Swimming with the Devilfish: Excerpt 5/5

Hendon Mob readers can get 20% off Swimming with the Devil Fish until 30 June (standard price: £7.99, discount price: £6.39). Click here to buy the book, and enter the code ‘MOB’ in the discount code box when you get to the shopping basket. If you have any questions about this offer, please email [email protected].

(Extract from Des Wilson’s “Swimming with the Devilfish” – now on sale)

Swimming with the Devil Fish
Swimming with the Devil Fish by Des Wilson

It’s over 100 degrees in Las Vegas. The good news is that it’s not unbearably humid; it’s a dry heat, but the bad news is it’s so hot and dry you can’t breathe. Unless you get into a taxi quickly you will suffocate and die, and the queue is full of poker players who look as if they’re about to do just that. Of course, it could be the shock of seeing daylight that makes them look like this.

The short taxi ride itself is a revelation. You think you’re in Las Vegas, but that huge pyramid on your right says Cairo. That’s until you come to the Empire State Building and the New York skyline. But, wait. Is this the Eiffel Tower I see before me? So it’s Paris then. This city is insane. It no longer knows what or where it is. Which probably explains why the foyer of the Rio is a complete and utter mad house.

Not one square inch of this place is wasted. Not only are there rows of slot machines in its vast foyer, but blackjack tables, bars, half-naked girls serving food from a variety of restaurants to hundreds of people milling about, spending money as if it’s going out of style – and this is just the foyer. It would easily be possible to never get from the front desk to the lift; all you have to do is stop off at a blackjack table on the way, order a drink and a snack, lose your holiday money and go back to the airport without unpacking.

Of the UK players it’s the Devilfish who hits the ground running. The first public event of the 2005 WSOP , a $1,500 no-limit Hold’em tournament, is huge – at this point, the second biggest poker game ever staged, with 2,305 players taking part, only 273 fewer than the 2004 main event. The Devilfish takes it by the scruff of the neck and after 2,296 have been eliminated he’s on the final table. He ends up in the final three, but at a chip disadvantage. The leader, Allen Cunningham (already the winner of three gold bracelets), has 1,900,000, the Devilfish has 845,000 and Scott Fischman has 680,000. With the gap between himself and the leader growing, Devilfish decides to go for broke; he has Jack-10 of hearts in the pocket and the flop produces two more hearts. He now has two chances for a flush and goes all-in. Cunningham calls him with two 8s and the pair stands up.

But Devilfish has made a stunning start to his World Series, leaving 2,302 players, including many of the world’s best, in his wake and winning $232,205. As much as the money, it’s a big boost to his confidence. The Fish is in form. And if there were any doubts that he’s world-class, they’ve been put to rest.

But when I finally catch up with him, he’s disappointed. ‘The money doesn’t matter to me; it’s the bracelet I want. I’m really disappointed to have got so close and not got it.’

I watch this opening tournament with amazement. Television doesn’t do the World Series justice. What it doesn’t convey, and probably can’t, is the breathtaking spectacle, the colour, the sound and, more unexpectedly, the movement of nearly 2,500 people playing poker at more than 200 tables in a hall the size of a football pitch, while scores of spectators mill around behind the ropes, looking for the action, soaking up the atmosphere, staring at the stars. It really is stunning to see.

And what’s extraordinary about this event is that anyone can play – anyone with the buy-in money, that is. This is not like Wimbledon, or the British Open, or the Olympic Games, where only a tiny elite can qualify to actually play. Poker is the ultimate democratic activity. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a poker television star, a seasoned pro or a dreamer, like me, you pays your money, you gets your chips. And it’s informal, and I don’t just mean the clothes, even if it is about the worst-dressed crowd in the western world, from the ‘professor of poker’, the famous Howard Lederer, a big man, looking like an American footballer in an ill-fitting Full Tilt sweatshirt and cap, to defending champion Greg Raymer in unflattering shorts. It’s both well-organized and wonderfully chaotic, both big business and lad’s night out. It’s a one-off international reunion of anyone and everyone in poker.