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The Devil's Playground

Inveterate gamblers such as David "Devilfish" Ulliott play for high stakes at the Aviation Club de France in Paris
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mar/Apr 03

David "Devilfish" Ulliott settles in at a dining table at the Aviation Club de France in Paris and orders his usual -- vegetable soup, entrée of the day and two bottles of wine, one red and one white. Devilfish, a flamboyant, high-rolling guy with a larger-than-life personality, is notorious for winning three tables in a row on "Late Night Poker," United Kingdom's top-rated television show. Tall and broad-shouldered with swept-back hair and a goatee, the 48-year-old spends nine months of each year on the road, playing tournaments and cash games. He has established himself as arguably the most famous poker player in Europe: an Omaha specialist who has a touch for heads-up poker, claims a record of 15-0 and insists that nobody will challenge him. "I like the Aviation and I like Paris," says Devilfish. "I've gone broke in Paris, and it's a difficult place to get money if you don't speak French. A couple of times Bruno [Fitoussi, who started the poker operations at the Aviation Club de France] loaned me $20,000.

I like that. It shows respect. This is a gentleman's club where the games are 100 percent straight. Plus, the French play pretty open poker, which, for me, is a good reason to come here. But getting there may be difficult. If you're not careful, you can stroll up the Champs Elysees, looking hard for the Aviation Club, walk right by it, and never even realize it's there. Old-fashioned discretion -- whether you require it or not -- remains a hallmark of the gambling establishment.

The club is somewhat out of place on a tacky strip of the world-famous boulevard -- within blocks of McDonald's, near alleyways full of Irish pubs, and a dozen buildings up from a souvenir shop selling cheesy snow globes. Unlike its neighbors, the Aviation Club is an antiquated throwback to more elegant times on the Champs. Clearly, it's one of the world's few gambling establishments that does not do everything in its power to beckon suckers with outrageous come-ons. Slow down as you approach building number 104, and you will see fat but discreet neon letters that promise "backgammon, chemin de fer, pok 21," a variation on blackjack. Walk past the doormen, with their shaved heads and leather jackets, and you will enter a world that recalls an era when the highest-end gaming was done in private clubs; the wealthiest gamblers generally disdained casinos.

Never mind that the 85-year-old Aviation Club has become less snobby in order to survive in the twenty-first century; it still puts on a pretty good show. Once an unyieldingly private club with stiff membership fees, it's now a place where temporary membership is bequeathed to any reasonably well-dressed foreigner with a passport. Show yours to the tuxedoed maître d' and he'll check your coat, call you by name, and lead you through a chandelier-lit, wood-paneled anteroom that empties into posh gambling dens. In one space, a crowd surrounds blackjack and stud poker tables, both slightly modified from their American versions to suit French laws. Across the way, through a corridor of backgammon play, pot-limit poker action is hot and heavy. And in the biggest, least crowded room of all, older men in custom-tailored suits puff on Cuban Montecristos and play high-stakes baccarat.

The latter group, limping toward extinction, are the heart and soul of the Aviation Club, descendants (emotionally, if not literally) of the real-life aviators who launched the club just after the First World War. "It was initially started to help the widows and orphans of aviators from the war," says Marcel Francese, an elegant man in a bespoke suit who runs the club's gambling operations. "The original location was across the street and the gaming -- nothing but baccarat and chemin de fer -- probably came in simply because this club seemed like a nice place to play."

French gaming laws were wide open at the time, and the Aviation Club took advantage. "People wore tuxedos, it was very formal, and the place remained open around the clock," says Francese. "A guy who used to gamble at the old club told me that people would stay there for 48 hours at a clip." The stakes were staggering, limits were nonexistent, and the party seemed as if it would never end. Then the Second World War ignited, and gambling no longer seemed prudent. While Francese figures that the Aviation Club was open during the war, he acknowledges that things did not shift back into high gear till after the fall of the F¸hrer. "Like at the end of every war, once that one was over, people who stayed home, feeling afraid, wanted to go out and celebrate."

To accommodate them, the Aviation Club moved to its current, larger headquarters, and the club's true heyday began. Actor Omar Sharif and his entourage frequented the club to test the upper altitudes of no-limit play. Chauffeured Rolls-Royces and Bentleys lined the streets. And the in-house restaurant turned out 150 classic French dinners per night. But by the time Francese's father, Roland, was hired to run the gambling here in 1974, things had cooled off considerably. It wasn't due to a war, but to changing tastes. Gambling didn't exactly seem groovy, and the place had the fusty air of an out-of-it men's club. "But the members didn't care," remembers the younger Francese. "They liked that you didn't know what it was from the outside. They didn't want people coming in here with 70,000 francs to gamble with. The only thing was that when you received a check [to pay off a gambling debt] from somebody who was 80 years old, you wanted to make sure it cleared before he died."

By 1995, the club seemed as if it might have been heading for extinction. That was when Marcel Francese (who had since joined the establishment) and his father decided to add poker, blackjack and stud. While longtime members raised cane about the need to relax the Aviation's rules, the new games brought in fresh players who abandoned the high-stakes action of home-poker games, scattered throughout Parisian apartments at the time, to play in the Aviation's plush environment. The club, now crowded seven nights a week, is rocking with a half-dozen different poker games and occasional tournaments.

While ties and tuxes are no longer de rigueur, you definitely don't feel as if you are in supercasual Las Vegas, either. The Aviation possesses a level of intimacy that still leaves it resembling a high-stakes men's club -- and patrons act in kind. The doorman follows you to the ATM around the corner (to make sure you don't get jumped after retrieving your euros), the bartenders mix cocktails with old-fashioned aplomb, and the restaurant turns out terrific Frenchified steaks, chops and fish that go far beyond typical poker club grub. In the poker room, Gitane cigarette smoke intermingles with Cuban scents, players double-kiss one another's cheeks, and Gaelic arguments sometimes seem so intense that you're not sure whether they are discussing poker or Sartre. The action is rich enough that the Aviation Club has been established as a stop on the World Poker Tour (a 10,000-euro buy-in tournament was slated to take place here this February), and players from around the globe continually run through town, trying to take off the well-monied enthusiastic amateurs who seem to populate Paris's gaming scene.

"French players are likely to win and leave the table," Devilfish observes. "They like to hit and run. Then they come back and buy in again." He acknowledges that this is no way to build up a bankroll: "You're supposed to maximize wins and minimize losses. But if they lose they can go down for any amount, and if they win they can only win so much. In the 5,000-euro buy-in it's a little different; players stick around because they don't want to lose their seats. But in the 1,000- or 2,000-euro games, they win a few thousand and leave. Then you get somebody else sitting down and buying in for the bare minimum, and you have to break them four times instead of breaking the guy once to get your money back."

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