Dave Ulliott: Snarling, wind-up merchant or garrulous entertainer? Paul Cheung sets out to find the man behind the Devilfish mask
That David ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott is the UK’s most successful poker export isn’t an issue of major contention. Tournament wins alone have bagged him £2 million and he’s one of the few Brits to have won a WPT Championship event. He’s also the most famous, and these days even gets namedropped in the likes of Eastenders. But the question I want answered is whether he’s the same belligerent, snarling – at-times incomprehensible – leering Devilfish you’ve no doubt seen at countless TV poker tourneys. Will the real Devilfish please stand up?
The first thing I notice when walking into his home near Hull is that he’s ditched the sunglasses and slick-back look. ‘I was at a party in Vegas and everyone looked the same as me, so I was like, fuck this.’ He also wants me to lose the nickname. ‘Just call me Dave,’ he says. I’m caught slightly off-guard – is big bad Dave Ulliott actually a nice guy? ‘The way you see me in my house is the way I really am,’ he muses. ‘If people are nice to me, I’ll be nice to them. If people are aggressive to me, they’re going to get it ten times worse. I don’t like obnoxious people, bullies and people who push you around town centres.’
I’m reminded of poker pro Robert Williamson III’s take on Ulliott: that he’s surprisingly easygoing. ‘He’s like one of those trained guard dogs – lots of bark, not much bite! The kind of guy who you actually want to hang out with. A regular beer-swilling kind of guy.’ Unless, that is, you’re a loud-mouthed resident of his home town who makes the mistake of overstepping the mark. ‘There was a big guy a couple of Sundays back in Hull city centre who tried it on,’ he recalls. ‘I was with my mates anyway – a bunch you wouldn’t want to mess with – but he took a swing at me. He missed, I caught him on the chin and laid him flat on the floor.’
He’s the daddy
So the ’fish is clearly alive and punching, but he assures me that those years of street fighting are long gone. ‘When I was in my twenties, I’ll admit I was a hell-raiser’, he says, rubbing the diamond encrusted ‘Devil’ ring with his forefinger. ‘I got in with the wrong ’uns and did my time in Durham – probably the worst prison there is. It’s not something that I’d like to go through again but it strengthened my character.’
He’s just recovering from a ‘fairly light’ three-day bender and reckons that nowadays he’s all about having fun. ‘I’ll go out with my mates, hang out with my kids (he has seven), play pool and go clubbing. I don’t play as much poker as you might think.’ Quite close, in fact, to the picture Hendon Mobster Joe Beevers paints: ‘Dave loves to go out a lot. He’s good fun to be around – very likeable. He tells a lot of funny stories.’
If storytelling was Devilfish’s raison d’etre, he’d be doing cabaret on a cruise ship – no doubt recounting one of various apocryphal tales about the origins of his name while strumming a guitar. But he’s a poker player first and foremost, and even though he may not play for ‘three days straight at the Rio, Las Vegas’ any more, when he does play, he invariably grabs the headlines. As close friend and golfing partner Williamson (no relation to the pro golfer) observed to me, ‘He’s like the Ernie Els of the PGA tour and is deservedly the most-well respected player from Europe in America.’
Most recently, Ulliott led a British victory in the inaugural 888.com Poker Nations Cup against Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Germany and the USA. ‘We looked down and out going into the final day, but I was playing in the anchor position and I knew I could bring it home,’ he says, adding modestly: ‘Like Jesse May said, “The ’fish is the best closer in the business,” and I proved I really am.’
No one could have predicted just how dramatic the closure would be. Ulliott was heads-up and all-in against Germany’s captain Michael Keiner. Pairing the King in his hand with the King on the flop, Keiner let out a palpable sigh of relief – but an 8 sailed onto the river and Devilfish miraculously completed his straight. ‘It was just like a Hollywood movie,’ Ulliott declares triumphantly. ‘That performance should keep me in the headlines for the next 12 months.’
