Lee Davy and the former UK cash game grinder Lil Dave Nicholson take a trip down memory lane, discuss his retirement from poker, and look ahead to his future in the restaurant business.
I first came to Las Vegas to play and work at the World Series of Poker six years ago. I shared a mansion with some of the finest young poker players from the UK. We had a butler. It was all very over the top. But we had some fun.
One of the incumbents was Lil Dave Nicholson. A cash game grinder who didn’t play much poker. I never saw him play poker throughout my two-month stay. Once, he went missing for a whole weekend, only to waltz in a few days later as if nothing had happened. He got drunk at the MGM Grand one night, couldn’t find the way out, so booked a room and stayed all weekend.
I heard a rumour that he had quit, focusing instead on the restaurant business. So, I was surprised to see him hanging around the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Media Room sporting a Sky Poker patch, so I shoved my dictaphone in his face and asked him some questions like are you still ‘Lil’ Dave or ‘Grown Up’ Dave?
“I am still ‘Lil’ Dave, but a different ‘Lil’ Dave. I kicked off into poker a million miles per hour. It was Vegas, and I had no care for anything. I did Vegas at a thousand miles per hour for three years. Then I took a break as much for my mental health as well as my finances and slowly grew up, got out of it, started to do different things. I wouldn’t change anything; everything has worked out perfect for me.”
“Mental health was the wrong word. I should have said mental well-being. When I first got into poker seriously and was playing decent stakes, I loved everything about it and didn’t want to do anything else. As the years got on, I got bored with it. The enjoyment was affected by the necessity to win, and it all got a little mundane. It lost the romance and the spark. The things that once got me going didn’t anymore. If you keep operating like that, it can make you unhappy.”
I wondered why he fell out of love with the game? Was it finance related? Were there ego issues related to not being a winning player?
“I don’t think it was finance related. I didn’t have the ego for the financial side of it. I didn’t want to be Mr Big Shot. I just didn’t get the same sense of purpose I once did.”
Did you lose the love for it?
“I didn’t lose the love for it. Apart from the fact that I was making money – although towards the end of my career I made a lot of bad decision and got a little bit over it. It didn’t spark me up. I didn’t have a fire in my belly. Back in the day, I would go to bed irrespective of wins or losses thinking, ‘This is good. I am doing what I want to do.’ Then you start to think, where is all of this going? What is ‘Old’ Dave going to look like? Is he still going to be waking up sweating about finances? Will he be catching flights to Austria to play a cash game because there is no action around? Will there be online poker? Would I be able to beat it, probably not? I got outclassed towards the end of my career. All of this anxiety just replaces all of the enjoyment.”
Did you ever hit a rock bottom?
“I don’t think so. I was always pretty pragmatic with it. I was ok with what I was doing, and I was ok financially.”
What did you do to make ends meet when you retired?
“I have always been involved in the restaurant business, and I would get invited to do some consultancy work with restaurants in Leeds. My quitting poker was going out to Cyprus to gamble for the whole summer – not exactly cold turkey. I got back, was enjoying not playing as much and so the less I played, and now it’s once or twice every couple of months.”
What is your greatest achievement in poker?
“The greatest achievement was beating online poker for a relatively long time. Not many people can do that. There was no doubt I was winning over a long period in reasonably tough games at reasonably high stakes, but that’s not what’s going to be written on my tombstone. The things I enjoyed the most was playing in huge cash games. It satisfied every aspect of my personality. I am a gambler, and like gambling really big. I am a gambler at heart.”
Back to the mansion and the vast majority of those rising UK stars no longer play poker, or have significantly changed their focus away from what they were doing. It makes me wonder how difficult it is to make it as a professional poker player long term?
“To go and come back now is really hard. I know for sure that I couldn’t be expected to win any money on the internet without any significant amount of work. Live games, potentially, but even then it would be a little disrespectful to assume that I could just come back and start winning.”
Are you talking about cash games?
“Yeah, cash games, although I live with Tom Middleton, who grinds tournaments, and he says it’s unrecognisable from a few years ago. Everyone is much better now. When you see how much work these guys put in it is so much more than I used to.”
What is work?
“When I was playing, loads of work was going through Hold’em Manager hands. I would filter the biggest ones I won and said, “Nice”. Then I would look at a few I lost and asked if I could do something better. Hopefully, decide no and leave feeling good about myself. Today, there is all of this mathematical software. Tom uses this software called PI Solver that is well above my head; it’s unreal. It’s like a game theory program, and this is for tournaments which used to be considered amateur back in the day when cash game players assumed everyone was shit and only knew what to do when they had 20 bb. God only knows what the best cash game players are up to at $3/$6 and $5/$10.”
There wasn’t much to separate the top pros in the UK at one time. Times have changed. Why have only a few of them remained at the peak of their powers?
“I think experience is such an underrated thing in poker these days. I went for dinner with Craig McCorkell last night, and he is still at the top. He got in early, had some success, had financial freedom of opportunity, but had to watch what the younger guys were doing and it’s quite an accomplishment to stay ahead of it. If you look at the young 20-year-olds who are coming through now, I have a tremendous respect for them; I don’t think I could have done it. To come up in this day and age is very admirable.”
“The biggest thing that has changed are the opportunities. When I started, there was a tremendous opportunity to rise through the stakes if you were flexible with your bankroll. Nowadays in the cash games, it gets lower and lower. People who should be moving up aren’t so they keep the games tougher, and nobody can do well. I don’t know how anyone does it. It seems impossible, but people are doing it, and fair play to them.”
It’s not just winning players who remain in the game long term, there are also a lot of stragglers who make no money, but somehow manage to scrap and steal enough to get into every game. What does Lil Dave think of those types of players?
“I kind of respect them. People may say, ‘How can you call yourself a success if you aren’t gambling your money,’ and although that may be true, life is about surviving and if you can survive in poker then it’s hats off from me.”
Looking back at how you approached the game, how would you have changed things from a lifestyle perspective?
“If you were looking back reflectively I would have to change a lot of it. It wasn’t a profitable way of behaving, but opportunity allowed it. You could make money and be like that. A 20-21-year-old kid who can party all the time and earn money. I am going to do that all the time. There seems to be less of that today.”
Wasn’t there a worry that the mindset would have made you lazy and slowed you down when the time came to do the work to keep up with those who weren’t partying?
“Probably yeah, laziness was never my problem. It was distractions. One person who impresses me is Toby Lewis. He goes in, takes a step back, takes a break, works part time for a bit, and on every return is very focused, dedicated, puts a lot of work in and it always pays off. I think that’s very impressive, and I couldn’t have done that.”
So what next for Lil Dave?
“I am playing the Main Event, and it’s the only poker I will play. I am here with my girlfriend, eating, drinking, and having fun. Playing a lot of dice without being successful.”
You still gamble then?
“I still love gambling. Sometimes I wake up anxious that I am not gambling enough. I haven’t changed. I just don’t play a lot of poker.”
And so if I gave you 10,000 hours to work on anything what would you choose and why?
“I want to work on my business in the UK. I have just opened a new restaurant, and that’s the centre of my focus. I am enjoying it, and it’s going well. While I am out here, eating, all I am thinking it about is how I could incorporate my learning into my new restaurants.”
What lessons from poker have you been able to apply in business?
“Risk aptitude. I have always been into risk because of my gambling personality. You learn to develop talent to evaluate risks that other people don’t have. I know that if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean it’s been the wrong decision.”
Something tells me it will all work out fine.
It always does Lil Dave.