet game in Chapeltown, another place you wouldn’t want to leave your tank unattended.
This time, we were playing Omaha, which was fine by me. A few hours later I was another £10,000 or so up. Now I needed something new, a change of scene, to combat the tiredness that was starting to kick in.
Half an hour later we were in Pappa’s in Bradford. You might think the fact that I’d had to pull a gun in this place before would make it a no-go zone, but I figured that would stand us in good stead for a return visit. Gary took a bit of convincing of the wisdom behind that, though he was happy enough a few hours later when I’d wiped the floor with everyone and put another £8,000 in the kitty.
One of the players there was Norman the Tatter. Now that the action was dead at Pappa’s, Norman asked me if I wanted to play him heads-up back at his house in Wakefield. That I couldn’t refuse, even after being on the road for as long as we had. The winning streak had to go on until the wheels started to come off. And that didn’t feel like it was about to happen. Twenty minutes into the game at Norman’s, I was £3,000 up and Norman quit.
By now, I’d raked in £38,000, been through five cities, three motorways, two red lights, twelve bacon butties and seen the sun rise and set again. By the time we dragged ourselves back to Hull, we’d travelled almost 250 miles in a twenty-four-hour period. Midnight to midnight.
The only thing that didn’t work out was the Chinese duck. Obviously, the duck was off.