So, Dave, what’s the best way to win at cards.
Play snap with some fucker that stutters. And strip poker with a lap dancer is usually a good bet. Or, if you’re seriously starting out at poker, don’t play out of your league and only play with what you can afford to lose. But, there will come a time when you have to step up and take risks. That’s how you learn. No guts no glory.
How did you start?
The classic way - I won my very first bet in a bookies. I went to fetch my dad, and chose a 50-1 long shot. I was only fifteen and I won £50, which was about two weeks’ wages. I was hooked from then. Sometimes the worst thing you can do is win.
Before the biggest win, everyone always wants to know your biggest ever loss.
Well, my father and my sister, Janet - when you’ve lost family you know that the loss of money means fuck all really. And losing your freedom when you go to prison is hard. But in terms of cards, a few years ago at the Bellagio in Las Vegas I dug myself into a hole over $600,000 deep. My luck was so bad that a blind hunchback in a wheelchair told me to cheer up, and I peeled a banana and it was empty. Then I borrowed another $200,000 to play in a high rollers cash game, so if I’d lost that I’d have been down close to a million. In the end, I escaped death row and actually ended up $600,000 cash ahead. That was a massive turnaround for me.
As the biggest earning British poker player in history, what’s your largest win?
Tournament-wise, in Vegas in 2007 I won $674,000 and a few years before I won the WPT No Limit Hold’em Championship in Tunica and picked up over half a mill. It’s really nice going to sleep on a bed of cash. You don’t half sleep well. But, better than money, my beautiful kids are my biggest win. I’ve got seven kids, so if I ever end up shoved in a nursing home I’ll be really fucked off.
You’ve got probably the best nickname in poker. Where did it come from?
I was very lucky ‘cos it was given to me. I mean anyone can choose a good nickname, but not everyone gets given one. If every poker player got to choose, it’d be like that scene in Reservoir Dogs where everyone wants to be Mr Black. I was playing at Stevie Yeung’s a game in Birmingham and when Stevie saw how aggressive I was he nicknamed me ‘Devilfish’ after a Japanese fish that can kill you when you eat it if it isn’t cooked exactly right. Why anyone would order that dish, fuck knows. The fish and chip shops in Japan must be deserted. I mean I’m a professional gambler but even I’d go for the haddock!
"My luck was so bad that a blind hunchback in a wheelchair told me to cheer up, and I peeled a banana and it was empty."
And didn’t the Devilfish name then really catch on in Las Vegas?
Yeah, I went out in ‘97, a few months before the World Series started, and ended up in an Omaha event heads-up with this famous Vietnamese player called Men ‘The Master’ Nguyen. He’d already won four WSOP winners bracelets and about $5million, and I was just some unknown guy form Hull. We ended up laying in front of a big crowd and his supporters shouted out ‘Go on the Master!’. So, my good mate Gary remembered Stevie’s nickname and shouted out ‘Go on, the Devilfish!’ Eventually I got 95% of the chips and Men had only the 5%. So I said, ‘We better take a break, son. And in all fairness to you, I think you should go upstairs and rethink your tactics.’ Which became quite a famous line. So I beat Men ‘The Master’ Nguyen. Next day the Vegas papers said ‘DEVILFISH DEVOURS THE MASTER!’ I’m glad they called him that and didn’t put ‘DEVILFISH DEVOURS MEN!’ You don’t want a headline that makes you sound like a gay cannibal.
True. And when you won your WSOP bracelet that same year, you were only the third Englishman to win one.
That was another one of my escapes from death row. I was $280,000 down. My luck was diabolical. I was so unlucky, son, that if I’d have been one of Angelina Jolie’s triplets, I’d have been the one that was bottle fed. So I scrapped two-grand together and entered my very last event, the $2k Pot Limit Hold’em tournament. It was Last Chance Saloon time, big-time. Some of the best players in the world were in it - Johnny Chan, Stu Unger, Phil Hellmuth, Bob Stupak, Chris Ferguson, Scotty Nguyen - but I managed to make the final, and then the final two. It was like a Hollywood film - I won the whole thing by making an ace-to-5 straight on the very last card. Everyone went mental. It set me off on a cash game roll and I ended up coming home $742,000 ahead, with the cash in carrier bags.
Poker is hugely popular now. How has it most changed?
