In a game that is already pretty rich in history, with a collection of great players, Stu Ungar is considered by a great many to be the greatest poker player of all time. His accomplishments at the poker table were impressive enough, but what is even more impressive is that he may only have given us a glimpse of what he may have really been able to achieve if not for the immense personal struggles with drug addiction that severely dampened his career and eventually led to his death.
Aside from his rampant drug use, Stu Unger is most famous for being one of only two players ever to win the WSOP Championship three times, and he is the only player to actually win the main event of the tournament that many times, as Johnny Moss’ first victory was awarded by a vote of the players, with his other two victories coming in the normal fashion.
We may wonder though how many more times Ungar could have won though, and it’s reasonable to think that, based upon how talented this player was, that he could have won several more, and perhaps even rather easily. Ungar was a truly dominant player and was well ahead of his time, and his poker prowess was almost superhuman, perhaps even in a different class than those we consider to be great alongside him.
As good as “Stuey” was at poker, he was an even better professional gin player. He remarked: “Someday, 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 be a better gin player than me.”
Stu was born on September 8, 1953, in New York’s Lower East Side of Manhattan. His father was a loan shark and also ran a gambling operation, so Ungar was exposed to that at a very young age, and in spite of his father wanting to shield him from the business, Stu got his start in gambling very early in life.
This was back in an era where gin was a lot bigger game than it is today, and poker far less popular, especially in New York, and Stu got his start in gambling playing professional gin and won his first gin tournament at the tender age of 10. Stu was a true prodigy, of obvious very high intellect, and he used this to simply crush other players.
At the age of 13, his father died, and with Mom being in very poor health herself and unable to support them, shortly after that he turned to gambling full time to support himself, his mother, and his sister, and started to make a real name for himself.
He wasn’t just good at the game though. As his skills grew, so did his reputation, and eventually, not only did no one want to play him anymore, people even refused to enter gin tournaments that he was to play in, due to their seeing themselves having no chance of winning.
This reputation was really fueled during a contest against the man widely considered to be the best gin player in the world, Harry “Yonkie” Stein. Unger didn’t just beat Stein and take his crown away, he absolutely humiliated him, winning all 86 matches, and this beating had a profound enough impact on Stein that he ended up going from being on top to dropping out of the game soon afterward.
Ungar showed no less mercy on other top players of the day, and soon he was offering big handicaps to anyone who would play him, although few dared take him on even with one hand tied behind his back, and he had to leave New York because the action eventually dried up totally, he was that good.
After a brief stay in Miami to try to find people who would play him, which wasn’t all that successful, in 1977 he headed to the gambling capital of the world, Las Vegas. Stu wasn’t just a good gin player though, and he demonstrated such skill at blackjack, with his total recall, that he no longer became welcome at the casinos there, but not before taking them for some serious money.
His power of recall was such that, soon after arriving in Vegas, he bet casino owner Bob Stupak $100,000 that he could count down a six shoe deck and determine the final card. This was such a crazy bet that I’m sure Stupak was pretty confident about it, but it cost him the $100,000.
Poker was starting to grow in Las Vegas back then, and Ungar decided to dabble in that a bit, and there wasn’t anything else he could get action with anyway at this time. He started out by beating famed poker pro Billy Baxter, with no less than 7 WSOP bracelets to his name, in a match, pocketing $40,000. It seemed he was good at poker as well.
The 1980 WSOP Championship was Stu Ungar’s first ever Texas Hold’em tournament, and when all the cards were dealt, Ungar had all of the chips and the title. Stu almost didn’t make it to the 1981 WSOP to defend his title though, as in between these titles he was banned from the Horseshoe, where the WSOP was held then, for spitting in a dealer’s face.
Jack Binion, the son of owner Benny Binion, ended up reversing the ban in the interests of allowing him to defend his championship, which Unger did, and now had 2 main event bracelets to his name.
At the time of his big splash on the poker scene though, Ungar already had developed an addiction to cocaine, and this proved to be a major impediment in his poker career. By the time 1982 came along, this drug use became escalated, in part due to the greater success and more money that his burgeoning poker career provided.
His drug use became so much of a concern that his friends predicted that he would not make it to his 40th birthday. It certainly did take its toll and while Ungar did resume gambling, the glory days seemed to be well behind him. Even finishing a tournament was a challenge, and in an effort to return to the WSOP in 1990, he collapsed in his hotel room on the third day from a drug overdose and was unable to return to the action. He had such a massive chip lead through that blinding him out still led to his finishing 9th.
In 1997, long written off as washed up, the pro he took on and beat when he first came to Vegas, Billy Baxter, fronted him the $10,000 entry fee into the main event, and in spite of falling asleep at the table, support from Baxter and friend Mike Sexton kept him awake enough to win his third title, and pocket the million dollar first prize, which he split with Baxter.
Sadly though, he life was still in a tailspin, and he was soon broke again, looking to be staked in games but not really having the wherewithal to compete very well. He went home from a game one day and never came back, finally succumbing to all those years of abuse by dying in a hotel room at the age of 45.
In spite of winning over $30 million in his career, he died with just $800 to his name, the remnants of a recent $25,000 advance that Bob Stupak had fronted him, and Stupak took up a collection at his funeral to pay for it.
Ungar was known as a very abrasive player at the table, which wasn’t an attempt to berate or intimidate players as much as it was a display of his arrogance, but away from the table, his generosity was legendary, not even caring if the money was ever paid back.
He often supported friends when their luck was down, and his kindness also extended to even strangers. Doyle Brunson recalls a story where they were together and a man asked Unger for some money. Ungar gave him $100. Brunson asked Unger who the man was. Ungar replied, “if I had known his name, I would have given him $200.”
Ungar was also known for his eccentricities. Among other things, he never had a bank account, preferring to keep all his money in cash in safe deposit boxes. He also never drove a car, preferring taxis instead, and was said to spend more on taxis then the average person earns. He did own a car once, a new Mercedes, which he drove until it broke down from running out of oil. He was furious at the dealership. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me I had to put oil in the car?”
Perhaps most impressively, Stu Ungar made a lasting and indelible impact on tournament poker by entering only a total of 30 tournaments in his life, of which he won 10 of them, 5 of which were awarded with WSOP bracelets, earning him a spot in the Poker Hall of Fame.
His life story is a very colorful one as well and is well documented, including a Hollywood movie being made about his life, and a biography published, entitled “One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar, the World’s Greatest Poker Player.” That does not seem in any way to be an exaggeration.
Stu Ungar was certainly one of a kind and it’s likely we’ll never see a player quite like this again, or maybe anything even close.