Stu Ungar (1953 - 1998)
The Tortured Champion
Ungar, who was born in New York City and raised on the city's Lower East Side, became a professional gambler at age 14, a year after his father, who was a bookmaker and bar operator, had died.
Stu was an incredible gin rummy player. At age 10 in '63, he won his first gin rummy tournament in a Catskill Mountain Resort while vacationing with his parents.
At age 14, he was regularly playing and beating the best players in New York. At 15 he dropped out of school when a well known bookie staked Stu to the $500 buy-in in a big gin rummy tournament. Stu won the $10,000 first prize without ever loosing a hand, a record still held in the card rooms of New York City. A week later, after giving his parents $1,000, he lost the rest on horses at the Aqueduct racetrack. It was a sign of things to come.
Ungar moved to Miami where the juiciest Gin games were. He did well but his weakness for sports and track betting drained him of any success. In 1976 Stu reached Las Vegas, broke and just about beaten. Somehow he found the money to enter a $50,000 tournament. On the last two hands he forecast the losing player's cards - correctly. This bravado was another bad career move as it meant other players feared his skills. As a result, he could no longer find any games outside the tournaments.
It wasn't long before he decided to try his luck at blackjack. He'd cleaned up on poker tables from Nevada to New Jersey and the time was right to move on. One night at Caesars Palace he won $83,000 but the manager stopped the play. Stu retaliated by correctly forecasting the last 18 cards left in the single-deck shoe. That was the beginning of the end for single deck blackjack tables. They were removed from Caesars and later from other casinos, and Stu's picture was posted up in the security rooms of dozens of casinos. Result: Stu was banned for life.
His next feat was to bet any takers $10,000 that he could perform yet another memory miracle: he offered to count down the last two decks in a six-deck shoe! There were no takers. Then in January 1977 a former owner of Vegas World and designer of the Stratosphere Tower stepped into his life. Stu Ungar met Bob Stupak. The new taker offered Stu $100,000 to count down the last three decks, half-way through a six-deck shoe. If Stu lost he'd owe Bob $10,000.
Memories of this amazing feat still linger on today in Las Vegas. To the astonishment of onlookers, and Bob, Stu didn't miss a single call from a total of 156 cards. When Bob handed him a check for $100,000, it marked the beginning of a lasting friendship between them. In 1980 at 24, Ungar entered his first world championship. He won and to silence the critics of his "fluke" he won the next year as well. He wasn't done with pure gambling though and he lost $900,000 in RAZZ game in an afternoon, $1m in a craps session and picked up $5m from Larry Flint (the p--- king) over many heads-up sessions. Ultimately his fever for action took everything in the physical world and his drug addiction was close to taking his life.
By the 1997 WSOP tournament in Las Vegas, Ungar hadn't been in the frame for over 7 years. He was seen around the gambling Mecca playing in small games but was pretty much written off by the poker world. He didn't have the money to enter the Championship event but an hour before play an anonymous benefactor produced the $10,000 entry. Four days later the greatest comeback in poker history had occurred and the record of three victories established. In all he won 10 major No limit Hold'em tournaments out of the 30 he entered!
Two months later he was broke again. Another year of oblivion and Stu was on the comeback trail again with his old friend Bob Stupak offering to cancel his debts and signing him up for commissioned card play. With $2000 of Stupak's money in his pocket (spending money) he checked into a cheap downtown hotel. Two days later he was dead. He left behind a 15 year old daughter.
He once said although he could conceive of a better poker player than himself, not in the next 50 years of the world would there be a better Gin player. Nov 22nd, 1998 - Oasis Motel, 1731 S. Las Vegas Blvd - Stu Ungar found dead.
The Clark County Coroner's office on Monday ruled Ungar's death accidental based on the results of toxicology tests that came back from the lab Friday. A mixture of narcotics and pain killers triggered a heart condition that killed him. The drugs found in Ungar's system were cocaine, methadone and the pain-killer Percodan, Clark County Coroner Ron Flud said. No one drug by itself was enough to cause Ungar's death. "The cause is accidental death by coronary atherosclerosis". "The heart condition developed over a period of time. The attack was brought on by his life-style."
Stu Ungar: Welcome to the Hall of Fame — Part I
by Mike S--ton
When anyone talks about the greatest poker players of all time, Stu Ungar’s name surfaces immediately. If it doesn’t, it should. His accomplishments in poker are second to none. I’m happy to tell you that Ungar will be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas on May 14.
