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Straight-up guys
Swimming with the Devil Fish Des Wilson's Swimming with the Devil Fish is a compelling study of Britain's current obsession with poker, says Anthony Holden

Swimming with the Devil Fish by Des Wilson

Des 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 years.

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 breathless enthusiasm.

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 Vegas.

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)   £6.59    $12.97 

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