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Stu Ungar

Stuart Errol Ungar (September 8, 1953November 22, 1998) was a professional poker and gin rummy player, widely considered to have been the greatest Texas hold 'em and gin rummy player of all time. He is the only person to have won World Series of Poker Main Event three times (Johnny Moss also won three WSOPs but his first win was by vote of the players, not by winning a tournament). He is also the only person to win Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker three times, the world's second most prestigious poker title during its time.

Childhood

Stu Ungar was born to Jewish parents and raised on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His father, Isadore ("Ido") Ungar, was a loan shark who ran a bar/social club that doubled as a gambling establishment, exposing Stu to gambling at a young age. Despite Ido's attempts to keep his son from gambling after seeing the effects of it on his regular (losing) customers, Stu began playing tournament gin and quickly made a name for himself.

In 1968, Ido died of a heart attack. Following his father's death, with his mother being virtually incapacitated by an illness as well, Ungar drifted around the New York gambling scene until age 18, when he was befriended by alleged crime figure Victor Romano. Romano, whose memory was so sharp he learned to recite the spelling and definition of any word in the dictionary during his jail time, spoke four languages including Latin, and was an expert at many games, shared the same penchant and interest for calculating odds while gambling that Ungar did. The two became so close that Romano acted as a father figure to him.

Ungar was infamous for routinely criticizing aloud the play of opponents he felt were beneath him. However, his relationship with Romano gave Ungar protection from various gamblers who did not take his crass attitude and assassin-like playing style kindly. One man reportedly tried to hit him in the head with a chair in a bar after Ungar soundly defeated him. Ungar would claim years later that the man was found shot to death a few days after the incident.

Gin Rummy and transition to Poker

When he was 10 years old in 1963, he won a local gin tournament. By 1976, he was regarded as one of the best players in New York. He dropped out of school to play gin rummy in the 1960's full time to help support his mother and sister after his father died, and began regularly winning tournaments which earned him $10,000 or more. He eventually had to leave New York due to gambling debts at the local race tracks; he was losing more at this than he was winning in gin. He later moved to Miami, Florida to find more action. In 1977, he left for Las Vegas, Nevada where he met the girl who would eventually become his wife. She had already had a child (who took very kindly to Stuey), and they would have another together as well.

One of the reasons Ungar eventually took up poker exclusively was because gin action had dried up due to his reputation. Ungar destroyed anyone who challenged him in a gin match including a professional widely regarded as the best gin player of Ungar's generation, Harry "Yonkie" Stein. Ungar reportedly beat Stein so badly in a high stakes gin match that Stein dropped out of sight in gin circles and eventually stopped playing professionally. As one observer who knew him put it, Stein "was never the same after that night.

After beating Stein and several other top gin professionals, Ungar was a marked man. Nobody wanted to play him in a gin match because of his superior skill, not to mention his lack of creating an impression that he was possible to beat. In the hopes of generating more action for himself, Ungar began offering potential gin opponents handicaps to even the playing field. He was known to let his opponent (professional or not) look at the last card in the deck, offer rebates to defeated opponents and always play each hand in the dealer position, all of which put him at a decisive disadvantage.

One story Ungar recalled was when a known cheater at gin called to set up a match with him. Ungar knew the man was a cheater as well but agreed to play him for money anyway. During the match, Ungar's bodyguard (sent by his financial backers because in those days the backers of a losing player at times assaulted or killed a winning player and took their money back) noticed the man was cheating. The bodyguard pulled Ungar aside and was irate while telling him. Ungar calmly told the bodyguard, "I know he's cheating. Don't worry. I'll beat him anyway," before doing so.

At the time Ungar moved to Las Vegas, gin was still popular in tournament format, much like heads up poker tournaments. Ungar won or finished high in so many gin tournaments that several casinos asked him to not play in them because many players said they would not enter if they knew Ungar was playing. Ungar later said in his biography that he loved seeing his opponent slowly break down over the course of a match, realizing he could not win and eventually get a look of desperation on his face. "It was fucking beautiful," he noted.

