The History of Late Night Poker Pt. 3: Devilfish in Complete Control

S1 Marina Kremser Devilfish
Devilfish looms large in UK poker.

The Internet qualifier is George Stewart.

You can always spot the Internet qualifier. It's not the hoodie, sunglasses and cans.

It's the fear. The warehouse manager for Tesco wears a smile of a man who has wolfed down a considerable amount of mushroom tea.

"Who is your favorite player?" I ask, trying to take the edge off.

"The Devilfish," he replies. "I want to shake his hand. But I'm a little worried."

"Why?"

"I saw him telling you to fuck off earlier."

Destined for Cult Viewing

It's 2015, Late Night Poker Season 10.

Screen shot 2015 12 16 at 11.59.53 AM
Destined for cultdom.

Devilfish won the first one. He has been coming to the green, green grass of home ever since.

In the excellent three-part series The Making of Late Night Poker, written in 2007, author Nic Szeremeta recounts the show's first review.

It was given by The Sunday Times columnist A.A. Gill, two days after the first show aired.

Gill said that Channel 4 had sunk to a new low, it was 'scraping the barrel,' and the whole thing was a waste of time. He ended with this sentence:

"I wouldn't be surprised if it became cult viewing."

I can almost hear Devilfish from beyond the grave.

"It took a cult to create a cult."

And what a cult he was.

Ten of the World's Greatest Character Types

The line-up for the first-ever Late Night Poker final table was something special.

You have to remember the Szeremeta seeding formula didn't consist of 10 of the world's best players. It consisted of 10 of the world's greatest character types.

S1 Liam Flood
Liam Flood

But Szeremeta couldn't manipulate the final-table lineup. Fortunately, the Poker Gods did.

The two best players in the Europe made it to the final. The first signs of Surinder Sunar's thinning thatch were on display, as was an under-the-nose slug of Magnum P.I. proportions.

The Devilfish wore a suit. No tie. His World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet hung from his wrist Bet Lynch style.

He looked almost vampiric; like Kiefer Sutherland in Lost Boys. Only he was a man, and he certainly wasn't lost.

Jin Cai Lin played the de facto "crazy Asian," a common stereotype at the time. Liam Flood looked like he owned a stable of race horses.

Beryl Cook looked like she was going to knit you a jumper. Joe Beevers looked every inch the Elegance that he would later become.

Malcolm Harwood was the resident rock. "Tightest player ever," says commentator Jesse May, "but back then it was a mark of respect." 

And Peter The Bandit looked like ... a scrap-metal dealer. Which, of course, he was.

"He was the total live fish at the table," says May.

An Accidental Career

May and Szeremeta commentated as they had done for the whole of the first season (and would do for several more). A lot of people benefited from the success of that first show. May created a career out of it.

Jesse May
"It was 1999 and I knew nothing about tournaments."

"It was entirely accidental. I had gone broke after the first heat. They didn't plan to have commentary at all," he remembers.

"They were going to mic everybody up and let them talk. They were all characters and it was going to be electric. Somewhere between the first and second heat they realized that nobody had been on TV before and despite being great characters everyone was terrified.

"I essentially volunteered to do it for free. My thought process was very simple. I had gone out in that first heat making a play with the nine-three offsuit.

"It was 1999 and I knew nothing about tournaments. When I got all-in with that hand they did everything but laugh at me as I walked out of the door.

"They are all looking at me thinking, ‘do you know what you have just done, do you know how dumb you are?'

"I thought if I did the commentary I could somehow give an explanation for my hand. It was about survival. The fact that it turned out into a career is one of those coincidences of nature.

"I said to them - pay for my flight and I will do anything you want."

It Looks Like Poker Should Look

May's voice back then was different than it is today; smoother and calm. The quality quips and magical metaphors were still there, only not as intense as the ones leaping out of his mouth as the years wore on.

S1 Jin Cai Lin
No mind games, no leveling.

After all, this is a man who once conned everyone into believing he was commentating on a poker tournament with another co-commentator when the co-commentator didn't turn up.

So many players are smoking. Not the Devilfish.

I want to reach into the TV screen and squeeze one in between those impish lips. Smoky silhouettes sulk around the screen. It looks like poker should look.

The players take their time. Today they talk about shot clocks as if poker hands played out at a different speed. Not at this table.

They also show their cards a lot. There are no mind games. No leveling. It's just what they do. The ego at play.

