The first meeting
Newcastle, 2008. I’m watching the conclusion of a Grosvenor UK Poker Tour with a larger-than-life Englishman I just met called Mark who bust in fourth. He’s whispering his reads in real-time as each card is dealt:
“The big blind has flopped a pair, probably middle pair. The other guy has a draw. The straight draw I think, not the flush draw.”
The middle card pairs on the turn, which seems to perk up the big blind and make the other guy more apprehensive. Check check. The flush comes in on the river and the big blind bets small. After some thought, the other guy shoves.
“He’s bluffing. He missed the straight,” Mark whispers.
After some thought the big blind folds, showing trips. The other guy gleefully tables the bluff – a missed straight draw, exactly as called by Mark. We watched a few dozen hands and Mark nailed both players’ holdings almost every time.
A real understanding
Over the course of the next decade I often thought back to that day in Newcastle to explain how a player who, in his own words, was “a bit hazy on the maths,” was also a formidable winning live player.
Nobody I’ve ever met read people on sight as well as Mark Dalimore did. He could size you up in an instant and within a few minutes of observation and conversation, he’d know more about your internal workings than people who’d known you for decades. He seemed to understand intuitively what made people tick, both collectively and individually. He could turn on the charm and have you telling him stuff you told nobody, or he could flip a switch and have you tilted out of your brains to the point you were ready to throw all your chips at him.
I saw him tilt Daniel Negreanu on a feature table at the World Series of Poker by completely ignoring him while he charmed everyone else, to the point that Dnegs ran to his rail to celebrate when Mark busted (Dnegs wasn’t even in the hand), swirling a finger in the air at his own head as he said: “That guy is loco.”
We became fast friends to the point I invited him to my house a few weeks later. My wife is wary of poker players to put it mildly, but Mark turned on the charm and had her hanging on his every word almost instantly.
Mark flashed her a cheeky grin and said: “Easy, tiger.”
At that point I was still a competitive runner, and when she said she was driving me to the track for a speed session, he tagged along. As she swore and screamed at traffic, I rolled my eyes, having no idea how to calm her down, even after two decades of marriage. Mark flashed her a cheeky grin and said: “Easy, tiger.” She laughed and instantly calmed down. He had once again displayed his unparalleled knowledge of what made people tick.
At the track, unimpressed by the “speed” or lack thereof that constituted flat out for a twenty-hour runner, he jibed: “Slowcoach.”
As we drove home, he asked me why I didn’t play on Stars. I told him I preferred the low variance grind of the Euro sites and the Full Tilt 45 mans. He suggested I set up a Stars account and play with $5,000 he sent. “At the end of the year, send me half your balance and we call it quits.” I agreed, but he had one other stipulation. “You have to call yourself SlowDoke.”
I did, and we never spoke about it again until I transferred back over ten times his investment at the end of the year.
A chequered past
Mark told tall tales about his life I’d never have believed from anyone else. I believed him because he never bragged and as far I could tell, never lied. He told them casually as if he was a reporter, exhibiting neither pride nor regret about the exploits of his former selves.
I’ve got nine lives like a cat Dokey”
The cliffs were a flight from Southampton in his mid-teens after an altercation with a police officer, to Spain where he worked for a local Don. That involved tales of gunrunning and attempts on his life by rival operations. “I’ve got nine lives like a cat Dokey, and I used them up and then some, so it was time to get out,” he explained.
Getting out involved setting up his own timeshare business in Slovakia, and eventually poker which he turned into an enjoyable and profitable sideline. Like a lot of poker players, Mark struggled with mental health issues. He told me he had three personalities: Mark who was the one I mostly knew, Abraham who was a darker brooding quiet type, and Damien who was the dangerous volatile one. One of his employees told me they’d met all three.
Wrestling bears on the way to the canyon
We hung out every year in Vegas at the WSOP. In 2011, my son Paddy was visiting and Mark suggested a road trip to the Grand Canyon. Mick McCloskey tagged along, and when we stopped for supplies on Route 66, Mark somehow persuaded him to don a pig costume.
