The Poker Hall of Fame, curated by the World Series of Poker (WSOP) has announced the list of finalists for its 2015 inductees. Ten players have been nominated, from which two will be selected for inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Over a period of two weeks, we’re looking at their stories and the cases for – and sometimes against – their inclusion.
The world of poker has changed radically over the past fifteen years and there has been no keener reminder of that in recent memory than the stories that have been told in the wake of the death of David “Devilfish” Ulliott this past April. And there were a lot of stories.
Ulliott was born in Hull, England, in 1954, to a working class family. He disliked formal schooling, and dropped out at age 15. His father was a truck driver and a gambler, who introduced him to the horse races at a young age. Ulliott had a knack for picking winners and was quickly hooked, eventually getting himself fired from his first job for skipping a shift to visit the tracks.
At 19, Ulliott had an experience which most would find traumatic, but which he often described as being formative. His younger brother was attacked as they were on their way home from a pool hall, and David intervened, only to find himself receiving a severe beating and getting his face slashed at the hands of a mob which included five men and their wives. Although he had no chance of winning the fight at those odds, his takeaway from the experience was that he could be “beaten physically, but [not] on the inside,” and was proud of himself for standing up for his brother, regardless of the consequences.
The next decade of his life continued to be rough, and filled with run-ins with the law. He twice spent time in prison, first for his involvement with a safe-cracking team and subsequently on assault charges after a fight outside of a nightclub. Following release the second time, Ulliott had plans to attempt a bank robbery with a friend he’d made on the inside; this friend was apprehended preemptively, however, and Ulliott made the decision at that time to leave the life of crime.
For Ulliott, “cleaning up” his act meant turning to professional gambling full time, which was itself a seedy enough proposition at the time; casino poker was not what it is now, and most of his early play was done in underground home games, many of which required him to carry a gun to be sure of being able to walk away with his winnings. He was also banned from many legitimate betting operations such as William Hill for winning too much, and would have to convince friends to place bets on his behalf.
Although Ulliott’s moniker “Devilfish” was well-known by the time of the poker boom, it was not his first or only nickname. He was originally known as “the Clock,” for an occasion on which he’d convinced a furniture dealer to accept a grandfather clock as his buy-in for a poker game. “Devilfish” was originally proposed by Casino Hold’em inventor Stephen Au-Yeung, but only caught on after Ulliott beat Men “the Master” Nguyen in at event at the 1997 Four Queens Poker Classic, with his only supporter on the rail cheering for him by that name. It made for a catchier title than “the Clock,” however, and Ulliott, who was beginning to enjoy his notoriety, made himself a set of knuckledusters with “DEVIL” and “FISH” set in diamonds, which would become his trademark.
These days, the poker media tends to focus more on the players who present the most positive, healthy image of themselves, but back around the turn of the millennium, an equal amount of attention was being paid to the edgier characters in the game, such as Sammy Farha, Scotty Nguyen and, naturally, Ulliott, who won the inaugural series of Late Night Poker, the first show to introduce the hole cam and a key step towards the eventual boom.
Ulliott’s biggest successes came just prior to the boom, with his sole WSOP bracelet coming in 1997 in a $2000 Pot-Limit Omaha event and a WPT title in January 2003, less than a year before the real explosion began. He remained a presence on the tournament scene afterwards, but was unable to find success on the very biggest stages; he was still cashing tournaments into 2014, and his last final table was a 6th place finish in a £10,000 High Roller in 2013, for £82,315. All told, he cashed in 231 recorded tournaments in his lifetime for over $6.2 million, and was at one point as high as 18th on the all-time money list.
I find it hard to assess Ulliott’s odds of being selected for the Hall of Fame this year. He’s definitely the sort of player who figures prominently in the game’s oral history; when news came that he’d lost his battle with colon cancer, Twitter was absolutely flooded with anecdotes. Everyone who’d encountered him at the tables had a story to tell. His tournament record, though not jaw-dropping, is long-standing and solid throughout; it can be said that he tapered off in later years, but the same can be said of any other player in the running this year, John Juanda‘s triumph at this year’s EPT Barcelona notwithstanding. Ulliott’s the sort of person you wouldn’t be surprised to see inducted into the Hall of Fame eventually, and to do it this year would make sense, in memory of his recent passage.
Aside from the fact that there are a few other strong contenders this year, the most significant obstacle I see to him being chosen is the very thing that makes him interesting, which is that he doesn’t fit the image that the poker world seems to want to paint of itself these days. There are many stories about Devilfish, but they’re not all funny; though the people close to him insist that he had a heart of gold, he was also notorious for things like abusing dealers and making misogynist assertions about women in poker. I’m sure many on the panel won’t care, or consider it part and parcel of the man that he was, but others may balk. Overall, I wouldn’t count him out of the running, but wouldn’t consider him a shoe-in either; moreover, whether or not he’s chosen this year may say a lot about whether the Hall of Fame is more interested in whitewashing the history of poker, or painting a full picture of both the good and bad, as Devilfish definitely embodied both at once.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.