Pete The Bandit is wearing more gold than Bobby George. He also wears a Nike cap. Free advertising. No duct tape needed in those days.

May warms up his muscles: "He's a keen runner, hoping to go the distance tonight."

Not the Only Top Man Billboard

People often mention the way Devilfish dressed in those early years. The suit. The rings.

S1 Devilfish
Don't nick his blinds.

It's worth noting that he wasn't the only walking Top Man billboard at the final table. Both Flood and Beevers were also suited and booted for the final.

"That's a lesson, boys. Don't try to nick my blinds because I don't give them up," the Devilfish decreed.

We've since heard that line a thousand times more. It's worth noting it was probably the first time we had heard it on TV.

For a man who created a legacy on the powerful manipulation of his mandible these were the only words he uttered throughout the final.

"Our local bookmaker in the gallery puts Sunar and Devilfish as the favorites," commented May.

"The bookmaker is a solid judge," replied Szeremeta.

May was the bookmaker.

Not the Best Bookmaker

"I played in the very first heat," May recalls. "The buy-in was $1,500 and I had about $1,900 to my name.

"I bust. I'm sitting in the green room thinking I'm going to look like a fool and I've just gone broke.

"Myself, Ram {Vaswani} and Joe were doing some bets on the rest of the heats and the final. Joe said, "Let's all agree that Jesse will be the only bookmaker," and that's how I got the job as the first bookmaker.

"I didn't have a winning book until Season 5."

"Jesse May would do a book on every show," says Beevers. "He lost them all. He wasn't the best bookmaker. He was easy to pick off. I backed so many winners through him."

LNP Jin Cai Lin
Jin Cai Lin: Unflinching.

And Then There Were 8 Cowboys

Back to the action and May calls each bet as it plays out. He doesn't use the word 'chips.' He uses 'pounds.'

It's a great turn of phrase and adds to the backroom drama of the vibe.

Beryl Cook opens to 700 with A Q and the Devilfish peels with 8 7. The flop is 8 7 4, giving Devilfish two pair.

Cook checks. Devilfish bets 1,000 and Cook calls. The turn is the 7 and Devilish has a full house. Cook moves all-in and Fish makes the simple call to knock her out.

Jin Cai Lin loses a pot to The Bandit. The camera settles on Lin's face searching for emotion. He lights a cigarette. He is wearing shades. He is unflinching.

The next hand sees Lin limping into the pot, and after May says, "the players are folding like ten pins."

Flood raises to 800; Lin calls. Lin has A 4 and Flood has AJo. The flop is J 4 2 and the pair go for broke. Lin is out two cards later.

"And then there were eight cowboys," says May.

First Time the Def Leppard Lookalike Plays a Hand

Resident rock Malcolm Harwood, who looks nothing like a cowboy, open jams with AQo and Sunar folds A K face-up. Beevers then doubles through the rock KK>JJ, leaving Harwood with chip dust.

Padraig Parkinson Joe Beevers
Shocking shover.

"This will be good TV if I can win it now," says Harwood.

Harwood is out in the next hand, losing to a Sunar flush. The good TV continues minus the chip and the chair story.

The next player eliminated is Joe Fernandez. I think it's the first time the Def Leppard lookalike has played a hand.

He jams over a Sunar raise holding ATo and gets calls by KQo; a queen hits the flop and that's the end of that.

Then we lose Beevers.

"I made the final table and we were on a break," Beevers remembers. "Now you know I am a bit of a nit. I was worse back then.

"They were saying, 'Listen, Joe, there is only one prize of £40k.' The term ‘widen your range' didn't exist in 1999, but that's essentially what they were telling me.

"So I raised with 78cc and the flop came T85 and I moved all-in. Devilfish slow-rolled me after flopping a set of tens. He re-checked his cards three times.

"He told me afterwards that he couldn't believe I had moved all-in and he was in shock."

Devilfish was in shock. Two nutted hands and two all-ins ahead of him. This game was too easy.

Screen shot 2015 12 16 at 12.07.45 PM

First Squeeze Play in Televised Poker History

Beevers leaves the table, says his graceful goodbyes and carried on working on an idea of creating something called The Hendon Mob.

Next we see the hand that puts The Bandit into contention and puts an enormous dent into the hood of Sunar. Afterwards, May would call it the first squeeze play in the history of televised poker.

