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The Devilfish Express – Extracts from Devilfish: The Life & Times of a Poker Legend

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Nov 01, 2010

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It’s 1997 and Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott has just won a World Series of Poker bracelet in Las Vegas on only his second trip. In the extracts below he describes how he took on one poker legend and won but was re-buffed by another who “didn’t like it!”. There’s no point going home with a bag full of squirrel heads to mount on your trophy wall. You need some lions. This is where a well-known American player called Lyle Berman came in. He was older than me and had been playing for longer. He was known as a high-stakes cash game specialist, and a good one. He already had three WSOP event bracelets to his name. He was a respected player. Probably the most recognizable Omaha player. I asked Lyle whether he fancied a game and he agreed. He’d obviously heard the rumours going round about me and probably thought I was some flash-in-the-pan that he could turn the heat up under. Depends what’s in the pan, though, doesn’t it?

From a distance it didn’t exactly look like an even match, with the odds stacked heavily in Lyle’s favour. I sat down — a gabby, smart-arse motherfucker in shades with a freshly minted WSOP bracelet. Lyle sat down — a quiet, grey-haired gentleman with glasses. He was a successful businessman and wealthy. I’d been lucky enough to win a WSOP event, clearing all my debts. For the two weeks since that win I’d been riding high in the cash games. I now had $240,000 all told, so I was $40,000 up on the trip. So I’d gone skint, borrowed, gone skint again, borrowed, gone skint, borrowed again . . . and finally won. But, I was still willing to risk everything I had in a heads-up game with a guy who could buy me out a thousand times over. There was no risk to him. And, yet, I was still willing to put it all on the line. Everything. That’s the sort of guy I was.

Lyle started off with about half a million and I had my near quarter-mill. Sitting behind him, Lyle had support from a huge Texas fella called TJ Cloutier, who was a famous ex-American football player and now a famous poker player. And – get this – laid out in front of Lyle, on the table next to his cards, was a massive solid gold bar. You couldn’t help but keep looking at this big yellow bar shining under the lights. He said that he kept this gold brick as a reminder. A reminder of what, I didn’t know. Maybe of all the gold teeth and fillings he’d won off other players.

In only a few months, I’d gone from playing in the backstreets of Bradford, Manchester and dark old London casinos – and often playing against Brits with limited bankrolls – to playing in the Nevada desert in the gambling capital of the world against a millionaire businessman with mineshaft pockets full of cash and a solid gold brick as a lucky charm. That kind of game change, and the amount of money at stake, would cause a lot of players to produce their own bricks of a different kind. I don’t think Lyle or TJ were too worried about the competition. From their side of the table, what they saw were two pasty-faced Brits from Britland. All we had was my belief in how good I was. And Gary [Whitaker’s] belief … in how good I was.

I had one other believer on my side, the British player Ali Sarkeshik, who knew from experience how good a player I was heads-up. He must have had some faith in me because he had 15 per cent of my action. Before you knew it, I was $100,000 up against Lyle. I kept changing the way I played and I was doing everything that he wouldn’t expect me to do. I checked the nuts right to the end and got a big bet out of him before I re-raised. I was doing all sorts of moves. It was like poker gymnastics. I bet aggressively one minute and then changed the next. I knew, from Lyle’s point of view, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go, but, for me, this was exactly how I’d seen it panning out.

At one point, I got aces, which, as I said, in Omaha can deceive you into thinking you’ve got a better hand than you have. Even when the flop came 2, 3, Q, giving me a straight draw, I still had a bad feeling about it and I threw the hand away; he’d re-raised me on the flop and even though usually I’d go to war, this time I folded and waited for the next hand. At this stage, I can’t imagine that Lyle liked me too much. No one likes getting beaten. Especially by some English guy with a chip on his shoulder who keeps having a go at everybody. Eventually, I ended up getting $168,000 off Lyle. I was just sorry that I couldn’t get him to the point where he’d push the gold bar into the pot. That would’ve looked good sitting in the pawnshop window. But he was smart enough to realize this was not his day.

