Stu Ungar: Brilliant but Tragic

Poker ChampionThere are so many brilliant people on this Earth that could have achieved greater heights had they not died young. Most of them could have attained even greater things had they not stumbled into the world of drugs and alcohol. Stu Ungar, the greatest poker player of all time, was one of these brilliant people.

Born Stuart Errol Ungar on September 8, 1953, to Jewish parents in New York City, Stu Ungar grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Unfortunately for his father, Isadore, but fortunately for the poker world, Stu Ungar was exposed to the gambling world at an early age. He became a champion gin rummy player at the age of 10. At 14, Stu Ungar was one of the youngest, if not the best, gin rummy player in all of New York. He was to become a fixture in the New York gambling scene until he was 18, during which time he left for Miami, Florida, to escape his gambling debts. In fact, he was losing more money than he was earning because of his very generous ways, his inveterate need for high-stakes gambling, and his emerging addictions.

Stu Ungar later moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, when his gin action dried up in Miami. This was primarily brought about by his incomparable skills in gin rummy, his assassin-like style of playing, his supreme self-confidence and sadistic enjoyment in seeing his opponents totally crushed, and his prodigious memory for a deck of cards. He was also exceptionally bad-tempered and foul-mouthed even in a time when dealer abuse and loser violence were common. These traits did not endear him to other gin rummy players, as well they should. Indeed, it would seem that with Stu Ungar, genius and modesty are like oil and water—absolutely unmixable.

When he also demolished the gin rummy competition in Las Vegas, he decided to try his marvelous hands at blackjack. Here too Stu Ungar displayed his outstandingly brilliant skills and photographic memory. He could remember and recite every card in a six-deck blackjack shoe! Stu Ungar was proving himself a card genius, something which seemed totally unacceptable to casinos and gamblers. His phenomenal card-counting abilities would later lead to accusations of cheating, enormous sums of money spent on litigation, and an eventual lifetime ban from all blackjack tables in Las Vegas casinos and just about any gambling establishment. Indeed, the gambling world is a small place, and reputations often precede the player himself. Two good things did come from Las Vegas: Stu Ungar developed a lasting friendship with Bob Stupak, who would later bail him out of yet another financial trouble; and he met his wife, Madeleine, in that gambling city.

A poker aficionado will most definitely agree that Stu Ungar is the greatest poker player of all time, regardless of his tumultuous personal life. When he was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2001, Stu Ungar won five World Series of Poker gold bracelets. He won in the WSOP $10,000 No Limit Hold'em World Championship in 1980 and 1981 taking home $365,000 and $375,000 respectively, the WSOP $10,000 Deuce to Seven Draw in 1981 for $95,000, the WSOP $5,000 Seven Card Stud in 1983 with total winnings of $110,000, and the 1997 WSOP $10,000 No Limit Hold'em World Championship for which Stu Ungar came away with $1 million dollars.

In addition to his wins at the WSOP, Stu Ungar also won three main event titles at the then-second largest poker tournament, the Amarillo Slim Super Bowl of Poker. He is the only poker player to have won both the WSOP and the Super Bowl main event titles three times, a feat that a poker player of today with less-than-stellar poker strategies would be very hard pressed to accomplish.

I daresay that not even Phil Hellmuth could do what Stu Ungar accomplished in his short time in the poker table and on Earth. But the professional poker career of Stu Ungar was punctuated and interrupted with periods of poker oblivion, drug addiction, derelict poverty, and a stormy personal life. Imagine the even greater things he could accomplish as a poker player with killer poker strategies had he behaved otherwise. Then again, genius always exacted a price, a price that can lead to an early death.

The poker strategies of Stu Ungar were partly based on his brilliant card-reading abilities. One time, he was up against Mansour Matloubi who tried to bluff him all-in for $32,000. Stu Ungar was undeterred; he told Maltoubi what hand Maltoubi possessed and called him on it. Stu won the pot and beat Maltoubi, but what is amazing is that Maltoubi was holding exactly what Stu Ungar told him he was holding. Of course, it would be grossly untrue if I am to say that Stu Ungar was nothing but an outstanding card reader. That would reduce him to the ranks of the tarot card readers, resorting to guesswork about the future. The genius of Stu Ungar lies in his killer instincts, the ruthless desire to never become a good loser. His poker strategies were almost flawless, his play possessed a no-mercy, no-nonsense attitude, and he combined poker artistry with intense focus and the lust for poker blood.

There are many stories about Stu Ungar and his abilities as a poker player. Unfortunately, these have been overshadowed by the aforementioned attitude and behavioral problems. He abused others much as he abused himself. With his cocaine and drug addiction, plus his high-stakes gambling, he would suffer through alternating periods of wealth and poverty, divorce and his adopted son’s suicide. He finally died almost penniless in a hotel room from a heart attack caused by his lifestyle and by the accidental mix of cocaine and painkillers. Sadly, the story of the greatest poker player ends tragically.