Five untold stories about the genius that was Stu Ungar

When it comes to poker legends and the story of their lives, none can match Stu Ungar’s in terms of genius and degeneracy. Born with incredible intelligence and a photographic memory, Ungar was surrounded by gambling from the time he could walk. He won his first Gin Rummy tournament at the age of 10 and was, by all accounts, the best player in the world while still a teenager. He then moved on to poker and before long, he had become the best in the world at that.

“When the cards are dealt, I just want to destroy people” – Stu Ungar

According to Hendon Mob, Stu Ungar cashed in 35 live tournaments in his life and won 16 of them. That’s a 45.7% win-rate with an unbelievable list of results which include three WSOP Main Event titles. The Super Bowl of Poker was the only other major $10,000 Hold’em tournament in the 1980’s and Ungar won that three times too.

Here are five lesser-known stories about the legendary life of Stu Ungar

Ungar wins his first Main Event title in 1980

#1 – Harry Stein and Gin Rummy

“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 play gin better than me” – Stu Ungar

The smallest of poker giants

During his time playing, Stu Ungar quickly cemented his place as easily the greatest Gin Rummy player who ever lived. When he was still a teenager, he was winning so many Gin Rummy tournaments that he had to search far and wide for a willing opponent. Harry “Yonkie” Stein, regarded as one of the best players in America, heard rumours of this talkative, over-confident kid from New York, and came to meet Ungar.

His goal was to teach to teach the brash upstart what world-class Gin Rummy playing looked like, and when he arrived Stein couldn’t believe that the boy stood before him was his opponent. Ungar was so small, he needed a crate placed on his chair to boost his height so he could sit at the table comfortably. If Stein thought the match would be over quickly, he was right. Ungar completely demolished him, beating him 86 games to 0. Stein is said to have retired from Gin Rummy after that day.

#2 – Bob Stupak and the “memory” test

Despite being banned from playing Blackjack anywhere in Las Vegas due to his card counting ability, one day Ungar decided to head over to a casino owned by Bob Stupak to try and talk his way into playing. Stupak knew Ungar and while he didn’t give in to his request to play Blackjack, he offered him a bet. The wager was, that one card at a time from a shuffled deck would be flipped over in front of Ungar and to win the bet, he simply had to know what the final remaining card was.

Stupak no doubt intended it to be a memory test, having heard about Ungar’s abilities. As agreed, the cards were flipped over one after another until just one remained. “It’s the ten of diamonds”, Ungar said. Stupak handed over the $10,000 and became just another in a long list of people who lost thousands of dollars by underestimating Stu Ungar’s brilliance.

Poker’s greatest genius

Mike Sexton, who was a friend of Ungar’s had been watching as the bet was won and later enquired as to how he did it. Ungar claimed he had given every card a number in his head based on suit and rank then calculated the total value of all cards in the deck based on this system. He then added up the value of each card as it was flipped over, before subtracting the total number he reached after 51 cards from the total number given to the deck. The number he was left with allowed him to identify the last card based on the number assigned to its value.

“People would show me a card game that I never played, and two days later I would be better than them. At a card game they’ve been playing for 30 years. I was a freak of nature” – Stu Ungar

Having accepted a $10,000 test of how brilliant his memory was, Stu Ungar decided to win the bet without bothering to remember a single card. Mathematical brilliance was enough to get the job done. 

#3 – The crown thrown away

“There’s no one that ever beat me playing cards, the only one that ever beat me was myself” – Stu Ungar

Having already gone back to back in the WSOP Main Event 1980 and 1981, before winning the Super Bowl of Poker in 1984,1988 and 1989, Ungar had a big chiplead in the Main Event in 1990. The field was down to two or three tables when play was paused for the night. Clearly in the mood for celebrating, he went to his hotel room, snorted lots of cocaine and suffered an overdose. Ungar was taken to hospital and was far too ill to play the Main Event the next day. As the best player in the world lay in hospital, his stack, and chance at a third world title was slowly blinded off the following day. He eventually finished 9th place without ever taking his seat at the table.

Ungar at work during the WSOP

This is the best-known example of Ungar’s bad habits damaging his attempts to win major titles in poker, but it is undoubtedly not the only instance. If he had won in 1990, Ungar would have gone on to become the only man in history to win four, given that he won another Main Event title in 1997.

#4 – Golf betting degeneracy

Having never held a golf club before in his life, Ungar was taught how to play golf by Jack Strauss who took him to a golf course and showed him how to hit the ball on a putting green. Within minutes, Ungar started making bets against him, with the more experienced player choosing to putt from further away.

Dominant on the felt but Ungar lacked self-control away from the table

Strauss kept giving Ungar advantages in distance and even an extra stroke and all the while, the stakes rose. Soon enough, Ungar had lost $78,000 betting on golf within his first hour of playing. His friend Mike Sexton later pointed out that it must be the only time in history anyone has ever lost so much betting on golf within an hour of picking up a club.

“Fold and live to fold again” – Stu Ungar

This story gives a fascinating insight into the contrast between Stu Ungar as a poker player and a prop, or sports bettor. Ruthless shark in one, hopeless whale in the other. Throughout his life, Ungar is estimated to have lost comfortably eight figures from bad habits outside of poker and was especially fond of placing bets on horses.

#5 – The story behind his famous 1997 win

The final years of Stu Ungar’s life were a bittersweet tragedy well known in the poker world. Having turned up at Binion’s Casino in 1997 hoping for backers to pay his entry into the WSOP Main Event, Ungar initially got nothing except pitying looks from other players due to his dishevelled appearance and obvious poor state of health. Long-time friend Billy Baxter finally decided to help him out, never expecting to see any return on the $10,000 he bought Ungar in for.

Baxter paid his buy in and kept watch over him during the first day, making sure he was drinking coffee as Ungar had nearly fallen asleep at the table during the first day. Each day after playing, he kept himself away from drugs and came back the next day looking sharper and stronger. His ascent through the chip counts was unstoppable and he was soon cruising towards his third title.

After the final card had hit the felt and he had risen from his chair as champion, Ungar revealed in a post-match interview that he had promised his daughter he would win a third title for her. He had been phoning her at the end of each day to tell her his chip counts and had kept a picture of her in his pocket throughout. While Ungar was able to win another poker world title for his daughter, he could not win his battle with drugs, relapsing every time he attempted to clean up his life.

Stu Ungar three time WSOP ME winner
Ungar won the Main Event for a third time in 1997

Ungar’s 50% share of the prize money was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to him while so vulnerable to his inner impulses. The money went through his fingers fast, like it always had. He declined to defend his title the following year saying he felt too unwell and died a few months later in a cheap motel in Las Vegas. They found just a few hundred dollars in his pocket, which was all that remained of his prize money.

Despite the fight he lost, there is a great deal to admire about the fights Ungar won. The same can be said of the fascinating chapters of wild, reckless genius his life has added to the tapestry of our game.

“It’s hard work. Gambling. Playing poker. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Think about what it’s like sitting at a poker table with people whose only goal is to cut your throat, take your money, and leave you out back talking to yourself about what went wrong inside” – Stu Ungar

More: The day that Stu Ungar won his third WSOP Main Event

Article by Craig Bradshaw