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