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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

(continued from page 1)

Devilfish (who got his moniker when a player by the name of Stevie Young likened him to a fish that can wound you) rebounded at the Aviation Club from a $40,000 deficit to finish slightly in the black -- a fairly remarkable achievement. "Unless you are very strong inside, after you get a few bad beats and lose a good bit of money, your game slips down a few notches," he says, leaving it unclear as to whether this applies to him or not. "But that can actually be a good thing -- since the only way you get out of trouble is by gambling. No one will give you your money back, and it's hard to play exact poker to win $40,000. So here are your choices: you can go to bed 40,000 down or you can liven up the game a bit, start swinging, gamble more than you normally would, and try to get your money back. That's what I did last night. There was a bit of steam in there, but I needed to put some bad beats on these people and try to get them hot -- just as they had gotten me a little hot."

While poker now seems to attract a well-heeled college-educated crowd of players, Devilfish got into the game the old-fashioned way. A working-class lad from the blue-collar town of Hull, in northern England, he began playing poker with his parents as a young boy. By age 15, he was in the local casinos, beating grown men at a three-card game called brag. Devilfish found his edge by watching the cards, which were not properly shuffled between hands, and gauging who'd be getting what. "I used to make a fortune." he remembers. "My father was working hard for 60 or 70 pounds a week, and I'd earn three times that through card playing. When you make that kind of money, it's very hard to get a straight job."

After one too many altercations with his father, Devilfish was tossed out of his home at 16. He traveled around the United Kingdom, playing strip-deck stud (the same 32-card game played in The Cincinnati Kid), then returned to Hull where he quickly found himself deemed too good for the local home games. So he went off to Leeds, where he was unknown, and learned to play Texas Hold'em and Omaha. Between winning streaks, he worked as a bouncer and, in his late 20s, spent a year in jail for brawling. Though Devilfish likes to say that he "hasn't gotten so much as a parking ticket in 18 years," he also acknowledges that the rough-and-tumble life shaped him into the poker player he is today. "There's no use in being a mommy's boy if you want to play poker," he says. "You meet a lot of tough characters out here."

Following his stint in jail, Devilfish met his wife, Amanda, and decided to live life on the (relatively) straight and narrow. They opened a pawnshop together in Hull and earned a good living buying and selling jewelry. These days he likes to talk about the large home he has in Hull, the Lexus in his driveway, and the sponsorship deal he's worked out with Back then, however, Devilfish occasionally had to play poker to supplement the shop's cash flow, and it wasn't until 1996 that he made a name for himself on the international poker circuit. That year he wound up on a rush, winning a series of tournaments in the United Kingdom and going to the 4 Queens in Las Vegas for an Omaha event where he beat Men "The Master" Nguyen to snag a first prize of $65,000. In case anyone doubted his sense of self, he bought a pair of diamond-encrusted, knuckle-dusting rings that spell "Devil" on one hand and "Fish" on the other.

He also established himself as a guy who's fast with the nasty but clever quip. During a $20,000 buy-in game at the Horseshoe in Las Vegas, world-class player and Super/System author Doyle Brunson made a particularly careless move against Devilfish. Devilfish responded by saying, "Do me a favor, Doyle. Next time you write a book, don't put a plastic cover on it, because it's very hard for me to wipe my ass with it." Asked how Brunson replied, Devilfish says, "He probably didn't understand me. I speak too quickly for Doyle. I guess I need to speak Texan."

Devilfish gets up from the dinner table and heads back to the Aviation Club's poker room, leading the way through a wood-paneled library, where the walls are covered with portraits of young aviators and the leather sofas and club chairs perfectly suit the environment. He's playing a tournament here and is struggling to keep afloat. A couple hours later, after getting blown out, he hops from his seat and asks only a single question: "Where's the cash game?"

He finds his game in an adjacent room. But it's shorthanded and presenting limited opportunities for profits. While waiting for an opening at the adjacent table -- where every seat is taken and the action is hot -- Devilfish bides his time and tries to liven things up, playing with a fast, aggressive style and pulling bluffs whenever he can (and even sometimes when he can't). He wears sunglasses that ride low on his nose, uses his thumb to flick up the edges of his cards, decisively slides his chips to the center of the table, and habitually refers to himself in the third person. After winning a big pot, he rakes in the chips and needles the loser: "Double the Fish up."

Defeated, the guy looks back at him and grumbles, "If I had your luck, I could fly."

Sitting alongside Devilfish is the suave French pop star Patrick Bruel, a talented poker player and an Aviation Club fixture. The two guys banter. "If you beat me this hand, I'll slice off my nuts on the Champs Elysees," says Devilfish. "Get a dull knife," Bruel replies as he turns over the winning cards -- while slowly taking apart a too-tight player at the opposite end of the table.

Dawn is a few hours away and Bruel says that he's tired and thinking of going home and getting some sleep. What keeps him here is that he's next up at the busier table. Devilfish, a place or two behind Bruel on the wait list, wants nothing more than to sit down there, and he offers a proposition: "Let me take the seat and you go home to get your beauty rest. Then you invest 5,000 euros in me, I'll put up 5,000, and we'll split the winnings."

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