The Rise and Fall of Stu Ungar

Stu Ungar is one of the most memorable characters in pokers history. The flawed genius constantly courted controversy throughout his career with his outbursts and well-publicised drug use.

By: Mark Patrickson

His untimely death left a big hole in the poker world. Players as gifted as Ungar don’t come along very often and it was a great shame to see him self-destruct in such a way.

In terms of raw talent many would say that he was unrivaled. Not only with poker but also gin rummy, a game he refused to believe anybody could ever play any better.

“There’s no one that ever beat me playing cards, the only one that ever beat me was myself” – Stu Ungar

The Early Years

Stu Ungar was born on 28th September 1952, in New York to a Jewish family. His father Isidore owned a bar and used to be an illegal money lender on the side.

Due to the environment he grew up in, Ungar was exposed to card games at a young age, even winning his first gin rummy tournament at only 10-years-old.

When he was 15-years-old his father died forcing him to look after his mother who had recently survived a stroke. His card skills had improved massively and so by the time he turned 18 he was a regular in the underground gambling scene in New York, protected by mob figure Victor Romano.

The Transition to Poker

After becoming one of the best gin rummy players in New York, winning many tournaments, he struggled to find action and moved onto Miami for a year in 1976 before finally settling in Las Vegas.

It didn’t take long before his fearsome reputation spread around his new hometown and the action dried up just as it had done back in New York.

At this point he was forced to try his hand at poker. Casinos were asking Ungar not to enter gin rummy tournaments because people didn’t feel they could beat him.

There is a famous quote by Ungar telling somebody he could conceivably imagine there being a better poker player than him in the world somewhere, but he refused to believe that anyone could play gin rummy better.

But poker it was to be. He had no choice.

World Series of Poker Success

In 1980, 27-year-old Ungar entered the WSOP Main Event, in what was only his second ever poker tournament in his life. It was also the first time he had experienced NL Hold’em.

Ultimately, that never mattered. Beating a field of 73 entries and defeating none other than Doyle Brunson heads up, Ungar claimed victory and a $365,000 prize.

Brunson commented that it was the first time ever he had witnessed a player improve so much as a tournament progressed.

The following year Ungar was almost barred from playing due to an incident where he spat in a dealer’s face after losing a big pot. In the end, Jack Binion convinced his dad that the publicity would be worth letting him back in the casino.

Incredibly, Ungar once again took the top spot for a $375,000 pay out, also taking down a $10,000 Deuce to Seven Draw tournament. He had truly arrived on the scene and it was this year that the famous nickname The Kid was coined due to his youthful looks.

Self-Destruction

By the early to mid 80’s, Ungar’s drug habit was already starting to take its toll on his life. He was divorced in 1986 after only four years of marriage, and he had an unhealthy obsession with finding action on any form of gambling.

Into the 90’s Ungar’s friends were starting to worry about him. During the 1990 tournament he was a runaway chip leader and looked set to make it three Main Event titles until he was found unconscious in his hotel room.

Amazingly, even after being blinded out while recovering he still ended the event in ninth place due to the lead he had.

Ungar’s career success should have left him financially secure, but his extreme generosity to anyone he met led to him ending up in serious debt and having to borrow money to enter tournaments.

In 1997 his friend Billy Baxter lent him the $10,000 to enter the WSOP Main Event when nobody else would.

While his physical appearance was deteriorating his mind was clearly still up to the job. Ungar would repeatedly look at a photo of his daughter Stefanie for inspiration, and regularly phone her to give updates on his progress in the event.

As if by divine intervention, the troubled 44-year-old became only the third person in history to win the WSOP Main Event three times, which also marked his last recorded live tournament cash. It was the end of an era.

This time he picked up a cool $1 million for winning but it was all gone in just a few months. Baxter approached him again in 1998 to stake him for the Main Event but his worsening physical condition meant he just didn’t feel up to it.

Only a few months later Ungar’s body was found by a maid in a motel room. An autopsy showed that years of drug use had caused a fatal heart condition.

Ungar’s story sadly ended how many had predicted years ago. Possibly the greatest talent to have ever played the game was gone.

There were no long hours studying theory for The Kid, he did it all by feel in a way that can only be described as genius. It is unlikely we will ever see his kind again in the modern game.

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