Stu Ungar – The Tortuous Story of Poker’s Sharpest Mind
November 22, 2018
It’s 20 years to the day since Stu Ungar died. This is the brutal and sorrowful story of his life.
The smoke in the room began to dissipate and the onlookers sitting a matter of yards away from the action, who’d sat so unwearyingly for hours, were twitchy. Stu Ungar, the playboy of 1980’s poker, had his man in all sorts of trouble.
Sitting with Ace, Queen against his opponent Perry Green’s 9, 10, Ungar edged his low-stacked adversary to the corner until he had no choice but to relent and go all-in. Green knew the game was up, and by losing to Ungar, he knew the taste of defeat would be a bitter one.
Ungar was loathed by his fellow professionals. Despite having the sharpest mind in the history of poker, the New York native was considered one of the ‘most obnoxious to have ever played the game’. “He was someone who would like to stick it in your liver,” said the legendary bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro. Ungar would not just finish off his enemies, he’d slaughter them.
The flop came – a 7. An 8 on the turn. A Queen on the river. Green threw his arms in the air, stood up from the table, and gave his opponent a strong, acknowledging handshake. It was over. Ungar was the World Series of Poker champion for the second time in a row. In celebration, he barely blinked.
A Dark Beginning
“I never want to be called a ‘good loser.’ Show me a good loser and I’ll just show you a loser.” – Stu Ungar
Stu Ungar was destined for a life at the felt table. Growing up in Manhattan’s east side, Ungar grew up with full exposure to the world of gambling, running the accounts for his millionaire father’s illegal gambling house and loan shark business. He began at the age of 7; his sharp, analytical brain was obvious not long after he shed his nappies.
At school, the same was quickly observed. Some teachers suggested he was a genius. At the beginning of 7th grade his teachers progressed him straight to 8th, but two years later, not long after his father died, he dropped out.
His father hated him gambling, but now that presence was out of his life, that’s all Ungar wanted to do. From the age of 10, Ungar was an excellent gin rummy player, and by the age of 13, he was considered one of the best in New York.
Once his Dad passed, Ungar concentrated his around-the-clock efforts on gin, winning tournaments in the underworld of New York to help support his bereaved mother and sister. He was almost always accompanied by a large entourage in which he controlled, and a well-known mobster called Victor Romano.
Romano knew of Ungar through his father’s gambling house and was drawn in by the teenager’s mesmerising, mathematical mind. Romano quickly went about replacing Ungar’s father’s guiding presence teaching him the ways of the underworld and the ways of poker, and with Ungar’s growing arrogance, confidence and skill; Romano saw the perfect opportunity for him in the game which would soon take America by storm.
The World Series of Poker
“Some day, 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
Stu Ungar’s first trip to Las Vegas came in 1977. By this time, Ungar was 24 and had been gambling for more than 14 years of his life. Initially, Ungar would go around playing gin, but after being banned from almost every Vegas casino for winning too often, he switched focus to poker.
At this point, the world of poker was really starting to bubble. Though the game had been around for well over a century, only now was it coming the fore. The World Series of Poker had been running for seven years by now and the prize money for first place had grown from $30,000 to $340,000 and the entrants had multiplied by over 10. Poker was in-vogue and the winners were in the money.
After three years of honing his craft in the belly of the beast, Ungar upped the stakes in 1980 and entered his first World Series of Poker for the price of $10,000. He won the lot, earning the nickname, ‘The Kid’ in the process due to his boyish, youthful looks and wiry, 5ft 5 frame.
The next year, he won again, though his title defence very nearly didn’t happen.
“Playing, snorting. No one could keep up with him.” – Bob Stupak
Poker isn’t for the impatient; a single game when played tactically can span over tens of hours. In 2008, the final WSOP table lasted 484 hands which totalled up to 22-hours including breaks – the players were at the table for 19 and a half hours all in.
These days though, poker players train like athletes and keep themselves in top shape with rigorous training regimes and disciplined, healthy diets so as to remain fully concentrated and alert. In the 1980’s, players just used cocaine.
Ungar started taking coke a year before his first WSOP victory in 1980, but though he started his habit to initially aid him through marathon poker sessions in and out of competition, his recreational use soon turned into addiction and abuse.
The effect when on cocaine is quite incredible, and a line of pure, Colombian cocaine, which would have been swirling around the streets of Las Vegas in the late 70’s, early 80’s would have left its users feeling like they’re in another galaxy and given them a feeling of implausible superiority. For an already brash and arrogant man like Stu Ungar, the effects would have been monumental.