Now it won’t kill you. When I started out I played in illegal cash games in clubs, above pubs, down backstreets - in all these dodgy dives and smoky dens. The passive smoking alone could kill you. I carried a gun, and I once shot myself out of a place in Bradford one night when I figured out we were going to get robbed. I’d be up for three or four days straight, playing non-stop, and I once played in five different cities in 24 hours, midnight to midnight. It was mental. I played in a Chinese Triad run game that had a massive bucket for the cash rake under the table. I usually had a driver that would ride shotgun with me, literally; or I’d have a machete in my coat and my mate would have an axe handle. It’s all in my new book. But now kids sit at a computer with a biscuit and a milkshake, playing online. I bet you can’t wait for their autobiographies!
"In Vegas in 2007 I won $674,000. It’s really nice going to sleep on a bed of cash. You don’t half sleep well."
Sounds like one definition of war: long periods of boredom broken up occasionally by gunfire. Tell me about the ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ you played.
One guy did die at a game I was in. It got down to a heads-up between me and this old guy and he suddenly keeled over on the floor. We could see the cards, and I was ahead, so I thought the pot was mine because he hadn’t said ‘call’ before he collapsed. But he lifted his head up and whispered ‘call’. And he won the hand! The ambulance came for him but he died that night. That’s how unlucky I am: beaten by a dying man. Mind you, he was unluckier…
So how did you escape all that particular madness?
For one very good reason: I’ve always been unlucky at cards but lucky in life. Everyone in poker knows that I’m known for not getting lucky draws, but in life, I’m a lucky fucker. I cheated death in the first minute I was born, I’ve escaped being beaten to death twice, I survived prison, and I was on a small plane that was struck by a lightning bolt that blinded the pilots. And I’ve been married twice! No amount of card-luck will get you out of all that shit, son. You need life-luck. I’d rather have that.
Tell me how you ended up in prison?
Because I got caught! I was part of a safe cracking gang. But my two partners were like the criminal version of the Chuckle Brothers. So I ended up in nick twice. I was in for my 21st birthday. I was in Armley and Durham. Two of the worst prisons going at that time. Really bad. Guys killed themselves in there. But I got by, as always, and ran some bets and scams and games.
So how did you move from the council house to the penthouse?
I guess the biggest boost was when I won the very first Late Night Poker on Channel 4. It started off small but got millions of viewers. It was the first use of under-table cameras in poker and it changed how the game was viewed and made it go global. I’ve had a real rollercoaster ride, when I think about it. I grew up on Bransholme estate, one of the toughest estates in Hull - you’d see banners hung outside houses saying ‘Happy 18th Birthday, Grandma!’ And then much later my life turned into this sort of James Bond lifestyle with me jetting off to Vegas and staying in a penthouse suite at the Bellagio and becoming mates with Ben Affleck and James Woods. But I love Hull and still live there.
Difficult one now - best party you’ve ever been to?
The one at the Playboy Mansion in LA where all the Playboy Bunnies were naked and just wearing paint… that was quite a good one. But have you noticed how you never have any paint thinner on you when you need it?
"I usually had a driver that would ride shotgun with me, literally; or I’d have a machete in my coat and my mate would have an axe handle. But now kids sit at a computer with a biscuit and a milkshake, playing online!"
Andn your most memorable poker moment?
Oh there’s so many… buy the book - they’re all in there! I was proud when I captained the British team to the first ever Poker Nations World Cup in 2006. And we beat Germany in the final. It doesn’t get much better than that. Thank God there’s no penalty shootouts in poker. I was only the third English captain to lift a World Cup, after Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson.
They’re difficult not to notice - so tell me about those famous rings.
They started out gold with diamonds, but this new pair are platinum with diamonds. If I don’t have them on me, people are really disappointed, especially kids. Pretty soon these rings will have their own agent.
Someone asked me to ask you: what do you drive these days?
A Ferrari, a Hummer and my girlfriend crazy.
I’m more interested in this: how did you get barred from every bookies in the country?
I got smart and started betting the horses smart. Bookies are bad losers and don’t like losing twenty-grand in a day. I’m still barred to this day. Doesn’t mean I don’t still bet
I heard you were name checked on Eastenders.
Yeah, some of the blokes were having a card game and one said to the other, ‘Who d’ya think you are, then - Devilfish or summink!’ So the geezer must have been either winning big or he was a cocky bastard. Probably both.
Any advice for Sabotage Times readers who play poker?
Don’t play me. Actually, scrap that. Do play me. I fancy a new suit.
‘DEVILFISH - The Life & Times of a Poker Legend’, Penguin Books - Out Now.
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