First Person: Dave Ulliott

I started playing poker when I was working for a trophy maker in Hull in the late 1960s. During lunch breaks, my colleagues and I played for a few pence and I found I was quick at calculating the odds. I was only 15 but in the same year, I joined a local casino club – I shouldn’t even have been allowed in. The club was legal, but it had the atmosphere of an old illegal gambling joint. From there, I was invited to private games. People were happy to have me around, because I wasn’t a great player and I lost regularly.

Hull was a tough place to grow up; everybody was doing something dodgy. I became part of a safe-cracking gang, but I wasn’t doing it for the money, I was doing it because it was an adventure. When I was 20 I was arrested for robbing two off-licences and a tobacco shop, and I was jailed for nine months. Eight years later, I was arrested again, and got 18 months. It’s not something I’m proud of, and I haven’t done anything criminal since.

I never decided to become a professional poker player – I slipped into it. First, I played cash games in Hull. When nobody wanted to play against me any more, I drove through the north of England looking for games. Some places were quite seedy, but I liked the buzz.

Sometimes it’s easier to win the games than to bring the money home, which is why I started carrying a gun. It served me well when other players tipped off thieves. One time, back in the 1990s, I was leaving a game in Bradford at five o’clock in the morning. It was winter, freezing cold, and I was carrying a lot of cash. As I stepped on to the fire escape with a friend I heard some people whispering, so I took out the gun and fired it into the air. Whoever they were, they knocked over a few dustbins as they ran away.

Gamblers aren’t the most sympathetic bunch in the world. In 1996, I was playing against an older fellow called Charlie, a nice guy from Liverpool. We were fighting over a decent pot, about £3,000. I bet the pot, and Charlie fell off his chair. He’d had a heart attack. Today, there’s no way I would have wanted the money under those circumstances, but at the time it was tough. I asked whether I had won, but he didn’t answer. I asked again, and thought the pot was mine. But this time Charlie managed to croak to his brother to call the bet. He died later in hospital.

In 1997, I flew to Las Vegas for the first time, and when I went back later that year I won a World Series of Poker bracelet and $180,310. I got my “Devilfish” nickname in the same year – a poker player from Birmingham came up with it. He was losing and called me “Devilfish”, after a fugu, the Japanese fish that is deadly poisonous when it isn’t properly prepared. At a poker tournament in Vegas, a friend called me Devilfish while cheering me on. I won, and the next day it was in the newspaper.

Since then, I’ve established myself as the highest earning tournament player in Britain – I’ve won more than $5.6m – and in 2007 was voted European Player of the Year. Poker has changed since the 1970s; television made it mainstream, and, with the internet, it’s more accessible than ever.

Now, I only play at live tournaments or at private games in Vegas. There’s no danger; no seedy backrooms, no guns, no fire escapes. But the stakes are higher in Vegas than in Europe, and that’s why I still get the buzz. And because of my tough life, I’ve realised that no matter what happens, nobody can break me inside. A good player can’t have nerves. I lost mine a long time ago.

‘Devilfish: The Life & Times of a Poker Legend’, by Dave Ulliott, will be published by Viking on September 9

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.