Obituary: David UlliottFormer petty criminal who made millions as he helped to turn poker into an internet phenomenon
April 8 2015
In the summer of 1999, a programme appeared on Channel 4 that promised a peek behind a notoriously impenetrable façade. Late Night Poker, filmed in a dark and smoky studio in Cardiff, employed cameras positioned under a glass-top card table. For the first time in the history of one of the world’s most popular pastimes, viewers were allowed an exclusive glimpse behind a poker face.
No face in the series was more memorable than that of David Ulliott, a wise-cracking pawnbroker from Hull, who went by the nickname “Devilfish” and was the show’s undoubted star. Wearing small, hexagonal-framed, tinted glasses between slicked-back hair and a tidy goatee, Ulliott seemed to be an almost supernaturally gifted card player, intimidating and manipulating opponents into handing him all of their chips. More than one million people watched at 1am on a Sunday morning as Ulliott became Late Night Poker’s first champion, winning a duel against a scrap-metal dealer named Peter “The Bandit” Evans. The Devilfish won £40,000 and became British poker’s first celebrity.
At the time, poker was still primarily regarded as a game played by gangsters in lock-up garages or in saloons in the Wild West; Ulliott’s rugged, cool menace suggested he could hold his own in both. It was equally evident that he was more than just a bully: his savvy in calculating odds and probabilities, as well as a disarming charm and an ability to discern weakness in opponents, demonstrated all the skills demanded of a successful high-stakes poker player.
Ulliott was already making significantly more money from playing cards than he was from his various business enterprises. Indeed, he introduced to a captivated audience the very notion that it was possible to be a professional poker player.
Almost every Briton who subsequently became involved in poker as the game surged in popularity acknowledged the influence of Late Night Poker — and the player called “Devilfish”, who would go on to win more than $6 million in recorded tournaments.
David Ulliott was born in a council-owned terraced house in central Hull in April 1954, the second child of Stanley, a former paratrooper turned lorry driver, and Joyce, a cleaner. Hull still bore the scars of heavy bombing during the war, and Ulliott and his friends played in bombed-out houses before being relocated to a new estate in the north of the city. He was first caught shoplifting at the age of five, which earned him a beating from his father; he was rarely engaged in school, which he left at 15 without having taken any exams.
Ulliott was already frequenting bookmakers, often going in search of his father, and developed what he described as “the gambler’s need for the buzz” after winning with his first bet on a horse. The itch would remain for the rest of his life.
He started playing poker around the kitchen table with his family — Ulliott’s sister Janet was two years older and his brother Paul five years younger — and then during lunch-breaks in one of his first jobs at a shop making trophies. He gradually started playing in “underground” games run by Hull’s minor gangsters, buying into one of his first games by exchanging stolen meat with a restaurant owner, and quickly realised the benefits of getting under opponents’ skin, prompting them to make mistakes. “I saw that it wasn’t always a disadvantage to be the bad guy at the table,” he wrote in his autobiography, published in 2010.
Ulliott had an unsuccessful stint as an amateur boxer and claimed he was rejected by the army because of colour-blindness but he still managed to hustle pool and snooker around the clubs of Hull. He fell in with a crew of burglars and safe-crackers he met at a betting shop and with whom he pulled off a series of break-ins, which were often insurance scams and inside jobs. He spent his 21st birthday in Armley prison in Leeds before starting a 12-month sentence for robbing a tobacconist and two off-licences. He also had a son and a daughter with his first wife, Sue, who left him for a policeman while he was in prison. After his release, Ulliott continued to bet on horses and greyhounds, financing what he acknowledged was an addiction with money made at the poker tables; he held down a succession of blue-collar jobs and, inevitably, linked up again with his safe-cracking colleagues.
During a second spell of imprisonment, he decided to focus on poker, which had been his most reliable source of income. He described poker as the “only consistent thing in my life that hadn’t let me down, betrayed me, grassed me up, stolen from me, kicked me in the teeth or run away”.
He added: “That gives some idea of the kind of life I’d lived up until then — that poker was an honest way out.”
Travelling across the North of England, the Midlands and sometimes venturing into London, he often carried a gun beneath a trademark long leather coat.
Ulliott became the most feared poker player in the country. In a typical 24-hour period, he might take in games in five cities, in casinos, illegal “spielers”, or at private games at the homes of wealthy businessmen. He earned his nickname at one such game after being likened to the Takifugu fish — deadly if handled incorrectly. The name stuck.
After his first trip to Las Vegas in 1997, when he beat a Vietnamese professional named Men “The Master” Nguyen to record his first overseas tournament victory, the press release announcing his success read: “Devilfish Devours The Master.”
In May 1997, Ulliott became only the third British player to win an official tournament at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and complemented his gold bracelet, awarded to winners in the tournament series, with chunky bespoke knuckleduster rings bearing the name “DEVIL” and “FISH”.
Ulliott relished the celebrity that Late Night Poker brought him. He featured in a BBC Two documentary named Jackpot, which portrayed him travelling across Europe in search of the biggest poker games, as well as spells in Hull with his ever-growing family, teaching his four sons by his second wife, Mandy, how to play blackjack for cash.
Ulliott had eight children: a son, Paul, who is a child minder, and a daughter, Kerry, who is an occupational therapist, from his first marriage; another son, David, who is a carpet fitter, from a later relationship; the four sons — Chris, who is a photographer, Steven, a landscape gardener, Mike, an art worker, and Matthew, a student — from his 20-year marriage to Mandy; and a daughter, Lucy, who is three years old, with his third wife, Anpaktita, whom he married in 2011.
Buoyed by the advent of the online game, which precipitated the popularity in poker and swelled the prize money on offer, Ulliott enjoyed the most successful phase of his career. He won millions, including a prestigious title on the World Poker Tour in Tunica, Mississippi, and rubbed shoulders with sports celebrities and rock stars. He drove a Ferrari and picked up endorsement deals with an online poker operator, later launching his own “Devilfish Poker” internet card-room.
In comparison with the new superstars of poker — who are fresh-faced young mathematicians, silently making millions playing on the internet — Ulliott’s scabrous humour, marked by a career dodging police, left him representing something of a bygone era. However, he remained an iconic figure on both sides of the Atlantic as the game he helped to make popular continued to boom.
Ulliott was diagnosed with cancer in February this year. News of his illness became public only a few days ago during the European Poker Tour in Malta — when €18 million changed hands among 2,500 players from 64 countries during a festival that was broadcast live across the world on the internet.
David Ulliott, poker player, was born on April 1, 1954. He died of cancer on April 6, 2015, aged 61