Though he is nowadays more well known for his poker accomplishments, Ungar regarded himself as a better gin rummy player, once stating:

Some day, I suppose it's possible for someone to be a better no limit hold 'em player than me. I doubt it, but it could happen. But, I swear to you, I don't see how anyone could ever play gin better than me.

1980 and 1981 WSOP titles

In 1980 he entered the World Series of Poker (WSOP) looking for more high-stakes action. In an interview for the 1997 Main Event Final Table, Stu told Gabe Kaplain that this 1980 WSOP was the first time he had ever played Texas Hold'em. He won the main event, defeating poker legend Doyle Brunson, and became the youngest champion in its history (he would later be surpassed by Phil Hellmuth in 1989). Ungar looked even younger than he was, and was dubbed "The Kid." He would defend his title successfully at the 1981 WSOP by defeating Perry Green heads-up.

Blackjack

Ungar, who had a genius level IQ and an eidetic memory, was able to keep track of every card in a six-deck blackjack shoe. In 1977 he was bet $100,000 by Bob Stupak, an owner and designer of casinos, that he could not count down the last two cards in a six deck shoe. Ungar won the bet.

Ungar was fined in 1982 by the New Jersey Gaming Commission for allegedly cheating while playing blackjack in an Atlantic City casino. The casino said that Ungar "capped a bet" (put extra chips on a winning hand after it was over to be paid out more), something Ungar vehemently denied.

The fine for this offense was only $500, peanuts to Ungar, but it would also force him to admit he cheated at blackjack, something he refused to do. Ungar believed that his memory and card counting ability (which was not illegal) were natural skills and thus he didn't need to cap bets or partake in any other form of blackjack cheating.

Ungar fought the case in court and won, avoiding the $500 fine. However, he did pay an estimated $50,000 in legal and travel expenses. In his biography, Ungar noted he was so exhausted from travel and court proceedings that he was not able to successfully defend his WSOP main event title.

His skill and reputation were so good that he was frequently banned from playing in casinos. He was virtually unable to play blackjack in Las Vegas or anywhere else.

In 1997, with a diminishing bankroll of $100,000 Stu Ungar convinced the management at the Lady Luck - one of the smaller Vegas casinos - to let him play single deck blackjack. Being a known card counter, they agreed on the condition that his betting would be limited between $2,500 and $7,500. This effectively stopped Stu Ungar from making large spread bets to exploit any card counting. On the first day Stu lost $50,000, half his bankroll. On the second day, he managed to catch a rush and build his bankroll up to $200,000. Stu continued to play at the Lady Luck for 6 months. At his highest point he was up $300,000 but in the end he busted his entire six figure bankroll.

Divorce and drugs

Ungar and wife Madeline had a daughter, Stefanie. Ungar also legally adopted Madeline's son from her first marriage, Richie, who took Ungar's surname. Richie committed suicide shortly after his high school prom, devastating both Madeline and Stu. They divorced in 1986.

It was also around this time that Ungar began using cocaine. He noted in his biography that at first he used it on the advice of fellow poker players because of the drug's ability to keep someone up and energized for a long period of time, something that would come in handy during marathon poker sessions. However, recreational use soon led to addiction.

Ungar's drug problem escalated to such a point that during the WSOP main event in 1990, to which close friend and poker pro Billy Baxter had staked him, Ungar was found on the third day of the tournament unconscious on the floor of his hotel room from a drug overdose. However, he had such a chip lead that even when the dealers kept taking his blinds out every time around the table Ungar still finished 9th and pocketed $20,500.

A common chain of events for Ungar during this period was to win a sizable bankroll playing poker then lose all of it on drugs, sports betting and horse races. After early success, Ungar squandered virtually all of his winnings on cocaine and other forms of gambling, and went from millionaire to broke four times.

His addiction took such a physical toll on him that in an ESPN piece on Ungar, many of his friends and fellow competitors said that they thought that he would not live to see his 40th birthday. In the same piece, one friend said that the only thing that kept him alive was his determination to see his daughter Stefanie grow up.

