/ June 2006:
greatest gambler who ever lived
He captured the greatest prize in poker twice before he was 30. Then he spiralled into a maelstrom of self-destruction, but before he shuffled off this mortal coil, he made one last stab at glory and made sure nobody would ever forget 'The Kid' Stu Ungar.
Story by Bradford R. Pilcher | Illustration by Fred
It was November 22, 1998, when a Jew from New York turned up dead in a two bit Vegas motel usually used for quickie shtups by hookers and philanderers. Nobody knows what this guy used his room for, but plenty of guesses abound, and they run closer to illicit substances than illicit lust, though no drugs were found when the cops and coronor arrived. Whatever he was doing, he ended up face down on the slightly musty bed with $882 in his pockets.
Eight hundred eighty-two portraits of George Washington were all the 45-year-old Stu Ungar had in the world.
Just a few days earlier, Ungar had been fronted $10,000 in "walking around money." What he spent it on is uncertain, though pretty easy to hypothesize. It most certainly was not steak dinners. A diminutive figure at 5'5", Ungar had always looked about half his age it's how he got his nickname, "The Kid" and in the months leading up to his death he'd wasted away from his normally scrawny figure to a gaunt sub-one hundred pound weight.
Even more unbelievable, perhaps, was that Ungar had made millions on high-stakes poker and gin games, raking in one of the highest winning percentages in gambling history. Every penny of it was blown on drugs and the reckless gambling they led to.
Two days before he stopped breathing, he'd checked into the Oasis Motel paying cash for a one-night stay. He extended it an extra day with a hundred dollar bill slipped to the manager. This was after an employee had found him similarly face down and convulsing the morning he should've been checking out. What might have prompted some to call for an ambulance or at least a cop car was overlooked. Ungar asked his hosts to shut the window on their way out.
"I'm cold," he said. The window, however, was already shut tight.
Those may not have been the last words of "Stuey the Kid," but they were probably the last ones he ever said to another human being. Sometime in the ensuing 24 hours, the boy king of high-stakes gambling climbed back onto the ratty mattress and died.
His heart, according to the official report, simply gave up its fight against a lifetime of cocaine, booze, and God knows what other garbage. His arteries had hardened and refused to let any more blood pump through him. Drugs were in his system probably where he'd spent the rest of the ten grand but the coroner concluded that Ungar's death was accidental, not the result of an overdose.
If one binge didn't kill him, then it could at least be argued that the man who looked like a boy and gambled like a giant certainly overdosed. It was just a longer trip, and it wasn't just drugs that did him in. The son of a bookie who owned a bar for patrons of ill repute, Stuey was born into the underworld. He went to the Catskills for the holidays, like other Jewish kids and their parents in the 1950s, but he picked up gin rummy and the thrill of the cards instead of Borscht Belt jokes. Back home on the Lower East Side, he helped his old man "figure out what the parlays paid at Belmont."
Blow and methadone weren't the only things in Ungar's system when he died. The ultimate vice ran through his veins, the unquenchable thirst for what poker pros call the rush the exhilaration of winning, the thrill of a lucky run and in all too brief an existence it did him in more brutally than any coke binge ever could.
There was a time when the drive to win, the hyper-aggressive uber-talent that was Stu Ungar, looked like it would light the poker world for years to come. That such a supernova might burn out so quickly and so dramatically didn't occur to the onlookers at Benny Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas in the spring of 1980. The tenth installment of the World Series of Poker, what has become the signature event for professional card players, was winding down. Seventy-three entrants along with their $10,000 buy-ins had been whittled to just two.
Jay Heimowitz, a Jewish amateur who'd collected ten thousand greenbacks in his Army barrack poker games all before his 21st birthday and turned his winnings into a profitable beer distribution company, had been busted out in third place. All that remained was a heads-up showdown between Ungar, a then 26-year-old featherweight, and 46-year-old Doyle Brunson, otherwise known as Texas Dolly and a heavyweight by any measure of the term.
The juxtaposition of these two men had to seem a little bizarre, even in a world where oddities and personalities of a, how shall we say, colorful sort abound. Yet there they were, Stuey "The Kid" and Texas Dolly facing off for the biggest cut of a prize pool that neared three-quarters of a million dollars. Ungar was a bean pole and ghostly pale he might've tipped the scales into the triple digits, but just barely and even at 26 looked more like a high school freshman than a grown man. His arms didn't seem any thicker than the stacks of chips arrayed in front of him. Ungar had also never played a major poker tournament, instead cleaning up at his native game, gin rummy, and getting himself banned from every blackjack table in town due to his computer-like card counting abilities.
