"A great person, but a greater loss” – These are the words etched into the gravestone of possibly the biggest poker player in history, and these words describe his career and life better than I ever could. Words do indeed fall short when it comes to describing what this man, known as The Kid, meant to poker, gambling and everyone who knew him.
To this day, he is the only man who won the WSOP $10,000 main event three times (Johnny Moss won three times too but the first one of those victories doesn’t really count because he was voted the winner then). He has a total of 5 WSOP bracelets next to his name and his total career winnings exceed $30 million, according to people who personally knew him.
This man, endowed with the IQ of a genius, was indeed a living-breathing poker icon, with all the positive and negative traits specific to geniuses. At the poker table, he was rather unbeatable. He played like a wild animal on the hunt, he forgave nothing and he went in for the kill as fast as possible, his goal not only to defeat his opponents but to beat them into the dust and bury them alive. His friends often said he could’ve made much more than the estimated $30 million he’s said to have won in his career, but he never took to trapping people and milking them.
In addition to being a genius on the green felt, Stu Ungar possessed every bit of the eccentricity of one. He would tip everyone huge sums of money, he would impulsively give his acquaintances money in the tens of thousands of dollars range, he possibly spent more on cab-fare than an average person made in a year.
Whenever he went to a restaurant with his entourage, he would pay everyone’s meal regardless of how expensive it was. According to friends of his, he ate like an animal. Stuffed his face full in a matter of a couple of minutes, paid for everything, dropped a huge tip and gone he was. He regarded the time he spent eating as time taken away from gambling.
He didn’t like to wash his hair either. He paid a stylist at The Dunes to do it for him.
Stuart Errol Ungar was born on September the 8th 1953, in New York. He got an early taste of what gambling was in his father’s "social club” which was in fact a gambling hotspot. Despite his parents’ trying to protect him from the "plague” that they considered gambling to be, the young Ungar soon became one of the most respected Gin Rummy players in the country. After his father’s death, Stuey found himself alone (his mother fell ill too about the same time), having to fend for himself in the often hostile New York underground gambling world. It was about then that he befriended notorious organized crime personality Victor Romano. Endowed with a memory as sharp as Stuey’s, this man not only shared the passion for calculating odds that drove Stuey’s play, with time he emerged as a father-figure for him. Word has it, Stuey’s roughhouse style of play and his outspoken nature made him many enemies at the time, but being under the protection of Romano, none of his haters could get to him.
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He dropped out of school to earn enough money to support his family by playing Gin Rummy, and so he did. He won numerous tournaments at the time, all with first-prizes in the $10,000 range, but nonetheless he soon found himself forced to leave New York due to debt. The problem was that he had already developed an addiction to sports betting and horse racing, and he lost more money on his addiction than he won on cards.
The real problems came about for him when the Gin Rummy gimmick dried up. He became such a celebrity that he was often barred from tournaments because nobody would play him. Left with no choice, the young genius took up the next best thing: Texas Holdem.
Because Holdem requires the same kind of analytic thinking as Gin Rummy, The Kid soon found himself involved in some of the highest stake tournaments and winning, winning, winning.
He won his first WSOP main event title in 1980, repeated in 1981, and came back in 1997 to win another. In-between, he won two other WSOP bracelets in 1983 and 1981.
After his first two WSOP victories, his lifestyle started to get the better of him. As one of his friends noted: a man struggling with one bad habit was one thing, Stuey though, was haunted by just about every bad habit one could think of.
His gambling antics meant that he woke up a millionaire one day and went to bed dead-broke the same evening. Horse races, blackjack and other such activities would at times suck his bankroll dry, and at other times reward him handsomely.
The real problem was his cocaine addiction though, which crept into his life following his 1986 divorce from his wife Madeleine with whom he had a daughter, Stefanie. Drugs were slowly taking him apart, first destroying his nose, and then slowly moving on to the final assault.
Despite being crack addict and an altogether broken man, he mounted a successful comeback in 1997. Having been staked by a friend (After 2 consecutive WSOP titles and three victories in Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker, he didn’t have enough to pay the buy-in himself) he took the $1 million prize right down.
Those close to him, did not rejoice though. They knew it was the beginning of the end for this gambling genius. Sure enough, he blew all the money won on the WSOP in a few months. His planned "second return” in the 1998 WSOP never happened despite the fact that close friend Billy Baxter was again prepared to stake him.
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7 months later, Ungar was found dead in his Las Vegas motel room with a mere $800 upon him.
It wasn’t a drug overdoes that killed him, it was a heart problem brought about by the years of abuse he subjected his body to.
Stuart Errol Ungar was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2001.
May he rest in peace.