Stu Ungar is arguably one of the world’s best Texas Hold’Em poker and gin players to ever compete. The professional poker, blackjack and gin rummy player was one of only two people to have three wins under their belt in the World Series of Poker’s Main Event and one of four to have won these titles consecutively. He was also the only person to hold a hat trick of wins at Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker.
An Early Poker Face
Ungar was raised on the Lower East side of New York City. His father owned a bar and social club which exposed the young Ungar to the gambling world. He soon began playing gin, keeping it a secret form his parents who didn’t want him to go into gambling.
When Ungar’s father died of a heart attack in the late 1960s, Stu went in search of ways to support his family financially and quickly fell under the wing of one of New York’s alleged crime bosses, Victor Romano. Romano was also recognized as one of the best card players with a keen talent for calculating odds. As such Ungar swiftly gravitated toward Romano who became his mentor and friend.
After Ungar began competing in gin tournaments and racking up substantial gambling debts, he left New York for Las Vegas’ neon boulevard. Soon after arriving in Vegas Ungar took on notorious gambler Billy Baxter in a gin rummy tournament for $40,000. Baxter was eventually defeated but noted his surprise over his opponent’s youthfulness.
Transition to Poker
Ungar entered himself into the World Series of Poker tournament in 1980 for his first Texas Hold’Em tournament, thinking it would provide him more professional play and higher stakes. He won the main event, clinching the tournament’s youngest champion title, earning him the nickname ‘The Kid’.
He soundly defended his title the next year at the WSOP No Limit Hold’em Championship, in a tournament he almost wasn’t allowed to enter due to a spat with Binion’s Horseshoe owner Billy Binion.
Ungar went on to win his fourth WSOP bracelet in 1983, by defeating the legendary Dewey Took in the $5,000 Seven Card Stud event with final take home earnings of $110,000.
Stu Ungar’s Top Five Tournament Cashes
– First place No Limit Hold’em World Championship for $1,000,000 at the 1997 28th World Series of Poker (WSOP), Las Vegas
– First place No Limit Hold’em World Championship for $375,000 at the 1981 12th World Series of Poker (WSOP), Las Vegas
– First place No Limit Hold’em World Championship for $365,000 at the 1980 11th World Series of Poker (WSOP), Las Vegas
– First place No Limit Hold’em Championship for $275,000 at the 1984 Amarillo Slim’s Superbowl Of Poker, Las Vegas
– First place No Limit Hold’em Championship for $210,000 at the 1988 Amarillo Slim’s Superbowl Of Poker, Las Vegas
Ungar was considered to be one of the best pure-taler poker players in history. He was known for his offensive playing style and ability to time bluffs almost perfectly. Ungar was constantly in motion, leaving many opponents to remark that he had an almost psychic like ability to predict their cards.
His naturally high IQ and total recall ability banned him from many casinos out of fear he was blackjack card counting. After one casino in Atlantic City accused him of cheating Ungar took them to court, which turned out to be a costly affair, depleting his winnings on travel and legal fees.
How Did Stu Ungar Go Broke?
Ungar’s natural talent for gambling and his tenacity in poker games eventually drove him to turn to cocaine for stamina during long tournament spells. Yet soon his professional use turned into an addiction.
His drug problem began to eclipse his talent. During the 1990 WSOP main event he was found unconscious in his hotel room after an apparent drug overdose. He also became addicted to action and depleted most of his career winnings on betting on horses or sports in constant search of the next hit.
By 1997 and Ungar’s last and largest WSOP win, he was severely in debt and tangibly run down from years of drug abuse. He was nearly up for days just trying to raise the money to enter the tournament when Baxter lent him the buy-in fee just before the tournament began. Yet he managed to pull through and win the tournament, and split the $1 million prize with Baxter, garnering him a new nickname: ‘The Comeback Kid’.
Sadly the comeback didn’t last long. Ungar retreated from the public eye and spent the majority of his 1997 WSOP winnings on drugs and sports betting. He died in November of 1998 of a heart problem brought on by decades of drug abuse.
Despite having amassed nearly $30 million throughout his playing career, he died penniless.
Though he led a turbulent life, he made a name for himself in the Poker Hall of Fame and was inducted posthumously in 2001. His playing style and skill with the game will still go down in history as one of the greatest of all time.
To learn more about Ungar’s life, the below documentary (One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stu Ungar) is highly recommended.