Texas Dolly, on the other hand, was a battle-hardened veteran of high-stakes poker. Having played the illegal cash game circuit in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana since the mid-1950s before settling in Vegas, Brunson had already won two World Series of Poker titles. He was also considerably older, not just in years, but also in appearance and demeanor.
Heavyset and balding, Brunson sometimes required a crutch due to an accident back in Texas that sent a load of sheetrock crashing into his leg, breaking it in two places. He was only in his mid-forties, but he could've passed for fifty, and as opposed to the less than loquacious Ungar, Brunson was educated and fairly articulate, having paid his way through graduate school with poker winnings.
In his lifetime, Texas Dolly had probably gambled as much as Ungar, but Ungar's lifetime was much shorter and he was far more reckless than the legendary Brunson. The two couldn't have been more different, and seeing them perched across the green felt, facing off for a $365,000 top prize could only be described as surreal.
Brunson had laid 100-to-1 odds against the upstart gin player. He had, after all, only gotten into the tournament because another poker pro and Benny Binion's son Jack had been willing to stake his buy-in, so the odds weren't entirely unjustified. For Ungar though, the long odds from the guy he was now facing provided just enough goading to his ego. Later on, Ungar claimed he could only play people if he could find something to hate about them, even if it's as trivial as their height. Brunson had given the kid just the reason he needed to wipe the felt with him.
Problem was, at a critical hand the neophyte New Yorker had a measly 5-4 of spades against Texas Dolly's two pair, aces and sevens. What happened next is what makes poker so thrilling, because Ungar was about to get lucky three times over.
First, Brunson made a too-small bet with his two pair, allowing Ungar to call with only one chance to win he'd need a three to join the ace and a two already face-up on the table, giving him a five-high straight. Brunson's mistake was Ungar's lucky break number one, and number two came when the next community card was turned up, revealing a beautiful red three of hearts.
From a four-to-one underdog, Ungar had become a nine-to-one favorite. His final stroke of luck came when Brunson pushed all his chips into the pot against Ungar's nuts poker slang for the best hand possible.
The kid who'd found cards in the Catskills quickly called the bet. When a harmless two came down on the river, Ungar had beaten poker royalty in the granddaddy of all poker games, becoming the youngest player at the time to do so.
As with all heads-up matches, the crowd of onlookers probably held their breath in collective silence as the cards were turned up and the winner was crowned. The stunning quality of Ungar's victory over the established champion probably caused them to hold their silence that much longer, but did any of them realize what they had just witnessed?
The win in 1980 was both a long way and just around the corner from where Ungar started out. At age 13, when he probably looked about six or seven-years-old, Stu's father Isador had a heart attack and left his wife a widow and his son half-way to orphanhood. Isador did this while in the arms of his mistress, which must've been doubly insulting to Stu's mother, who one year later had a stroke that eventually landed her in a nursing home.
He'd skipped from sixth to eighth grade and was in tenth when his mother's brain blew a circuit, but at the ripe old age of 14, Stuey dropped out and became the breadwinner for his ill mother and older sister. They say a Jewish boy becomes a man when he becomes a bar mitzvah, but the fact that "The Kid" was technically already a man didn't provide much comfort.
"I was never a kid," Ungar said in an interview a few months before he checked into a motel to die. "I got a job dealing poker in a goulash joint on Ninth Street between Second and Third Avenues."
The pay could've been better, but Stu made his bank in other ways. Barely a teenager, he hustled like a seasoned shark. His best routine was standing on the edges of underground gin games, almost all of them high-stakes affairs. A partner at the table would eventually claim exhaustion and offer his "cousin" Stuey as a fill-in. Seeing a child, the other gamblers were more than welcome to oblige, to their eventual chagrin.
In this manner, Ungar cleaned up against guys politely referred to as "Leo the Jap" or "Bronx Express." It was a game against "Yonkie," a.k.a. Harry Stein, that finally dried up Stu's gin competition. A Canadian import, he was called in expressly for the purpose of busting Ungar. Twenty-seven games of Hollywood (a variation of gin) later and the teenage hustler had relieved Yonkie of $10,000 and sent him back across the border.
"You have to understand that $10,000 was a lot of money back in the 60s," recalled Ungar years later about his winnings against the Canadian. He promptly blew them at the racetrack, which fit quite nicely with his M.O.
One Thanksgiving weekend, he had just wrapped up a two-week rush that had netted him a cool million in earnings. The card table had been good to him, but as fellow poker pro Walter "Puggy" Pearson once said about Stuey, "because he's so good at certain things, he thinks he should be good at everything." Since he was cleaning up at poker, why wouldn't he clean up betting on the weekend's gridiron match-ups?