The Bandit opens to 2,000 holding 97dd; Devilfish calls with AQ and Sunar squeezes to 8,000 from the small blind holding KJo. 

"That's an incredible move," said Szeremeta.

Dave Welch has Jacks in the big blind and would be out if he calls and loses the hand. He folds.

The Bandit looks to the sky, ponders his decision, and decides to gamble. He moves all-in for 9,000. Fish folds and we hear May laughing as Sunar makes the call.

Sunar has a look of resigned fate plastered on his face. The dealer fans out five cards, The Bandit flops two pairs, Sunar turns a straight and the Bandit rivers a boat.

"Jesus," says Sunar.

Devilfish in Complete Control

The Devilfish goes on to send Liam Flood back to his stables with AK>A6 and Dave Welch removes the dangerous Sunar from the equation.

Screen shot 2015 12 16 at 12.24.10 PM
In control.

Sunar flopped a straight as Welch flopped a flush before finishing off the job KJ<A8. Welch flopped an eight and turned trip eights.

At this stage in the tournament there are three players left: Devilfish, Welch and The Bandit. Devilfish looks in complete control.

Thus far he has had most of his chips handed to him on a plate. Then he makes a move. It was classic Devilfish.

Welch bets 3,000 holding pocket jacks and Devilfish flat-calls in the big blind with pocket aces. The flop is A T 5. Devilfish checks, Welch bets 4,000 and Devilfish calls.

The turn is the 8 and both players check. The river is the 4. Devilfish, who had checked top set on the flop and turn, now moves all-in and has Welch covered. Welch goes into the tank.

"You either have a big … big hand or I am winning," says Welch. "I call."

"Wow! Wow! Wow!" says May.

"Did you ever see a hand played so well?" says Szeremeta.

The parting look that Welch gives Devilfish is something else.

Devilfish vs. The Bandit

We're now heads-up. It's the WSOP bracelet winner versus the part-time player and scrap dealer.

Screen shot 2015 12 16 at 12.25.16 PM
The Bandit

The Devilfish versus The Bandit.

The Bandit starts puffing on a cigar. Smoke billows out of his mouth like the top of one of those blast furnaces that has paid for his entry fee. The Bandit has 10k and Devilfish has 50k.

"The Devilfish hasn't got nerves of steel; he has no nerves at all," comments May

"It's just a question of when," says Szeremeta.

"Peter folds like a cheap suitcase," says May as The Bandit lets one go.

Heads-up play is subdued. It almost always is. Time doesn't change that. Eventually The Bandit moves all-in holding QTo and Devilfish calls with K 2.

The flop is A J T and The Bandit takes the lead.

"Give him a queen," says the Devilfish.

"Don't give me a queen," says The Bandit.

S2 Vicky Coren
Vicky Coren.

The dealer gives him a queen.

The Greatest Thing to Happen for UK Poker

The Devilfish, one of the most illustrious, infamous and idiosyncratic individuals in the world of poker, is now dancing on Broadway.

The river is the 5 and Late Night Poker has its first-ever champion. It's not The Bandit. It's The Devilfish.

What would have happened had the queen stayed in the deck? What would have happened if The Bandit had doubled up and gone on to win Late Night Poker?

"When Devilfish knocked me out he went on to win it and it was a wonderful thing for the game that he did," says Beevers.

"The key factor in the success of Late Night Poker was the character of Dave 'Devilfish' Ulliot," adds Vicky Coren Mitchell. "The first Late Night Poker champion whose charisma was irresistible."

"It's been said many times by many people," May adds, "but Devilfish winning that first series was the greatest thing that could have happened for the UK and European poker.

"He was the best player but was also a hero and a villain."

David "Devilfish" Ulliott
Hero and villain in one.

Would The Bandit have ignited the poker boom like Devilfish did? It's rhetorical. 

The Man Everyone Has Come to See

"Right, I want all of your mobile devices," a member of the Season 10 production team tells the table.

Toby Lewis and Matt Perrins dig deep into their pockets and slide their phones across the table.

As they slide the Devilfish pulls out his harmonica, pushes a hand through his hair and lets out a Bluegrass howl.

All eyes stare at him. The man everyone has come to see. The man who won the first-ever Late Night Poker.

The man who carved out careers for everyone who followed.

They all stare at him. He is deadly serious. Then, out comes that cheeky Devilfish smile. 

"How are they going to ring their Mums without their phones?"

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