Many of Ungar's friends, including Mike Sexton, began to encourage him to enter drug rehab. Ungar refused, citing several people he knew who had been to rehab previously who told him that drugs were easier to obtain in rehab than on the street (the friends noted that dealers targeted rehab facilities specifically because there were so many addicts in one place).

"The Comeback Kid"

In 1997, Ungar was deeply in debt, but he once again received the $10,000 buy-in to the WSOP main event from Baxter. Ungar clearly showed physical damage from his years of addiction, most notably to his nasal membranes. In fact, Ungar had just received the buy-in from Baxter moments before the tournament started and was the last person added to the roster. Ungar was exhausted on the tournament's first day as he had been up for over 24 hours straight trying to raise or borrow enough money to play in the event. At one point midway through the first day of play, Ungar began to fall asleep at his table and told Mike Sexton (who was also playing) he didn't think he could make it. After encouragement from Sexton and a tongue lashing from Baxter, Ungar settled in and made it through the day.

During the tournament, he kept a picture of his daughter Stefanie in his wallet, and regularly called her with updates on his progress. Following his up and down first day, Ungar showed up for each subsequent day well rested and mentally sharp. He would go on to amass a large chip lead and carry the lead into the final table. Ungar was so highly regarded at this point that local bookies made him the favorite to win the tournament over the entire field, an extreme rarity. Ungar did not disappoint and won the main event for a record-setting third time (Johnny Moss, the only other three-time winner, only won two actual tournaments, as his first title was the result of being voted in). Ungar won his third and final WSOP Main Event with his (now) trademark hand, the A-4 offsuit. Ungar raised pre-flop on the button and his opponent John Strzemp made the call. Upon seeing a flop of A-3-5, Ungar was challenged with a bet; After thinking it over, Ungar decided to raise All-In. His opponent made the call with A8. Legend prevailed though, with a 2 dropping on the River giving Ungar the straight.

After winning the main event again, which was taped for broadcast by ESPN, he showed the picture of his daughter to the camera, and dedicated his win to her. He and Baxter split the $1,000,000 first prize evenly. Ungar was dubbed "The Comeback Kid" by the Las Vegas media because of the span (16 years) between his main event wins as well as his past drug abuse.

During the 1997 WSOP, Ungar wore a pair of round, cobalt blue tinted sunglasses (much as John Lennon did during the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" days) to, according to co-biographer Peter Alson, "hide the fact that his nostrils had collapsed from cocaine abuse." As legend has it, Ungar had undergone a rhinoplasty to fix the nasal damage that cocaine had caused. Following the surgery, he snorted cocaine again, causing his nostrils to recollapse.

Final years

Ungar lost all of his 1997 WSOP prize over the course of the next few months, mainly on drugs and sports betting. He attempted to give up drugs several times at the begging of Stefanie but only stayed clean for weeks at a time before using again.

Before the 1998 WSOP, Baxter offered to pay his entry fee to the main event, but 10 minutes before play started, Ungar told Baxter he was tired and did not feel like playing. Ungar later said that due to his drug abuse in the weeks prior to the tournament, he felt that showing up in his current condition would be more embarrassing than not showing up at all.

In the months following the 1998 WSOP, Ungar vanished from the public eye. He lived in and out of various Las Vegas hotels, rarely leaving his room. Ungar was also spotted walking around various Las Vegas poker rooms begging for money. He often said the money was to get him back on the poker tables, but would instead use it to purchase crack, which he now had to use in lieu of cocaine because his nasal membranes were so damaged he could no longer snort the drug, while crack could be smoked through a pipe. Not long after, many pros, some Ungar's former friends, refused to stake him or give him any money until he cleaned himself up. Ungar was also arrested for possession of drugs during this time.

Death

On November 22, 1998, Stu Ungar was found dead in his room at the Oasis Motel in Las Vegas with $800 on him, the remnants of a $25,000 loan he got from Baxter just a week earlier to put him back in action at the poker tables. Ungar had lost much of the $25,000 playing a high stakes poker game at the Bellagio but left the game with more than the $800 he was found with. It is still unknown to this day where the remainder of the money went.