Ungar is considered by many, and put me on that list, to be the greatest no-limit hold’em player of all time. But don’t take my word for it — just check the record books. Ungar was a three-time world champion, and had five World Series bracelets. He won 10 major no-limit hold’em championship events in which the buy-ins were $5,000 or more. The next two guys in line, T.J. Cloutier (the all-time leading money winner at the WSOP) and Johnny Chan (a two-time world champion), have won half that many. Amazingly, Ungar played in no more than 35 of these championship events in his life!
To further understand Ungar’s greatness, think about this: For years, the second-largest poker tournament in the world was Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker. Throughout the 1980s, every great poker player attended Slim’s tournaments. Like the WSOP, the main event at the Super Bowl of Poker was a $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em championship. Only one man in history captured titles at both the WSOP and the Super Bowl of Poker. That man was Stu Ungar — and he won them three times each!
Ungar had a genius IQ and a photographic memory. He also had the quickest mind of anyone I’ve ever known. I first met him in 1978. He was a 22-year-old (but looked 14) streetwise, fast-talking whiz kid out of New York. He ventured to Las Vegas to play high-stakes gin rummy against all comers. He played anyone for any amount of money. He beat the best gin players in the world like Secretariat handled the Kentucky Derby.
As great as Ungar was in no-limit hold’em, he was better at gin rummy. Several months after he captured his third world poker title, he said to me, “Someday, I suppose it’s possible for someone to be a better no-limit hold’em player than me. I doubt it, but it’s possible. But I swear to you, Mike, I don’t see how anyone could ever play gin better than me.”
Ungar turned to poker when his gin action dried up. From the outset, he played in the biggest games in town. In 1980, with virtually no experience at no-limit hold’em, he entered the $10,000 buy-in world championship event at Binion’s Horseshoe for the first time — and won it. And he beat the toughest players in the world. Two-time world champion (and eight-time bracelet winner) Doyle Brunson finished second, Jay Heimowitz (five-time bracelet winner) was third, and the legendary three-time world champion (and eight-time bracelet winner) Johnny Moss finished fourth. The press dubbed him Stu “The Kid” Ungar.
The next year, he successfully defended his title. Think about that! Ungar had entered the world championship twice and was a two-time world champion at the age of 25. In what seems to be fitting, he captured his third world championship (in 1997) the last time he played in the event.
Ungar was a relentless, fearless warrior in no-limit hold’em. He took control of every table at which he played. And if he got ahold of some chips, look out. Describing how Ungar played no-limit hold’em is like talking about someone with the focus of Tiger Woods, the artistry of Mozart, the moves of Michael Jordan, and the killer instinct of a gladiator. He hated to lose, and was a poor loser. He always said, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
Ungar was a gambler, and I mean an ultra high-stakes gambler at everything — poker, gin, sports, horses, golf, you name it. He never had a job in his life, so he never really had respect for money. Money was simply a tool with which to gamble, and the more he had, the more he bet.
For most of his life, money came easy to him. It also disappeared quickly. He was a high roller and a big spender. He was also a big tipper, whether he had money or not. He went from being broke to a millionaire to broke again at least four times. Gambling was his life. He craved action. He was hyper and couldn’t sit still. He never sat through a meal. He had to get back to the action.
Sadly, all is not cheerful and bright when talking about Stu Ungar. His biggest problem was his sickness. For 20 years, he abused himself with drugs. I can’t help but think what might have been. His life, even with the exciting times and conquests, was a tragedy. Drugs consumed him. I’m astounded when I think of what he achieved in poker, but I shudder to think of what he might have accomplished. He died in 1998 at the age of 42.
Some can’t see the “greatness” of Ungar. To them, he was a gambling degenerate and a drug addict who died broke. They confuse his lifestyle, bad habits, and sickness with his ability, extraordinary talent, and poker accomplishments. Don’t make that mistake. When it came to “playing the game,” Stu Ungar was in a league of his own. At no-limit hold’em, he was the best of all time.
Forgive Ungar for his drug abuse and mistakes, and recognize him for what he was: the greatest player ever to grace the green felt. He deserves his place in the Poker Hall of Fame. On behalf of poker players everywhere, “Congratulations, Stuey!”
This Stuey Ungar Biography Page is Copyright © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub