Dave Ulliott: Card player known as the 'Devilfish', who emerged from a life of crime to win millions at the poker table

For many years he was the UK's top money-winner, with over $6m in prize money earned at a time when poker did not offer the astronomic rewards it does today

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If this obituary is not placed in a prominent position on the page, then Dave "Devilfish" Ulliott will come back from the dead to complain, and he will do it in language that would be unprintable. Because two of Ulliott's three most notable characteristics were a monstrous ego and his frequent use of the F word.

The third thing is that on his day he was an extraordinary poker player. For many years, he was the UK's top money-winner, with over $6m in prize money earned in the years when poker did not offer the astronomic rewards it does today. He was also the first winner of the now-famous televised Late Night Poker – and one of a tiny number to have won both a World Series of Poker gold bracelet and a World Poker Tour title.

For a decade, from about 1996 to 2006, Ulliott, universally known in the poker world as "the Devilfish" (when he phoned you, he would begin, "Devilfish here..."), was "the man" in British poker, one of the first to give meaning to the maxim "you play the man, not the cards", defying the odds with a fierce, uncompromising, have-to-prevail pride. He played aggressively, had a gambler's capacity for bluff and risk-taking, and above all a remarkable feel for what was happening in any given hand. Often he would throw away an outstanding hand that anyone else – the very best – would play, because somehow he knew that the other player had the better cards. Then he would bluff them out of the next hand with complete rubbish.

"He has an amazing instinct for where people are," Marcel Luske, one of Europe's top players, said of Ulliott. "He'll put them on the edge and, if he doesn't think they really want to go all the way, he strikes, either pushing them over the top or frightening them into folding their hand. He gets in and out of situations and people look at each other, as if to say, 'Well, what happened?' But by then he has the money..."

But then Ulliott had been getting in and out of situations all of his life. Born the son of a Hull truck-driver in a house he said was "so small we had to paint the furniture on the walls" (he had a fair-sized repertoire of one-liners), he left school at 15 and drifted into petty crime, mainly to pay for the money he lost on the horses. He became a member of a gang that specialised in robbing tobacconists and off licences and spent his nights in the Hull clubs frequented by a community of hustlers, gamblers and small-time criminals.

His fate was inevitable and he spent his 21st birthday alone in a prison cell. Once released, he became involved in a fight outside a nightclub and back behind bars he went. His twenties slipped away, but just when it appeared that his life was to be a write-off, he met Mandy – and, in love, he decided to end his life of crime and win her over by running an honest business. The couple married and opened a pawn shop.

It was then that Ulliott found poker and realised that by bullying and bluffing weaker players he could win at it. For a while he spent every night travelling around the Midlands and the North, often playing in illegal and dangerous gambling dens where his aura of aggression protected him from serious trouble. He ended up in London, where he did not do particularly well – but this did not deter him from going to Las Vegas in 1997. There he lost his bankroll of $15,000 immediately, but borrowed the entry fee for an event at the Four Queens, where he won the first prize of $90,000.

The following year he went back to Las Vegas for the World Series, but lost all the money he had and could borrow – well over $250,000 – before the World Series itself even began. Somehow he persuaded someone to lend him $2000 to enter a World Series event – and he won it, taking away $180,000. He increased this in high-stake cash games on the trip and returned to the UK with $750,000 in two duty-free carrier bags.

His impact on Late Night Poker was immediate. He now wore a pin-striped suit and tie, tinted glasses, and on each hand was an enormous gold "ring": one said "Devil" and the other said "Fish". He never spoke, but occasionally growled. And he wiped the floor with the country's best players.

He went on to some other big wins on both sides of the Atlantic, but over the years he gambled away a lot of his money – and lost at the poker table because everyone had seen on television the way he played and called his bluffs. But he was at his best when he was in trouble, and he could still pull off a big result to keep himself near the top of the money-winners' list.

Unfortunately, fame went to his head – or maybe it's fairer to say that he wasn't educated enough or well-advised enough to handle it. He abandoned Mandy for younger women, took to wearing T-shirts and jeans and a teenager's hairstyle that made him look ridiculous, and complained incessantly about his "bad luck" as his place at the top of the game was taken by a new generation of brilliant young players.

Just the same, there will be much sadness in the world's poker rooms at the passing of one of the game's legends. Maybe his career had ended badly, but poker has only been a really popular game for a short time – and everyone in the game still remembers. They will remember where Ulliott came from; they will remember the prison cells and the bright lights of Las Vegas, and they will remember his bravado and his bullying brilliance at a game that calls for exceptional skill and nerve to reach the top.

Dave 'The Devilfish' Ulliott, poker player: born Kingston upon Hull 4 April 1954; married twice (seven children); died 6 April 2015.

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