An autopsy showed traces of drugs in his system, but not enough to have directly caused his death. The medical examiner concluded that he had died of a heart condition brought on by his years of drug abuse.

Despite winning millions during his poker career, Ungar died with no assets to his name. Friend and fellow poker player Bob Stupak took up a collection at Ungar's funeral to raise funds to pay for the services.

Legacy

Ungar is still regarded by many poker insiders as the greatest pure talent ever to play the game; in his life, he is estimated to have won over $30 million at the poker table. Along with Johnny Moss, Ungar is the only three-time WSOP main event champion. Moreover, Johnny Moss's first win at the inaugural WSOP in 1970 was by popular vote, making Ungar the only player to ever win the WSOP main event tournament itself three times. His win in 1997 is considered particularly remarkable as a comeback after 16 years of drug abuse. During his WSOP career, Ungar won 5 WSOP bracelets and more than $2,000,000 in tournament pay.

Ungar also won the main event at the now-defunct Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker in 1983, 1988 and 1989, when it was considered the world's second most prestigious poker title. As Slim put it, "Stu musta won a jillion dollars in my tournaments." He won a total of 10 major no-limit Texas hold 'em events (events in which the buy-ins were $5,000 or higher).

One of Ungar's most famous quotes sums up his competitiveness: "I never want to be called a 'good loser.' Show me a good loser and I'll just show you a loser." He was also notorious for dealer abuse, especially when enduring a losing session. However he was a generous tipper, regardless of whether or not he was winning.

Many fellow poker and gin pros as well as former backers agree that Ungar could have won an immeasurable additional amount at both games had he bothered to learn the "art of the hustle." Ungar was often encouraged to slow down his playing style and "milk" inferior opponents in order to give them the illusion they could beat him. They would then be willing to (even in defeat) put up additional money to get back at him, at which point Ungar could bury them and increase his profit margin. However Ungar did not have this in his blood. Instead, he played like an assassin, wanting to beat his opponents as badly as possible.

A movie about Ungar, High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (alternate title Stuey), was made in 2003. Ungar was portrayed by Michael Imperioli.

Ungar's daughter, Stefanie, called out the famous words "Shuffle Up and Deal!" at the 2005 World Series of Poker.

A character named Joey Frost loosely based on Stu Ungar was played by Lou Taylor Pucci in the April 30, 2006 episode of the Law & Order: Criminal Intent TV series, "Cruise to Nowhere."

Stu Ungar was inducted posthumously into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2001.

Tales

Growing up with street smart wiseguys such as Romano often presented Ungar with some interesting situations later on in his adult life. Ungar was once at an airport attempting to fly out of the United States to Europe for a poker tournament with several fellow pros. All Ungar's friends had passports, but he did not. In fact, Ungar did not even have a Social Security number until after his 1980 WSOP win and that was only because he was forced to in order to collect his winnings.

Upon telling the airport customs agent he needed the passport immediately to leave the country, the agent replied that for a small fee, they could push the necessary forms through quicker for him. Ungar misconstrued this as meaning the agent was requesting a bribe, something he was used to back in New York when with Romano. Ungar had no problem doing this and slipped the agent a $100 bill. However the agent was actually referring to a small "expedite fee" that was common for all passport applicants. The agent was going to call the police and have Ungar arrested for attempting to bribe a public official before his fellow poker players stepped in and smoothed things out.

Despite owning several expensive cars, Ungar rarely drove. He preferred to take a taxicab virtually anywhere he went, even from his home in Las Vegas to the casinos which was only a short trip. Ungar was known to be a large tipper to cabbies and casino employees, regardless of whether he was winning. Mike Sexton once noted that "Stuey spent what most people make in a year on cab fares."

The fact he rarely drove could have possibly come from a time when Ungar purchased a brand new Mercedes sports car and drove it until the vehicle ran out of oil and broke down. Ungar brought it back to the dealership and was told by a mechanic that it had no oil and thus would not run. Ungar replied, "Why the hell didn't you tell me you had to put oil in the car?"

