Stu Ungar: A Legendary Poker Player and His Demons
Who is Stu Unger?
Many consider Stu Ungar to be the greatest Texas Hold’Em and gin rummy player of all time. What Bobby Fischer was to chess, Ungar was to gin and poker. Known for a genius-level IQ and eidetic memory, Ungar’s story is as impressive as it is tragic.
Stu, a.k.a. “Stuey” Ungar and Johnny Moss are the only two players in history to have won the WSOP Main Event three times. Ungar is also the only player to win Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker three times, in 1984, 1988, and 1989. And along with Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, and Jonny Chan, Ungar won consecutive WSOP Main Event titles.
In addition to his five WSOP bracelets, Ungar has won over $3.6 million in tournaments and emerged victorious in 10 of the 30 major no-limit Texas Hold’Em events he entered. Many estimate that throughout his lifetime Ungar won over $30 million playing gin, poker, blackjack tournaments, and live cash games. Yet he passed away nearly destitute. What happened?
Today we’ll take a close look at Ungar’s remarkable life story, including:
- Stu Ungar’s early life and transition from gin to poker
- Ungar’s impressive WSOP appearances and victories
- His tragic death
- How others remember Ungar and his legacy
Ungar’s Early Life
Stuart Errol Ungar was born on 8 September, 1952, in Manhattan, New York to Jewish parents Isidore and Faye. Isidore Ungar was a bar owner and loan shark. Consequently, young Stu’s gambling exposure occurred at a very early age, and he even won a local gin tournament when he was only ten. The highly gifted burgeoning card player skipped seventh grade, dropped out in tenth, and made quite a name for himself in underground gin games.
After his father passed away from a heart attack in 1967, and with his mother struggling after a stroke, Ungar became active in the New York gambling world. At age 18 he became friendly with mobster and card shark Victor Romano who ultimately served as Ungar’s protector and mentor. Such protection came in handy when the notoriously arrogant Ungar angered some of his competitors.
From Gin to Poker
After dropping out of high school, Ungar relied on playing gin rummy to help support his mother and sister. He was quite successful, winning several tournaments and hefty cash prizes. By 1976, Ungar was regarded one of the best gin players in New York. Ungar’s reputation dried up the local action, though, and so he moved to Miami, Florida, for a short time. In 1977, he moved to Las Vegas, Nevada.
In 1982, Ungar married Madeline Wheeler, who he had dated back in New York. That same year, Madeline gave birth to their daughter, Stefanie. Ungar also adopted Madeline’s son Richard who adored him. Sadly, Richie committed suicide in 1989.
Not unlike New York, Ungar’s reputation and prowess as a gin player led to a stark reduction in Las Vegas local action. He destroyed all of his opponents, and a number of casinos asked him not to play in tournaments as players would not enter for fear of running into the unbeatable Stu Ungar.
Ungar then took up poker, and a legend was born.
Even though Stu Ungar is better known for his poker accomplishments, he always regarded himself as an even better gin player.
Stu Unger at the WSOP, Part 1
Ungar entered the WSOP Main Event in 1980, only his second Texas Hold’Em tournament ever (the first being the 1980 Super Bowl of Poker won by Gabe Kaplan). The 26-year-old Ungar defeated Doyle Brunson and became the youngest WSOP Main Event champion in history at that time. His prize was a respectable $365,000.
Among the best Stu Ungar highlights is his 1980 WSOP Main Event tournament-winning hand.
The following year, Ungar defeated Perry Green to defend his world champion title and take home $375,000. To this day, Ungar remains only one of four professional players to win back-to-back WSOP Main Events.
For his youthful appearance, Ungar was thereafter nicknamed “the Kid.”
Take a look at the final 1981 WSOP Main Event hand:
Interestingly, the WSOP considered banning Ungar from the 1981 event. Back then, Binion’s Horseshoe hosted the WSOP, where Ungar had allegedly spat in a dealer’s face after losing a large pot. Benny Binion didn’t want Ungar in his casino, but Binion’s son Jack convinced his dad that the media attention Ungar would attract to the casino was worth letting him play.
In addition to his 1981 Main Event bracelet, Ungar won the $10,000 Deuce to Seven Draw Event that same year, and in 1983 the $5,000 Seven Card Stud Event. His total winnings for these two tournaments totaled just over $200,000.
Ungar dabbled in blackjack as well, relying heavily on his card-counting abilities. As would be expected, he made some enemies, and so one need not wonder why he was banned from playing certain tournaments.
Demons, Drugs, and Divorce
Following his mother’s death in 1979, Unger began using cocaine. Originally he used it in a recreational capacity and to maintain his energy and stay awake during long poker sessions, as was often the case with other players. But Ungar’s recreational use turned into addiction. And it was a serious addiction that, along with gambling, became demons that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Ungar and Madeline eventually divorced in 1986—a mere four years after their marriage. Madeline described her dismay as her former husband would frequently disappear for days playing cards and using drugs, and, generally, was rather ill-equipped to handle the basic habits of daily life.
Ungar’s cocaine use escalated, eventually taking an incredible toll on his frail, five-foot-five-inch body to the point that his friends didn’t think he would live to see his 40th birthday.
Coupled with an obvious gambling addiction—not just playing poker and blackjack, but also betting heavily on sports and horses—Ungar’s constant need for “action” would ultimately be his downfall.
The Comeback Kid. Unger at the WSOP, Part 2
Ungar attempted the 1990 Main Event. However, on the third day of the event he was found in his hotel room, unconscious from a cocaine overdose. He was not able to finish the tournament, but did end up in ninth place winning $25,050 even after blinding out, thanks to his impressive chip lead at that time.
