When (if?) Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott dies, they will surely put his brain in a jar and analyse its contents in medical school. There’s something going on in there that doesn’t occur anywhere else.
Many years ago, Ulliott was the breakout star of British poker, the man whose appearances on Late Night Poker inspired a generation to take up the game, and the first whose exploits could potentially make the mainstream news. He had won World Series bracelets and a WPT title. There were documentaries made about him, and he authorised a ghost-written autobiography.
His was no bigger legend anywhere than in his own head, and sometimes his on-felt exploits even added evidence for the self-perpetuated hype.
There then followed, it is fair to say, a few wilderness years for the Devilfish. He vanished from the tournament scene and became best known for a succession of surprising hairstyles, improbable partners on his arm and a satirical song on YouTube written by Matt Broughton (now of EPT Live). He lapsed somewhat into self-parody, and although he still talked a good game, that was just about all he managed. The internet generation rose up and swallowed the Fish like he was plankton.
But this week in London, the Devilfish has returned. And he has poison back in his gills. Devilfish finished 31st in the Main Event, winning £14,940, and with a chunk of change in his hand he headed back to the cashier’s cage and chanced his arm among the High Rollers, eventually going on to lead them through the money and into the final table.
Devilfish is there now, with his game face back on. His hairstyle is no longer ditty-worthy, and only really his elaborately embroidered suit jacket — with a silver-flecked eagle motif on the back — recalls the Fish of a few years ago. Of course, his trademark knuckle-duster rings are on each hand, but they date from the era of Devilfish in his pomp. He simply wouldn’t be the Fish without them.
He is also back in tip-top conversational form which, for Ulliott, means a ceaseless rambling monologue. It is the kind of speech that is structured as though it is inviting response, but doesn’t tend to shift timbre or pace if anyone does or does not reply.
I’ve stood beside Devilfish’s tables only about two or three three times this week and yet have already heard the exact same anecdote twice, using almost exactly the same words. The story finds Devilfish in the big blind after the small blind has been knocked out, meaning he is the only one with chips in the pot. He gives a speech telling everyone to leave his big blind alone, they oblige, and then he looks down and finds aces, which he has to muck.
The “punchline” is that a few orbits later, it happens again. There’s a solitary big blind, a speech and then Devilfish finds aces, earning the minimum again.
“I’m not gonna give no more speeches,” Devilfish says, and his table-mates tend to grunt with barely concealed uninterested.
“You’ve still gotta have some speeches,” said Jason Lavallee today, who is sitting to Ulliott’s left and is therefore at least the nominal intended recipient of most of this conversation. “That’s probably your strong suit,” added Lavallee, in what was quite the subtle rub-down.
Action was folded to Devilfish in the small blind and Lavallee said, “Careful, I had aces here before.” Ulliott folded.
During the next hand, Ulliott continued to ramble through another story, even as he opened to 50,000 and picked up a caller, Tamer Kamel, in the big blind. The two took a king-high flop and Kamel check-called Ulliott’s bet of 60,000.
They checked the turn and Ulliott bet again on the river, which Kamel called. Kamel then mucked when Ulliott showed his flopped pair of tens.
“Nice bet,” said Mark Teltscher, another talkative player sitting across the table from Ulliott.
“When they check the turn, they call the river,” Ulliott said. “You just have to dodge the bullet.”
“I’m learning so much today,” said Lavallee, and went back to his phone.
Over the next five or ten minutes, Ulliott turned his attentions to Simon Higgins and an alleged fondness for bacon sandwiches, then on to the EPT Live commentary crew, who could be heard through the nearby curtain preparing for their coverage of the Main Event. Last night, Ulliott was speculating on the chances a “bloke like me” may or may not have with one of the EPT tournament staff. Ulliott’s intended laughed it off but presumably did not take it any further.
Yes, it’s true that in more ways than one, the Devilfish is back this week. Nobody does it quite like him.