“Stuey would talk very bad to people, he’d call them names, he’d get right up in their face, he’d threaten them. He did a lot of things that disrespected the game,” said two-time WSOP winner Doyle Brunson.
“I remember he spat on a card one time, and told the dealer “I’m out dealer, I’m out.”
Just before the WSOP in 1981, Ungar was very nearly denied the chance to defend his title after he spat at a dealer and cursed at her. His cocaine use was not only making him intolerable, but confrontational and downright nasty – he couldn’t handle adversity. The dealer became so angry she tried to quit her job just so she could beat him up.
Ungar was initially excluded from the tournament by the owner of the host venue but following an intervention from the owner’s son, ‘The Kid’ was reinstated.
However, his 1981 victory would be the beginning of an almighty downfall.
A World Crumbles
“See, life is a people game, too. Only the emphasis is just a little bit different.” – Stu Ungar
Ungar picked up a check of $350,000 for winning the 1981 World Series of Poker, but it wasn’t the money that changed him, it was that he thought he was invincible. Ungar had become a rock star of the poker scene, his sweet innocent face had people fawning. Poker was a game played by old, overweight slobs or bald, geeky men, not by good-looking, 20-something fashionistas. Coupled in with the fact he’d only entered the world’s most prestigious poker tournament twice and won it both times, his success went straight to his head. The Kid’s sweet innocence had disappeared.
Ungar soon became a true gambling addict. He loved gambling before, but prior to ’81 he only wagered on games which relied on his skill and wit. Now he thought he could win on anything. He’d play pool for $5k a game despite never having played before, he’d bet on horses daily despite no knowledge of the field, he’d spend hours in the sportsbook despite not liking sports. Ungar would regularly lose $70k and $80k in a session. But he didn’t care about losing.
“The problem with Stuey was, he never understood the object of the game in terms of being a professional gambler,” said poker broadcaster, Mike Sexton.
“The object, of course, is to increase your bankroll and to provide for your family.”
Money had become no object to him. He owned several cars, but never drove them. “Stuey spent what most people make in a year on cab fares,” said Sexton. A man once asked him for some money in the street, he gave him a $100, “Who was that?” he was asked. “I don’t know. If I knew his name I’d have given him $200!” he quipped. When applying for a passport which he needed for the following week the passport office told him he needs to pay a few extra dollars to get it processed in time. So Ungar pulled out a roll of $100 bills, “That’s what Stu thought the guy meant by a few extra dollars,” said hotel-casino owner Bob Stupak. He once noticed his attorney looking down, so he gave him $10k. “Pay me back when you can,” Ungar told him. “If you can’t pay me, then I don’t care.”
At heart, Ungar was a generous man. But the cocaine had changed him and was continuing to change him; not just mentally, but physically too. Ungar regularly was banging $100 rocks and regularly spending over $1k a day on his habit, and it got to the point where the bridge of his nose collapsed not once, but twice. Soon after, his life started to unravel.
In ’86 his wife divorced him after four years of marriage – unable to keep up with his erratic ways – and in 1989, his son, Richie, committed suicide at the age of just 18.
“He was just not the same after that, that really hurt him. Because he loved that boy,” said Ungar’s attorney.
“I will not show any tears in public. I cried myself to sleep when my son committed suicide. I never show any fear or anything under any circumstances. If you put a gun to my head, I wouldn’t bat an eyelash,” Ungar later said.
Ungar blamed himself for his son’s death, for not being around enough, for not loving his son like Richie loved his Dad. For being too hard on him, for not treating him with respect.
Ungar soon became a recluse, but somehow he still found the energy to play in poker’s second most prestigious tournament the Super Bowl of Poker the following year. He finished 3rd.
Later that year his drug problem escalated to a point that he was found unconscious from an overdose on his hotel room floor halfway through the 1990 World Series of Poker. Ungar didn’t return to the table, but at that point in the event he had such a chip lead that even when the dealers kept taking his blinds out, Ungar still finished ninth.
But it wasn’t long before all the plates he was attempting to spin soon came crashing down. He entered the ’91 series of poker and finished 13th, but he was rarely seen again after that, and the millions he had won had all gone.