The Devilfish Express Part II – Puggy Pearson

Puggy had won four WSOP bracelets, including the main event title in 1973 against Johnny Moss. This geezer was another member of the gambling royalty. Gary had already told me about Puggy Pearson’s mobile tour bus which he travelled round in from tournament to tournament, and which was famous because it had a gambling quote of Puggy’s painted down the side of it in big letters. Everyone seemed to know this bloody van. It was more famous than most gamblers. So this was too good a chance to miss. As Puggy walked past in a cloud of blue cigar smoke – I knew it was him because through the smoke I could see deckchairs fighting – I shouted out to him. “Hey, Puggy! How about me and you playing heads-up?” He turned round to look at me. I said, “Come on, Puggy! You’re always telling everyone what a great gambler you are, so let’s play!” Like Doc, he was another good ol’ Southern boy. He walked over to me, smiling, and in his lazy drawl, he said, “Devilfish. Son, I wanna show you somethin’.” I told Gary to watch my money. Puggy asked me to walk with him across the casino. Outside the Horseshoe we crossed the road to the car park. Then I saw his van, which wasn’t exactly a van – it was a massive touring mobile home. It looked like it needed two engines to move it. The kind of thing you only see in America because it wouldn’t fit most other places. In Britain, this vehicle would’ve had its own postcode, street name and seventeen wheelie bins. On the side, in big letters, were painted the words “PUGGY PEARSONROVING GAMBLER” and underneath that, something else was written, which Puggy pointed at and started to read out loud. He said, “As you can see, it says: ‘I’ll play any man from any land any game he can name for any amount I can count,’” and then he lowered his finger to point at some really small writing at the bottom of the bus: . . . ‘Providing I like it!’ Then he turned to me, and to answer my challenge, he said, “And ah don’t like it, Devilfish! Ah don’t like it at all.” He stuck the cigar back in his mouth and I started laughing. It was really funny. He was a clever enough gambler to give himself a get-out clause.

Puggy lived in Vegas and later he would die in Vegas, which tells you plenty about the man. And if he died broke, it was probably the mobile home petrol bills. He was also smart enough to know when to avoid a good player on a hot streak. That was quite a compliment to me, when I thought about it – Puggy Pearson, a four- time bracelet winner, WSOP champion and a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, didn’t want to play me heads- up, even though he’d “play any man from any land”, because when he thought about playing me, he “didn’t like it”.

The actual main event of the WSOP turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax for me after all the action I’d been getting. I got knocked out early, but then I was exhausted from all the cash games I’d been playing so I hadn’t given myself much of a chance. Eventually, the WSOP got down to the last six players (including Stu Ungar) and five of those were classed as Las Vegas residents, which says something about the town. The only finalist not from Vegas was a London player and mate of mine, Mel Judah. That final became one of the biggest stories in poker history because Stu Ungar – in his blue John Lennon shades – won it and became the 1997 WSOP champion, sixteen years after his last win. He was now the only person in history to win it three times. Everyone was calling him The Comeback Kid.

Within a year Stu Ungar would be dead, and there’s no comeback from that. A terrible waste of a great talent. For me, things were definitely alive. On only my second trip to Vegas, I’d become known. I realized that when I walked into the Four Queens and ran into Johnny Chan. Johnny was a bit of a poker legend. He’d won the WSOP Main Event in 1987 and 1988, and was runner-up in 1989. Being the cocky fucker I am, I walked right up to Chan and said, “Now then, Johnny boy!” He barely nodded. This was getting to be a bit of a surprise trip: I’d outgrown Hull, outgrown the north of England and then outgrown London; the last thing I thought would happen would be for me to outgrow Vegas. So the only place left for me now was the rest of the world. But first, there was somewhere I had to go that was more important than the rest of the world. Back home.

Devilfish – The Life & Times of a Poker Legend is published by Penguin and available to buy at Amazon.co.uk.