Wilson's Swimming with the Devil Fish is a compelling study of Britain's
current obsession with poker, says Anthony Holden
the Devil Fish by Des Wilson
Wilson is what is used to be called, appropriately, a card. After arriving in
Britain from New Zealand in the Sixties, he founded Shelter before running
Friends of the Earth and the campaigns for freedom of information and lead-free
petrol. The election manager for Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats, he also
became a bigwig at the English Cricket Board, while knocking off a couple of
novels. After finally making himself some money at the BAA
(post-privatisation), he is now 65 and retired. But Wilson has discovered
poker, and when someone as enthusiastic as Wilson discovers something like
poker, he has to get stuck in, becoming a Cincinnati Kid in his silver
Given the revolution in the game, transformed by TV and the
internet from seedy back rooms to a multi-billion-dollar business, there is
suddenly a huge appetite for poker lore, not least books such as his. It began
as a biography of the best-known current British poker pro, Dave 'Devilfish'
Ulliott, the sometime safecracker from Hull, who has turned himself into an
entrepreneur worth a few million. While interviewing other British players
about the 'Devilfish', Wilson realised that most had equally good stories to
tell, all previously unchronicled.
So he reshaped the book to take in
their lives, too, dating from the days when card games were regularly raided by
the cops or hijacked by large men with guns. While the US market is saturated
with poker manuals and ghosted autobiographies, the rich story of poker in
Britain has never before been told. This is what Wilson offers, revealingly and
compellingly, in a labour of love driven at cracking pace by his trademark
Working in an office in the Strand in the
Sixties, Wilson noticed a parade of disreputable-looking men disappearing into
a shadowy doorway, apparently never to re-emerge. Investigation revealed the
attic room across the road as one of the illegal card rooms, or 'spielers',
then the only places outside their homes that poker players could find a game.
Forty years later, London boasts a new legal card room opening just about every
month, while the government is planning super-casinos.
Some of today's
top British players began their poker lives in that shady, often dangerous
world. Now of a certain age, not all welcome the huge influx of bright young
things who can these days learn as much on the internet in six months as they
have themselves in 20 or more years. So the savvy old-timers now tend to stick
to cash games rather than tournaments and many still earn a handsome living. Of
the few who can handle both, the most celebrated (and feared) is the
'Devilfish'. When we first meet Dave Ulliott, he's a 17-year-old school dropout
involved in a Hull street brawl. This taught him he was fearless. Soon he fell
among thieves. After stints in jail, where he spent his 21st birthday, he
became a pawnbroker before discovering poker, graduating from hair-raising
all-nighters to wins on Channel 4's Late Night Poker and at the World Series in
But Dave, now a poker brand with fewer recent wins to his name,
is but one of the 'usual suspects' roving the world from bases all over Britain
in search of rich pickings. Here, in their own words, are the rags-to-riches
stories of such increasingly public names as John Shipley and Dave 'Blondie'
Colclough, Lucy Rokach and Paul Maxfield, Simon 'Aces' Trumper and Roy 'the
Boy' Brindley, Carlo Citrone and Paul 'Action Man' Jackson, the Hendon Mob,
Neil 'Bad Beat' Channing and many more.
All have known the pain of going
broke as well as the buzz of winning. Most, by their own confession, are
degenerate gamblers with sick minds. Thrill to the moment one player made a
double-or-quits jump between 18th-floor balconies. Hark to the guy who thought
he'd won $20,000 on the internet only to find he'd not been playing with real
money. Or the punter who wins fortunes at cards only to squander them at dice.
Or the pro who won $250,000 in a tournament while he was hundreds of miles away
in a caravan. Wilson gets deep into their heads. By the end of his quest, after
pursuing his quarries from Birmingham to Barcelona, Paris to Vegas, inevitably
he gets sucked into the action himself, ending the year £530 down. It's a
small price to pay for this action-packed read.
· As well as
being The Observer's classical music critic, Anthony Holden is playing for
England in the Poker World Cup next week in Barcelona and is working on Bigger
Deal, a sequel to his 1990 poker classic, Big Deal.
Paperback - 352
pages (June 16, 2006)