"I was betting $100,000, $150,000 a game," Ungar said of the memorable betting binge during that interview shortly before his death. "That was nothing to me. I had no sense of the value of the money."
By the final seconds of Monday Night Football, the million in cash had become a debt of $800,000. One weekend and Ungar had racked up the kind of loss that would make any other man as dead as the presidents on the dollars he'd just blown. For Stuey, the money probably didn't matter as much as the fact that he'd lost.
Money was just the tool of his particular trade, and Ungar traded plenty. He was an atrocious golf player, so much so that he was often allowed to tee up every single shot, a huge advantage. Pearson swears he once saw Stu tee up the ball in a lake. He still lost, once to the tune of about eighty grand in a game against Jack "Treetop" Straus another Jewish world champion who earned his nickname for his decidedly un-tribe-like 6'6" frame and all this was before making it off the practice green.
The golf course wasn't the only black hole into which Ungar would toss his money. "I once played ping-pong for $50,000 against some Chinaman in Tahoe," he boasted. "I'm an action freak. I'd bet on a cockroach race."
When he wasn't gambling his money away, he was tossing it around on bar tabs and women. He managed to demolish five Jaguars and a Benz on the streets of Las Vegas too. Perhaps the best story comes by way of Mike Sexton, currently a commentator for the World Poker Tour and once a friend and bar buddy of Ungar.
As Sexton tells it, he and Ungar were in Palm Springs, California, for a golf outing with another couple friends. The four of them went to dinner at an upscale joint that was recommended to them, but upon arriving found the place packed like a sardine can. When the maitre d' asked for a reservation, the group of gamblers had to inform him they had none.
"I'm sorry, but I won't be able to seat you without a reservation," the well-dressed host informed the group.
As his three buddies turned towards the door, Stuey stepped around to the side of the maitre d' and pushed a single bill into the man's hand. "Ungar always let Benjamin Franklin make his reservations," Sexton has written.
"We'll be at the bar," said the kid who probably looked like he'd just picked up his driver's license.
If only the story ended there, it would serve as a fine example of Ungar's hubris and willingness to part with cash as easily as he could win it. But Ungar was more than a gambling addict; this was a man with a few thousand poker chips on his shoulder.
The foursome clawed their way through a pickpocket's paradise and finally made their way to the bar. Lining up to make their drink orders, it came down to Stu and a rum and Coke. The bartender, however, wanted proof that this pip squeak wasn't underage. "I.D. please," was his response.
"What are you talking about," the card player screamed loud enough for half the restaurant to hear. "I'm 35-years-old!"
Absent I.D., the bartender was not impressed so Ungar resorted to his universal standby lots and lots of currency. His skeletal arms disappeared into his pants pockets, quickly to reappear with two neatly rolled stacks of $10,000 apiece. Slamming them, double-fisted, onto the worn wood of the bar, Stu presented them as all the I.D. he needed.
"Do you think any teenager would be carrying around that kind of money," he asked the bartender, who thought it over for a second before pouring him the drink without further protest. The child lookalike didn't have long to drink it, however, as the maitre d' showed up just a few seconds later with an open table.
Not exactly a Jewish mother's dream, but if Ungar could've simply held onto his winnings, he'd have been richer than any doctor or lawyer, if not as reputable.
Though it's hard to imagine, there was another love in Stu's life two of them, in fact. Back in New York, while he was still just a teenager and still pocketing gin players' cash in local dive bars, he met a blonde cocktail waitress named Madeline Wheeler. Sexy as they come, Madeline's come-hither qualities proved almost as alluring to the young hustler as the rush of gambling. It took Ungar a year to land his first date, which could be considered record time for a suitor who looked the part of a child in his dad's gaudy polyester. It was his charm that ultimately got Madeline to go out with him.
"I knew what I was getting into," she told the New York Times last year as the newspaper covered the 2005 World Series. "I knew it was always going to be the cards."
Indeed their relationship was a rocky one, but Ms. Wheeler followed Stu out to Vegas anyway, and a year after he won the world championship for a second time in 1981, she became Mrs. Ungar. Now a husband and step-father Madeline had a son from a previous marriage when she was 18 Ungar's lifestyle never quite adjusted. The relationship stayed rocky.
