Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott, who died on April 6, was a safecracker, stick-up man, and pawnbroker who became one of the most successful poker players of his time. He was 61 years old.
Although the peak of his career was in the days just before poker became a huge online business and tournaments offered eight-figure payouts, Ulliott won more than $6 million in listed tournaments alone. He was one of a handful of players to win both a World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet and a World Poker Tour (WPT) title, the first to become widely known through television play, and was, for a while, ranked 18th in the All Time Money List.
A menacing figure with slicked-back hair, orange tinted sunglasses and a pair of knuckleduster rings (one reading “DEVIL” and the other “FISH”), Ulliott’s arrogance and aggression made him one of the first non-Americans to win in Las Vegas tournaments, where he intimidated fellow players with a stream of one-liners and invective, liberally peppered with four-letter words.
David Ulliott was born on April 4, 1954 in the English port of Hull, a grimy, no-nonsense Northern city as far removed from the glitz of Las Vegas as it would be possible to imagine. His father was a truck driver and his childhood home so small “that they had to paint the furniture on the walls.”
Ulliott left school at 15 without qualifications, and went to work for a firm of trophy makers. He spent his lunchtime playing cards; having played since he was a young child, he quickly realised he had a much better understanding of the odds than his fellow workers.
His father had also introduced him to horse-racing; his first visit to the bookie’s resulted in a 50-1 win, and he was soon fired from his job for taking the afternoon off to go to the track. By then he had also visited the 51 Club, a casino in his hometown and “got the bug straight away,” after which his father kicked him out of the family home.
Ulliott then spent his time in pool halls, casinos, and smoke-filled back rooms—“sawdust on the floor, a pig’s head for air-freshener, the kind of places where they give you a gun on the door if you haven’t got one,” he said in a 2004 interview. This was only a slight exaggeration; Ulliott did often carry a gun. “The problem for me wasn’t winning the money, it was getting out with it.”
He had also fallen in with a team of safecrackers who targeted corner shops, liquor stores, and bookmakers. On one occasion, having lost £5,000 at the bookie’s, Ulliott broke into the shop and retrieved it, taking the money home in a pram. But the law caught up with him, and he was sentenced to nine months, spending his 21st birthday in jail.
His first marriage, which produced two children, broke up while he was inside, but Ulliott continued on the fringes of crime and gambling for most of his 20s. He was banned from the 51 Club after winning £20,000 on roulette, and by all the major high street bookmakers after doing too well on horses.
In later years, he claimed to have called all the winners at one Royal Ascot meeting, with a friend fronting for him, netting more than $100,000[CA1] . He gained the nickname Dave the Clock after betting a longcase clock against an antiques dealer in one game.
This served only to concentrate him on poker, and occasional armed robbery (for which he was arrested, but never convicted). “Son, if you can just remember three little words,” he advised one interviewer, “you will never be broke—stick ’em up.”
Aged 28, he got another stint behind bars in Leeds and Durham—“probably the worst prison”—and on release decided to go straight. At any rate, he was never convicted of an offence afterwards.
He and his second wife Mandy sank her savings and his poker winnings into a pawnbrokers and scrap gold dealers in Hull, which he ran successfully. Games in the back room soon ran out of opposition, and Ulliott began to travel around the country to play.
He gradually became a fixture at London’s leading poker casino, the Victoria, and began playing in tournaments in 1993, coming second in the 7-card Stud at that year’s London Festival of Poker. After winning $160,000 [CA2] in a fortnight in 1996, he decided to try his luck in Vegas.
In the 1997 Four Queens Poker Classic there, Ulliott was dubbed “the Devilfish” by a series of Chinese players whom he knocked out of the $500 Omaha pot limit game, which he won by beating Men “the Master” Nguyen for $20,700.
Later that year, he took $200,000 to the 28th World Series of Poker, and lost it. He borrowed $70,000 more, and lost that too. Down to his last $2,000, he entered the Hold ’Em Pot Limit, which he won with a straight on the river, along with prize money of $180,310 and a WSOP bracelet. He then took $168,000 in a heads-up Omaha pot limit game, and eventually returned to England with almost $750,000 in duty free plastic bags.
For the next decade, Ulliott was one of the most successful international players and became famous when the UK’s Channel 4 screened Late Night Poker, the first television show to feature “hole cams,” allowing viewers to see the players’ hands. It was an unexpected hit.
In 2001 he came second in two separate WSOP events; and in 2003 scored his biggest cash win, against the American Phil Ivey, in the WPT $10,000 No Limit Hold ’Em, winning $589,175.
Ulliott was an early beneficiary of online poker, lending his name to a website and having his tournament buy-ins paid for by sponsors, but he found the competition from online qualifiers—“coming in like ants”—tough. He made several more final rounds in the WSOP and in other major tournaments, but his appearances on television and his reputation for aggression began to count against him with players who thought they could read his game.
He adapted by ditching his pinstripe suits and changing his hair, and by cutting down on bluffs. He had the occasional big win after 2010—third in that year’s WSOP Omaha Hi/Lo 8 ($150,925) and taking $133,465 in 2013’s European Tour. He also capitalised on his reputation with sponsorship deals and by publishing an autobiography.
He maintained a flashy front, driving a series of Ferraris and Hummers around Hull, and giving interviews in which he played up his persona as a minor villain from an early Guy Ritchie film. In February this year, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
His second marriage, by which he had four sons, also ended in divorce. He had another son with a girlfriend and a daughter with his third wife Anpaktita, who survives him with his eight children.