– General Introduction –
Stu “The Kid” Ungar is considered the best No-Limit Hold’em (and Gin Rummy) player that has ever lived down to pure natural raw talent and “card sense”.
He won a total of 5 WSOP bracelets, placed first in a total of 10 poker tournaments with a buy-in of $5k or higher. He only ever entered 30 major tournaments. This record still has not been broken, when it comes to pure percentage terms.
Many wonder how he would have fared in today’s poker era, but he did not live to see the day as his drug addiction and general degeneracy got the better of him. He died in 1998.
In his lifetime Stu had won the World Series of Poker and the Super Bowl of Poker three times each and was introduced to the Poker Hall of Fame in 2001, three years after his death.
– Key Career Dates –
- 1980: 1st place $10k WSOP Main Event
- 1981: 1st place $10k WSOP No-Limit Deuce to Seven Draw
- 1981: 1st place $10k WSOP Main Event
- 1983: 1st place $5k WSOP Limit 7-Stud
- 1984: 1st place $10k Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker
- 1988: 1st place $10k Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker
- 1997: 1st place $10k WSOP Main Event
– Stu Ungar’s Career –
→ Beginnings ←
Stuart Errol Ungar was born on 8th September 1953 and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His father owned a bar where he operated as a bookmaker and loan shark. Stu helped out and so got introduced to a lot of “wise guys” and gamblers. His father tried to keep him away from gambling as he had seen the impact it had on some of his customers. But as soon as Stu could he was to be found playing underground Gin Rummy games. He had an incredible feel for numbers. So much so that he skipped 7th grade in school, only to drop out early in 10th grade to play Gin Rummy full time.
After his father died and his mom was hit by a stroke, Stu kept gambling trying to earn money to care for his mother. He got protected by a lot of figures from the world of organized crime.
By 1976 he was regarded one of the best Gin players around. This caused his Gin action to dry up as nobody wanted to play against him anymore. And so he started taking up poker professionally instead.
→ A Professional Gambler ←
In 1977 Stu moved to Las Vegas. He was a gambler through and through and soon got banned from almost all Vegas casinos for card-counting at BlackJack. Apparently he was once bet $100k by Bob Stupak to count the cards down to the last card of a 6-deck shoe. He won the bet.
Stu was considered a high roller by the age of 26 in 1979. This was the year his mother died. Some poker players had already introduced him to cocaine so he could play longer hours, but the death of his mother turned the drug into a vehicle for escapism. It became an addiction, a very public addiction.
He managed to win the 1980 World Series Of Poker Main Event despite of it all. Doyle Brunson said it was the only time he could watch a player improve as the tournament went on. And “the boy genius” then pulled off a back-to-back win in 1981. All this though went to his head and the downward spiral continued. He was a true gambler with the constant need of action and high risk. His big leak, besides cocaine, was horse racing.
→ Family Life ←
His 1982 marriage to Madeline and the birth of his daughter Stefanie could not stop his self-destructive route.
He was known for his temper at the poker tables, insulting other players and staff. His cocaine consumption had caused his nose to collapse and he started wearing his trademark round sunglasses in an attempt to disguise it. He went to get his nose fixed but couldn’t hold off the cocaine long enough so it all got ruined once more.
Madeline filed divorce in 1986 and Stu’s beloved step son commited suicide three years later. Stu started taking even more drugs, he was crushed by the recent events.
In 1990 he failed to show up to Day 3 of the WSOP Main Event and was found in his hotel room with a seizure. He survived, but did not make it back to the tables. As he had amassed such a big chip stack in the days before though, he managed to blind down into the money, coming 9th, cashing for $20,050.
Despite this he could not buy his daughter school clothes and was so ashamed that he vowed to tidy himself up. He still only managed to stay clean for two weeks at a time.
→ The Comeback Kid ←
16 years after his last WSOP Main Event win, in 1997, he was found back at the tables of the WSOP. Billy Baxter had staked him in the last minute, telling him if he saw him away from his chair he was gonna kill him.
Stu carried a picture of his daughter Stefanie in his shirt pocket close to his heart and went on to win the event, earning him the name “The Comeback Kid” and $1M, that he split 50/50 with Baxter. In the ESPN winner interview he said “There’s nobody that ever beat me playing cards. The only one that ever beat me was myself.”
→ An epic Rise and an epic Fall ←
He lost it all again on drugs and sports betting.
He really wanted to defend his title at the WSOP in 1998, but when the day came he was in such bad shape that he decided himself it was less embarrassing not to show up at all.
Apparently he was seen in the following months, asking for money in poker rooms. He said it was to rebuild his bankroll, but instead he spent it on crack. As his nose was in such a bad state that he couldn’t snort cocaine anymore, he had moved on to a drug he could smoke instead.
He was arrested for possession of crack cocaine and his daughter told him she did not want any contact anymore until he had tidied himself up.
He was found dead at the age of 45 in a sleazy hotel room on 22nd November 1998 with $800 in his pocket. The cause of death was heart failure. It did not look like he was on drugs when he died, but years of abuse had taken their toll on his body.
Doyle Brunson was quoted: “Everybody felt terrible, but it wasn’t a surprise.”
And Stu’s long term friend Mike Sexton said “In the game of life, Stu Ungar was a loser.”
→ Media ←
- 1980: Movie “High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story” (2003)
- 1981: Biography “One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar” (2005)
- 1981: Emmy-winning ESPN documentary “One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar” (2006)