Sport On TV: Torrid late-night love affair with the Devil Fish

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The Independent Online
PETER "THE BANDIT" Evans and Dave "Devil Fish" Ulliot are not famous. Photographers do not pursue them when they pop out to post a letter, and no one offers them thousands of pounds to endorse soft drinks or Brylcreem. If you saw one of them standing in a checkout queue in the supermarket, you would not give them a second glance (although if you saw Devil Fish behind you, you might think about moving to a different queue).

They are not famous, but they should be. Evans and Ulliot were the last players standing, or rather sitting, at the climax of Late Night Poker (C4) in the early hours of this morning. Thirty-eight players had already cashed in their chips during six weeks of competition, and now the money they had left behind, pounds 40,000 to be precise, was sitting, in cash, on the green felt of the card table. Yet neither man paid it so much as a glance. They had gimlet eyes only for each other. Forget the men's final at Wimbledon or the snooker in Sheffield. This was the most enthralling head-to-head of the summer, and more to the point, it was also brilliant television.

Not since snooker itself, in fact, has a game proved so telly-friendly. The key to its appeal is simple, but so cunning that whoever dreamed it up deserves a boxful of Baftas. It is that they play on a table with a glass rim. As a result, when a player is dealt a card, tens of thousands of people know what it is. Only one, though, is sitting at the table. It is like being let in on a precious secret. Very precious, in some cases.

Ten players started last night's final, nine men and a woman, Beryl Cook, who funnily enough looked a little like a woman in a Beryl Cook painting. As well as the Bandit and the Devil Fish, the field included Surinder Sunar, a professional player and one of the best in the world, and Liam Flood, from Ireland, who, according to Jesse May, the commentator, had been "betting since he was old enough to open his wallet". Then there was Yin Kai Lim, who wore shades so dark it was a wonder he could see to light his fags. No one looked the part quite like Lim, but little good did it do him. His seat was empty before the first commercial break.

The game on Four is Texas Hold 'Em, a poker variant which lends itself particularly well to high-stakes gambling. Each player gets two "hole" cards - as in "ace in the hole", and joins the betting if he likes the look of them. Then five more - "the flop" - are dealt face up into the middle of the table for everyone to use to make the best hand. Fortunes, in both senses of the word, can fluctuate wildly as the flop cards are turned over one by one.

Not that you would know it from the looks on their faces. At one stage, the Bandit pushed pounds 13,000 into the middle of the table in the hope that the last flop card would be a club. It was. Any normal person would have done 10 laps of the table while punching the air, but not the Bandit. Beneath his crumpled baseball cap, there was not so much as the hint of a tremor in a single one of his smoke-ringed eyelashes.

He got out of jail on the last card a few minutes later too. With pounds 10,000 in the pot, and Sunar holding a straight, the Bandit needed a seven for a life-saving full house. Seven it was. Sunar had been standing, bolt upright and proud, ready to grapple in the chips. A moment later, he looked as though someone had reached into his back and ripped out his spine.

Beat that for drama. And it got better. With three men left, Dave Welch - who really should get himself a nickname - looked at his hole cards, and bet pounds 20,000. "That's a raise of pounds 20,000," May stammered. "A raise of pounds 20,000." Yes, Jesse. Thanks. We noticed.

The Devil Fish and Welch locked stares. The Devil Fish seemed to think about folding, but then called the bet. "I can't see him calling without an ace," May said. At which point the under-the-table camera showed us that he did indeed have an ace in the hole. And alongside it, he had another one too.

"He has got him absolutely strangled," May said. "You're about to find out why they call him the Devil Fish." They call him that, in case you were wondering, because the Devil Fish is famous for its sting.

Welch thought he might be bluffing. If ever anyone needed to Phone a Friend, it was him, but there are no lifelines in a high-stakes poker game. Don't do it, Mike, viewers will have yelled from behind the sofa, as he pondered whether to keep betting. He thought long and hard, and then he did it. And he got stung. For everything.

And so did the Bandit, after a few more hands. His opponent, who is a generously built man, shook his hand, and then tried to find enough pockets in his extra-large trousers to fit in all the cash. Then, without so much as an interview, the Devil Fish was gone. Please, Channel 4, make him come back soon.