Ungar's friends often said he "ate like a wild animal." Ungar saw eating as something that had to be gotten over with so he could get back to gambling action. He would often call restaurants ahead of time and place an order for himself and everyone in his party so it was ready at the same time his table was when they got there.

Sexton noted that because Ungar would pay for everyone in his dining party, regardless of how expensive the meal was, it was impossible to argue with his method. Ungar would race in to the restaurant, shovel the food down as fast as he could, throw cash for the entire meal plus a generous tip on the table and be ready to leave, even if the rest of his party had just barely started on drinks or appetizers.

The same friends however also noted that Ungar, when he had money, was one of the most generous people they had ever met. He was known to always be willing to help out a friend. Ungar was once on a hot winning streak and sent his longtime sports betting friend Michael "Baseball Mike" Salem enough money to pay for several months of his mortgage. Salem did not ask for the money and had only mentioned offhand to Ungar he was in the midst of a nasty losing streak.

Ungar's own attorney recalled a time when Ungar asked him how he was doing. He responded that he was OK, but struggling a little financially. Ungar immediately took $10,000 cash out of his pocket and gave it to him, saying "Take it. It's yours. Pay me back when you can. And if you don't pay me back, that's OK too."

In fact, Sexton and Ungar became friends when Sexton was suffering a losing streak and was nearly broke. Ungar was playing in a high limit seven card stud game and had to use the restroom. Ungar told Sexton to "pick up a hand" (play the next hand) for him while he went. This is generally not allowed in card rooms today but for top pros like Ungar, rules were much more lax back then.

Sexton made a straight on the first five cards he was dealt however played cautiously at first, not wanting to be overly aggressive with another man's money. Ungar returned from the restroom in the middle of the hand, at which point (to Sexton's surprise) was thrilled that his money was involved in such a giant pot. Ungar's attitude made Sexton more comfortable with playing the hand aggressively and he ended up winning a large amount. Ungar saw another stud game going on across the room and gave Sexton $1,500 to go play in it. Sexton did and won an additional $4,000, of which he gave Ungar half and began to rebuild his bankroll.

Ungar also once won a large amount of money (over $1.5 million) on a series of horse races. That night, Ungar took all his close friends out to a strip club and paid for the entire evening which included numerous girls, Cristal champagne and a VIP booth. Sexton estimated the night cost Ungar $8,800 and he never once asked or expected any of his group to pay for a single penny of it.

Personal hygiene was also something that tended to be lost on Ungar. He rarely washed his own hair, opting instead to pay a professional stylist at The Dunes casino to wash it for him twice a week and cut it when necessary.

Ungar never had a bank account in his own name, preferring to keep his money in safe deposit boxes in hotels across Las Vegas. He dismissed the notion of a bank or checking account. "You mean I can't go there at midnight and get my money out?", he asked (this was before the advent of ATMs). "That's ridiculous."

Immediately following the 1992 World Series of Poker Stu Ungar faced off against Mansour Matloubi in no limit hold'em at the $50,000 buy-in heads-up freeze out event. The final hand of the game had a board of 3-3-7-K-Q.

Matloubi tried to bluff Stuey all-in for $32,000. Ungar thought for a few seconds and told Maltoubi "You have 4-5 or 5-6 so I'm gonna call you with this" and flipped over a 10-high hand to win the pot and bust Maltoubi, who in fact held exactly what Ungar said he did.

One time Ungar was walking through Las Vegas with Doyle Brunson. A man stopped him and asked for some money. Ungar pulled out a $100 bill and gave it to the man. Brunson asked Ungar who the man was, to which Stu replied, "If I had known his name, I would have given him $200."

World Series of Poker Bracelets

Year Tournament Prize (US$)
1980 $10,000 No Limit Hold'em World Championship $365,000
1981 $10,000 No Limit Hold'em World Championship $375,000
1981 $10,000 Deuce to Seven Draw $95,000
1983 $5,000 Seven Card Stud $110,000
1997 $10,000 No Limit Hold'em World Championship $1,000,000

References

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