We stopped at a bear sanctuary where he threatened to throw Mick to the bears. When we rested overnight at a nearby motel, Mark went out saying he wanted to wrestle with the bears. I thought he was joking. He reappeared the following morning with gashes and torn clothing, so I guess he wasn’t.
At the canyon, he wound up the locals by expressing himself as unimpressed. “It’s just a big hole, innit. Reminds me of a quarry in Basildon.”
On the way back from the big hole we stopped at a convenience store owned by an elderly Native American. Mark approached him with one palm showing and said: “How!” As the rest of us exchanged “is this really happening” embarrassed glances, he persisted with the John Wayne approach, adding: “I come in peace.” Few people could get away with it, but somehow he did.
Things looked less promising when we were stopped in the middle of the desert by a cop for speeding. As he dressed us down and threatened jail time Paddy let out a nervous laugh. The already hostile cop’s face darkened further and I thought we were really in trouble now, but Mark glimpsed an opportunity. He proceeded to berate Paddy telling him to show some respect for this fine representative of the law. The cop lapped it up and sent us on our way.
Thriller in Manila
It’s 5am and I’m finishing up my Sunday grind when the phone rings. “Dokey! I’m in Vegas with Manny Pacquiao’s manager. He wants us to fly to Manila all expenses paid for a celebrity TV tourney with Manny.”
We find ourselves at the casino sitting at a table with Manny
Again, if this was anyone else, I wouldn’t have believed him, but a few days later I’m on a plane to Manila to meet Mark (and Manny). We find ourselves at the casino sitting at a table with Manny and a bunch of other locals who appear to have no words of English between them. It’s not even clear what’s going on. Cards and chips are being filmed from different angles but there’s no actual poker. Then they all just get up and leave. Mark is irate. He finds Manny’s manager who explains there’s no tournament per se, they’ll just edit the footage they filmed to make it look like one. Mark is very unhappy now, saying we came all this way to play with Manny.
I can tell this is an argument we can’t win, so I steer him back to the hotel pointing out that there was no prize pool for the supposed TV event and we were still getting all our expenses and our buyin to the Asia Pacific Poker Tour the next day as compensation for taking part in a pretend event.
Back in the hotel, Mark was still angry, restless, and clearly struggling with his mental demons. He left the room during the night telling me it was for my own good as he wasn’t safe to be around, and when he reappeared in the morning he looked like he’d been wrestling bears again. When I asked him he laughed: “Don’t be silly Dokey. No bears around here, but there’s a street gang out there in need of medical attention because they tried to mug the wrong angry tiger last night.”
I met him a few more times in Vegas, once with his charismatic son Damien (he named him after the Omen because of course he did), who seemed a more stable version of his old man. His eyesight was failing after a motorbike accident, but he remained the same larger-than-life character I’d first encountered in Newcastle. He was a man who didn’t just seize the day, he seized every moment of every day and extracted as much juice as he could from it for himself and everyone in his company. An hour in his company made you feel more truly alive than a lifetime with most people.
I was very sad when I learned he’d been given the death sentence of untreatable pancreatic cancer. He returned to London defiant as ever, determined to beat the odds as he had so often in poker and life. He was positive and optimistic, reporting on Facebook he’d bounced back from near death in December to his normal weight in March. When I joked that I thought he’d be dead by now but was looking forward to seeing him again, he responded with characteristic enigmatic humor.
his way of enjoying one last April Fool’s Day
A few days later, he died. He left us on April 2nd, which I like to think was his way of enjoying one last April Fool’s Day. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if I’m wrong and I do find myself at the pearly gates, I expect the man who told me once we were soul brothers to meet me there with a conspiratorial grin as he ushers me in, like he did so many times in VIP lounges in plush hotels he was staying at or airports we were passing through. And when he tells me that he challenged God to a wrestling match on his first day in Heaven, I’ll believe him. Even when he tells me that God lost, I’ll still believe him.