Disappearing for days at a time to burn cash, snort crack, and woo other women, Ungar couldn't bring himself to settle down. His day-to-day affairs would have seemed just the other side of peculiar to an average person. Grocery shopping took place at the 7-Eleven near the Tudor house he purchased with his poker winnings. Foregoing things like a mortgage and calculating interest rates, Stuey instead bought everything with cash.
"Basically, you needed to take care of him," Madeline said shortly after Ungar's untimely demise. "Everything about Stuey, with the exception of the tables, had to be looked after. You needed to take care of him from head to toe. It was like bringing up another child at times."
Bob Stupak, a casino owner and Ungar's friend and last financier once recounted a story about the poker pro's naivetι away from the casinos.
"In 1980, Stu got invited to Ireland to play in a poker tournament but did not have a passport," Stupak told the Las Vegas Sun. "He went to get one and was told it would take a while to process. Stu asked if there was a way to get it quicker, and the clerk said for 'a few extra dollars' it could be ready in a couple of days."
What Ungar didn't understand was that the clerk had referred to a processing fee, not a bribe. He quietly slipped three hundred-dollar bills to the clerk. "That's what Stu thought the guy meant by a few extra dollars," said Stupak.
Not long after their wedding, Stu became father to Stefanie when Madeline gave birth to their one and only child together. Fatherhood didn't mellow him; his antics eventually led to divorce and periods of estrangement from his daughter, who lived with her mother in Florida from 1989 until 1997. Nevertheless, many of his friends have said multiple times that if Ungar survived as long as he did, it was because of his love for Stefanie and his determination to see her grow up.
He wasn't entirely unsuccessful in connecting with his daughter.
"A lot of people knew my dad only as a great poker player. But he also was a generous man who did not have a mean bone in his body. He was funny and he was the gentlest man I knew," Stefanie said after his death, only a high school sophomore at the time.
She recalls that he would call her "20 times a day" to check up on her. "My dad would ask me things like are you eating? If I said no, he would say he was coming over to take me out to eat. If I needed something, he'd give me his last $200 without me knowing it was all he had. Then he would walk around broke for days."
Stefanie also faced Stu's innocent streak. On a visit to see her father in the early 90s, she discovered a letter he had received. It was an invitation from then-president George Bush to visit the White House. As one of the greatest poker champions of the day, even the leader of the free world was willing to take some time out for Stu. He purposefully ignored the invitation.
"I said, 'Dad, you know how rare it is to get an invitation to the White House?' He said: 'What am I going to talk to the president about? We have nothing in common.' Dad said he wouldn't even know which fork to use at dinner."
The love for a daughter and the love of a daughter, perhaps this is what kept Ungar going for all those years, but it couldn't save him. His family may have loved him enough to forgive his trespasses, but his home was the casinos and gambling halls of Vegas.
An ex-wife and daughter weren't the only family Stuey had. The insider quality of the poker world makes for a kind of extended family, and by and large, that family takes care of its own. Nevertheless, Ungar's poker family weren't able to save him either, as he withered into a ghost in the Vegas card rooms. Occasionally showing up to play but usually losing and hitting up old friends for loans they knew he could never repay, he simply was too far gone.
This was the environment into which Ungar showed up to pester Billy Baxter, a fellow poker compatriot, in 1997. Looking for a friend to buy him into the World Series of Poker, Ungar's virtual pariah status made the job especially difficult. Baxter initially rebuffed the former champion. It had, after all, been a decade and a half since Ungar had won his back-to-back titles and almost a decade since he'd made any kind of serious run at the final table. That was a ninth-place finish in 1990 a story in itself when Ungar overdosed in the middle of the tournament. Unconscious in the hospital, his massive chip advantage allowed him to finish in the top ten as the dealer folded away his blinds every hand. Baxter had backed Stuey that year too and swore never to do it again.
"I was playing Lowball [a variant of poker] at the time," Baxter remembered it during an interview at the '98 series, recounting how Ungar refused to stop pestering him. "I must have been winning, because a day later I put up the entry fee."
Ungar did not look the part of a high-stakes poker champion, even less so than he had when he showed up in 1980 looking like a middle school reject. Two decades of cocaine up his nostrils had literally worn away his nasal membranes. His nose had recessed into a tiny pug, on which he now perched a pair of blue shades in a vain attempt to mask the damage. As opposed to looking half his age, the self-abuse made him look every bit the washed-up 40-something he was.
What had brought him from the lowest depths to that particular poker championship was a mixture of broken pride and police intervention. Having been busted twice, on one occasion for trespassing and again for possession of drug paraphernalia, he was required to remain clean or head for the lock-up. Seeing just clear enough to notice the whispers of how he was a washed-up castaway damaged his ego that much further, mainly because he knew they were mostly right.