It was a powerhouse performance, full of aggression, and it’s clear Ulliott really knows how to use his table image to full advantage – when he raised, fearful players refrained from attacking back. This omnipotence was in full flow again at last year’s eight-handed, $1m Fulltiltpoker.net Invitational in Monte Carlo, which featured a raft of top names including Ivey, Lederer and Matusow. ‘I was bossing those Americans around for two hours,’ recalls Ulliott enthusiastically. ‘But because they had to film it for TV, it couldn’t last that long. They put the blinds up to $90,000 and it became a crapshoot.’
The ’fish eventually finished in third, but what he seems most proud of is the verbal gob-stopping of Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow. ‘After 30 minutes, he was begging me to stop ripping the piss out of him!’ Which cuts to the heart of Devilfish. Undoubtedly greatly gifted at the green baize and larger-than-life away from it, where does his table image end and the real Dave Ulliott begin. Does he even know? Such supreme self-confidence seems to work at the poker table, but can come across as pure arrogance elsewhere.
Take the little number Ulliott pulled as he got up from the table at the Fulltiltpoker.net sponsored event. ‘He wore his own site’s logo and URL under his jacket and during the live broadcast he bared it all to the world,’ outspoken Aussie poker pro Tony G explains. He believes Ulliott crossed the line that day. ‘The boss of Fox Sports media told me the ’fish will never again play in any TV tournament that he has anything do with. I guess the ‘fish only cares about himself.’
The name’s ’fish, Devilfish
But is that the case? Tomorrow he’s buying a car for his son (‘For passing his driving test’) and he speaks highly of his wife (‘A great woman’) – even though he’s mid-divorce. Indeed, Devilfish is absorbed by women. See him at a party and no doubt he’ll have at least one pretty young thing swooning by his side.
What’s his secret? ‘I like to excel at everything I do – whether it’s making love or playing poker, I like to be the best. I live a bit of a James Bond lifestyle really. I have the biggest wardrobe of anyone I know, I drive a Hummer, a Lexus Convertible, travel round the world and earn a shit load of money. When you look like me, it helps for sure.’
And when it comes to ‘work’, his take on women poker players can’t fail to court more controversy. ‘It’s always good to look at someone pretty at the table – who‘s not me,’ he says, tongue presumably in cheek. ‘But if you ask me whether women can ever be as good as men at the table, then I reckon, no. There are good players out there like Lucy Rokach – she’s a Rottweiler – but in general women just aren’t aggressive enough.’
The ’fish, meanwhile, is actually trying to tone down his own aggression at the table as it’s becoming too predictable. ‘Everyone expects stone-cold bluffs every time I play. Nowadays, I have to make sure I’ve got some sort of hand.’ Given this weight of expectation that follows the walking, talking Devilfish brand – the aggression, the abrasiveness, the attitude – does Ulliott ever worry he’s becoming a parody of his own public image?
The Devil’s due
An answer to this question may lie within one of the many anecdotes he rattles off during our afternoon together: ‘I remember one time I was in a bar called Room in Hull. I was pissed up and standing at the top of some pretty steep stairs, all lined in metal. The next minute I’ve gone down each step on my back and somehow I’ve got to the bottom – with my drink still in my hand. Five or six young ladies crowd round and I wink at them, get up and say, “For my next trick…”’
Onlookers would have seen Ulliott, cool-as- you-like, then saunter out of the bar, every inch the epitome of the unshakeable Devilfish. But what you’re less likely to hear is what happened next. ‘I walked to my car and the drive home was so painful, you wouldn’t believe,’ he says, his face reliving the pain. ‘The whole of my back was black and blue, as was my front because the blood had been forced round. I was bloody lucky.’
And that’s the Devilfish for you – part man, part myth, all poker legend. Like him or loath him, and it’s easy to do both, he’s surely the closest the UK currently has to a true poker star. ‘The ’fish needs to make sure he’s in the limelight all the time,’ he says dispassionately, switching slightly unnervingly into third-person like he’s at some marketing expert discussing brand awareness. And you get the feeling that as long as the fish keeps on reeling in the cash, the real Dave Ulliott will just have to stay seated on the sidelines.
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