“I took my daughter to the galleria mall the other day,” he said in ’96. “She started looking at price tags because I didn’t have money. And I said to myself, “What did I do?” I have the most the beautiful girl in the world, I mean a gem. And she’s gotta look at price tags after the money that went through my hands and I’ve just given away and just…millions you know, just disgraceful and I felt so far bad for her and she said, “What are you worried about Daddy? It’s okay.” It was so humiliating to me.”
The Comeback Kid
“When the cards are dealt, I just want to destroy people.” – Stu Ungar
In ’97 he came back. At the time he was living in a homeless refuge with not a cent to his name. He approached his old friend, poker hall of famer Billy Baxter who leant him $10k for entry on the condition that he’d stay sober.
On the first day he turned up as high as a kite. But wearing a pair of round, blue-tinted sunglasses to hide the fact that his nostrils had collapsed, he sailed through with ease despite falling asleep at the table having spent the previous 24-hours trying to raise or borrow money for entry.
Ungar looked like a homeless man, but everyone at the event was behind him. He’d not won the competition since ’81, he’d not participated in the tournament since ’92. But he was a legend. The ESPN coverage nicknamed him ‘The Comeback Kid’.
On the second day, Ungar came out firing in the aggressive, fast-paced fashion that made him so famous. He was blowing people away. By the time he got to the final table he had double the chips of his nearest competitor, and then went about picking off his rivals one by one. He might as well have had a gun because his opponents were wilting in the same manner.
With all the pressure on his shoulders, after everything he’d been through, he became WSOP champion for the third time with ease. He won without breaking sweat, without blinking an eye.
This looked like it could be the turning point in Ungar’s life that he so desperately needed. It was a classic rags to riches story, a beautiful moment. Ungar had gone from being homeless to becoming a millionaire overnight.
But there would be no fairytale ending. Ungar knew nothing else but to self-harm and blew the money away on drugs and gambling in less than four months.
By the time the next WSOP came around, he was again asking for money. Baxter again leant him it, but five minutes before he was due to start, he turned to Baxter and said, “Billy, I’m too tired to play.” That was that. There was no winning him around.
Five months later he was arrested for possession of crack cocaine and the next month he was found dead at the dingy Oasis Motel, known for prostitution and drugs, on the outskirts of Las Vegas. A few weeks before his death his daughter rang him to tell him she never wanted to see him again.
Stu Ungar died on November 22nd, 1998 at the age of 45.
Heartbroken and alone.
The Misunderstood Genius
“Fold and live to fold again.” – Stu Ungar
Stu Ungar was a misunderstood genius. Despite being called ‘the most obnoxious man in poker’, Ungar was warm-hearted and generous, but fragile, vulnerable and, in the end, a broken man. His upbringing in the dark underworld of New York mixing with some of the city’s worst men couldn’t have been easy, and losing his father who attempted to guide him through that torturous place at 13 would’ve left scars that never would heal.
Ungar was an emotionless man. The only emotion he’d ever show was anger, that’s what made him such a terrifyingly magnificent poker player, but away from the table it would eat him up inside. He wanted to be Mr Cool, but after everything he’d been through, he needed an outlet to vent his frustration.
Gambling was initially his only outlet, but soon after his mother’s death, cocaine shared the load. Gambling would pre-occupy his mind, cocaine would mask the pain. The coke wasn’t just to keep him awake during tournaments, it was used to numb the agony.
But gambling wasn’t just his outlet, it was his life, and though he was a genius with a prodigy-level IQ and total recall, he had no street smarts, no life skills. He once bought a brand-new Mercedes and took it back a year later after he burnt out the engine. The mechanic observed the car, and told him the oil sump was empty, “Why the hell didn’t they tell me you had to put oil in the car?” Ungar hissed.
Gambling can be a horrible world to fall into and get lost in. It’s a world full of macho characters and a world lacking in any emotion except anger or tranquillity. But Ungar didn’t fall into the world of gambling. He was born in it. He didn’t know anything else, he didn’t have any other life. For all his intellectual intelligence, Stu Ungar had no emotional intelligence. He couldn’t build relationships, he didn’t know how to deal with them. His family breakdown was an inevitable result of his upbringing, so were his erratic displays at the poker table and his years of cocaine abuse.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, but without his upbringing, would Stu Ungar have become the most incredible poker player of all time? Without years of running his Dad’s accounts, without years of playing gin rummy from the age of 7, would he have developed such a fantastically sharp mind?
The answer is almost certainly no, but would he have traded all that in for a life of routine and the mundane?
It’s heartbreaking that we can’t just ask The Kid.