"It got to me real bad," he said of the lead-up to his '97 appearance. "My pride was hurt."
So there he was sitting politely at the table when he and 311 other competitors heard the words, "Shuffle up and deal." It must've seemed a tragic farce, if not an entirely sickening display of desperation, or hubris, or both. By day two, however, Ungar was storming up the leader board, raking in the chips off amateurs and pros alike. The press dubbed him "The Comeback Kid," an extended version of his traditional moniker.
"If they wanted to do a clinic on no-limit Hold 'Em, they would have filmed me from day one to the final hand," beamed a restored Ungar after the tournament. "You can't play more perfect than I played. I was reborn."
Reborn, yes. Whether he played perfectly is debatable, but nobody can dispute that Ungar's aggressive brilliance was on display as if he'd never spent twenty years on the downslide. Sexton called it possibly the greatest performance ever in the event.
By the last day, Ungar out chipped his nearest opponent by more than $300,000. Throughout those four days, he kept his daughter's photo in his shirt pocket and would regularly phone her during breaks. "He would tell me there are only 18 players left, then six left and so on," Stefanie remembers. While he was at the table, he'd often slip out the photo and look at it during hands.
Eventually, all 310 players had surrendered their stacks, and it was just casino impresario John Strzemp against the two-time champion who had amassed a four-to-one chip lead. Strzemp never had a prayer and, to his credit, he probably knew that. Faced with the best player in the world playing his best game ever, Strzemp was forced to rely on a strategy of all-in bets with hands others might have attempted to win through less risky moves.
If luck broke his way, the strategy would work. If it didn't, then at least Strzemp made his best play for victory. Needless to say, it didn't. It spectacularly didn't.
Ungar won the main event with an Ace-Four offsuit, which is to say he had an ace but that's about it. Strzemp had an ace as well, and he had a better kicker with an eight of clubs, so when Ungar pushed all in after an ace hit on the flop, Strzemp once again risked his tournament life with the top pair.
The Comeback Kid was a slight underdog, since he had a straight draw. If a two fell on the turn or river fourth and fifth community cards respectively the tournament would be over. A three, which helped neither player, hit on the turn. Then, in a suck out for the ages, Ungar spiked a two on the river and won the million dollar prize.
It was a bad beat for Strzemp, but nobody seemed to mind Ungar's ballsy move. They had their beloved superstar back, and he'd returned in history-making fashion. The kid from the Lower East Side was the only player to win three world titles. He posed for the photos, then he called his daughter.
[Editors note: Johnny Moss holds three World Series of Poker championships, but his first one in the first year of the series was by vote of his peers, not because he defeated all other players. For this reason, Ungar remains the only player to actually win three titles under the current format which has been employed in every year except that first one.]
It would only take Ungar a year to lose every penny he'd just won and then some, get rhinoplasty which he then obliterated by snorting coke shortly after and generally return to his less savory ways. By the time the '98 series rolled around, Ungar was in absolutely no condition to play. His right nostril had literally collapsed following the rhinoplasty debacle, his skin was a pallid grey, and he was dangerously underweight.
"I looked like I came from Auschwitz," was his self-description a few months later.
Despite the fact that Baxter had put up his buy-in once again, Ungar pulled out of the tournament at the last possible second, confirming for the poker world that his comeback was little more than a one shot deal.
Only a few months later, Ungar finally climbed into the coffin he'd been dancing around for so long. Stupak pooled donations from the players of Vegas' card rooms to cover funeral costs. A rabbi presided over the memorial for a man who had died, at least in spirit, well before his pulse went faint.
Then, with the boy king whose own demons destroyed what could've been a poker empire safely in the soil, they went back to their tables. They had, after all, lost Stuey long ago. This was Stu Ungar's end, as unglamorous as his beginnings and seedier still, and for those who knew him best, it wasn't the way he should be remembered.
The Ungar that should be remembered made history when he raised big stacks of cash over his head in 1997, grinning with his blue shades and showing the world why he'll never be forgotten. The boy who took down the legends, who paved the way for the East Coast poker brats who take down today's televised tournaments, lives on in the poker greatness that has never since been matched.
In his lifetime, he never entered more than thirty major tournaments. He won a third of them, picked up three world titles and made millions though he mostly ended up making it for others.
Yes, Stu Ungar died alone in a low-rent motel in the Nevada desert, but his shadow still falls across every poker table in Vegas, at every home game across America. If he was willing to bet the house and the city along with it then he won his bet. The Kid ruled the felt.
It was just the demons that ruled him.
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