Deeply in debt and visibly physically affected by his cocaine addiction, Ungar entered the 1997 WSOP Main Event with $10,000 given to him from a friend, Billy Baxter, moments before the tournament began. In fact, Ungar was the last player added to the roster just before registration closed.
Not thinking he would even last the first day, friend and fellow player Mike Sexton provided some necessary encouragement, and Ungar’s photo of his daughter Stefanie in his pocket motivated him to continue. He would call Stefanie periodically to update her on his progress. Ungar was so highly regarded that he became the odds-on favorite to win the tournament, which he did, becoming only the third person in poker history to do so.
Take a look at Ungar’s lucky river draw against casino executive John Strzemp to win and earn his place in poker history. Notice how emaciated Ungar looks, and the obvious damage cocaine abuse had done to his nose.
In his post-victory interview with commentator Gabe Kaplan, Ungar proudly showed his daughter’s picture, dedicated his win to her, and, subsequently, earned the nickname “The Comeback Kid.” Ungar split his $1 million prize with Baxter.
Nearing the End
Between cocaine and sports betting, Stu Ungar spent his WSOP prize money in a few months. Whereas he tried several times to give up drugs for his daughter, he always relapsed after a few weeks.
Baxter approached Ungar before the 1998 WSOP and offered to pay his entry fee again; however, as the tournament started, Ungar told Baxter that he was tired and did not want to play. Later, Ungar confessed that he made this decision because of his worsening drug abuse, physical condition, and fear of embarrassment.
Ungar became scarce shortly thereafter. People would occasionally see him begging for poker money which he would use for drugs. Because of his extremely damaged nasal membranes, Ungar began smoking crack and was, subsequently, arrested.
In October 1998, Bob Stupak arranged to stake Ungar in several tournaments and gave him a $25,000 advance to settle some of his debts.
Stu Ungar Death: A Tragic Ending
On 20 November 1998—at the age of 45—Ungar checked into Room 6 at the Oasis Motel in downtown Las Vegas. Two days later, the maid found Ungar’s fully clothed body on the bed. He had passed away. There were no drugs in the room, and while the autopsy identified trace amounts of drugs in his system, the coroner ruled Ungar’s cause of death as the result of a heart condition caused by years of substance abuse.
Quite simply, his weakened, frail body could not take it anymore. Bob Stupak covered all of the funeral costs. Unger had just $800 to his name when he passed.
East Las Vegas’ Palm Valley View Memorial Park is Ungar’s final resting place. His headstone reads “A great person, but a greater loss.” Indeed.
Remembering Stu Ungar
A 2005 New York Times piece described Ungar as “the swashbuckling enfant terrible of poker before it blew up into a mainstream obsession in the 1990’s.” Many agree that if Ungar were still here, he would continue to demolish the competition, even as the WSOP Main Event now attracts thousands of people each year.
Mike Sexton was a huge fan—and close friend—of Ungar’s. In fact, Sexton eulogized Ungar at his funeral. The two became friends at a time when Sexton had been suffering a losing streak. He says that Ungar would always loan him money, and he reciprocate the favor, even putting Ungar up in hotels. In true form, Sexton loves to relate his Stuey stories such as this humorous anecdote about Ungar’s uncanny ability to count cards and how this prowess won him a $10,000 bet and forced Bob Stupak to ban him from Stupak’s properties.
Or this, another tale about Ungar’s first—and presumably last—visit to a golf course that wound up costing him $78,000.
While Ungar was widely known for his generosity—to his friends, cab drivers, dealers, and even strangers—he was equally known for his uber aggressive poker playing style and uncanny, well-timed bluffs. One competitor during the 1997 WSOP described Stu Ungar as being almost clairvoyant in his ability to “see” his opponents’ hole cards.
In another, oft-retold story, Stu Ungar faced off against 1990 Main Event champion Mansour Matloubi in a series of $50,000 heads-up hands. During the final hand, Ungar sniffed out a bluff, told Matloubi that he had a busted straight, and called with only a ten-high to win the game: perhaps Stu Ungar’s best call ever. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the infamous hand and a nifty little video detailing the story.
Here’s another Stuey story—a so-called urban legend—but quite interesting nonetheless.
Other poker pros speak highly of Stu Ungar as well.
Phil Hellmuth recalls Ungar’s wicked recall ability.
Doyle Brunson, who Ungar beat in the 1990 WSOP, had this to say.
Andy Black’s slight dismay at being at Stu Ungar’s table during the 1997 WSOP is definitely chuckle-worthy.
The Legacy of Stuey Ungar Poker Legend
Many in the poker world regard Stu Ungar as among the greatest—if not THE greatest—naturally talented poker players in the history of the game. He was brilliant, had a nose for weakness, and loved to watch his opponents’ desperation overtake them. In some ways, you could call him ruthless at the table.
Stu Ungar was inducted posthumously into the WSOP Poker Hall of Fame in 2001.
In 2003, a movie based loosely on Ungar’s life was released. High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story starred Michael Imperioli in the title role.
Then, in 2005, Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson released Stu Ungar’s biography, One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘the Kid’ Ungar, the World’s Greatest Poker Player. Alson once referred to Ungar as “the Jim Morrison of poker.” Dalla pays tribute to Ungar in this touching video.
In 2006, One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stu Ungar was broadcast. This Emmy-winning ESPN documentary contains interviews with his family and closest friends.
Everyone in the poker world knows about the legend, Stu Ungar. Stuey. The Kid. The poker genius and icon who let his demons get the best of him. A true American tragedy, indeed.
Until next time.
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