A look at the key moments that shaped Stu Ungar’s life.
1966 – Stu Ungar’s father dies and Stu starts to play Gin Rummy professionally
With his mother laid low by a stroke and his father suddenly passing away from a heart attack, the 18 year old Stu Ungar began to drift around the New York gambling scene, trying to earn money to support his mother and sister. With a natural aptitude for card games, a photographic memory, and a genius level IQ, Ungar soon learned how to get by. He was also befriended by organised crime figure Victor Romano, who clearly saw the talent in Ungar, and ensured that he was looked after in the underground games. Back then, Gin Rummy was Ungar’s game of choice, and there were plenty of challengers for the baby faced teenager. He quickly started winning tournaments, raking in thousands of dollars. By 1976 he was regarded as easily the best Gin Rummy player in New York. Due to amassing gambling debts at local racetracks however, Ungar soon moved away from New York.
1977 – Moving to Las Vegas and discovering Holdem
Ungar eventually made the transition from Gin Rummy to Poker, due to the fearsome reputation he was gaining in Gin Rummy circles.
Harry “Yonkie” Stein, widely regarded as the best Gin Rummy player of his generation, came looking for the young upstart and challenged him to a match. It says a lot about Ungar‘s personality that he utterly humiliated Stein 86-0 that night. He could have kept the score close and not permanently killed his own action, but instead, he obliterated Stein. With nobody for miles around wanting to play him at Gin Rummy, even with handicaps offered, Ungar then turned to Texas Holdem.
1980 – Winning the WSOP Main Event almost immediately
In the 1980 WSOP Main Event, his firs No Limit Holdem Tournament and only his second Holdem tournament, Ungar caught the eye of Doyle Brunson who remarked that he’d never seen a player learn so fast as a tournament went on. He got down to heads up, against Brunson, and beat him, becoming the youngest ever Main Event champion to that point. If anyone thought his win was a fluke, Ungar soon put that notion to bed by coming back and winning it again in 1981.
1990 – Passing out from drug overdose before the final day of the Main Event
Despite a natural talent that was unique, Ungar was a man with serious self-control issues. His losses at racetracks were the first sign, and his slide into drug addiction soon followed after his back to back Main Event wins. In 1990, when the players assembled for the final day of the WSOP Main Event, the big story was Stu Ungar, who had accumulated a large chip lead and looked unstoppable in his pursuit of a third world championship. In the end, the only player in the field who stopped him was himself. He was found on the floor of his hotel room before the start of play, having suffered a drug overdose. He was taken to hospital, while being blinded off. He took 9th place for $20,500 despite never taking his seat that day. Many of his fellow poker players had stated their fears for Ungar‘s life. Most didn’t think he would live to see 40, even though they hoped that love for his daughter and a wish to see her grow up, could yet be his salvation. Despite the path of self-destruction he took, Ungar remained a natural genius when it came to card games.
1997 – Finally winning his third WSOP Main Event title
In 1997, as registration for the WSOP Main Event was about to close, a small yet familiar man walked the casino floor searching for a friend or adversary willing to buy him into the Main Event as a backer. His face showed obvious signs of serious drug abuse, and he was a shadow of his former self – but he was still Stu Ungar. For that reason, and perhaps partly out of kindness, good friend Billy Baxter paid his buy in just seconds before registration closed. Despite Ungar falling asleep at the table on the first day, having been up all night trying to find backers, he made it through to day 2, with some encouragement from Baxter. Each day after that point, Ungar turned up looking focused, turning to a picture of his daughter in his wallet when he needed inspiration. He phoned her each day with chip updates, and told her he was going to win the tournament for her. Ungar took a large chip lead to the final table, and bookmakers made him a favourite to win the tournament over the rest of the field combined. He did exactly that, lifting his third title, sealing his place in history, and perhaps sealing his own fate with a $1 million score.
November 20th 1998 – Tragic death of Stu “The Kid” Ungar
Less than 18 months after his famous third Main Event win, Ungar checked into the Oasis Motel, a cheap bedsit at the end of the strip. He paid $48 for two nights, and was found lying on the bed two days later, dead. He had apparently suffered a heart attack, due to years of drug abuse, and was found with just $800 in his pocket.
In the course of his lifetime, Ungar had won an estimated $30 million playing cards. His brilliance had outshone every great poker player of the day, but in the end he was powerless to outshine the inner demons that claimed him. He died almost broke, with no assets to his name.
Article by Craig B.