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Stu Ungar

By Paul McGuire

Stu Ungar is a gambling legend. The story of his life is extraordinary and filled with spectacular highs and devastating lows. He was the best card player of all time and a three-time World Series of Poker champion. Unfortunately, his inner demons destroyed all his talent and ability. After years of drug abuse, his life ended tragically in a cheap Las Vegas motel room in 1998.

Michael Imperioli as Stu Ungar
The Stu Ungar Story

Stu Ungar was born in New York City and at an early age he displayed an amazing photographic memory and a knack for card playing. He won his first gin rummy tournament by his 10th birthday. Five years later, he’d be known as the best player in New York City. In 1968, he won $10,000 in a local tournament and a few weeks later, he blew 90% of his winnings betting on horses at Aqueduct Racetrack. That was the first bad sign of one of Stu’s many horrible vices. He craved action and was a degenerate gambler, a problem that would follow him around for the rest of his life.

When the baby-faced Stu Ungar arrived in Las Vegas in 1976, he was quickly banned from the casinos for counting cards in blackjack. One of the reasons casinos switched from the one-deck shoe to multi-deck shoes in blackjack is because of Stu Ungar’s eidetic memory.

Stu Ungar quickly turned to poker. The first time he entered the World Series of Poker, he won it all. That’s significant because that was the first time he had ever played No Limit Hold’em. In 1980, at the age of 24, he became the youngest WSoP champion and was quickly nicknamed “The Kid.” To this day, only Phil Hellmuth has won a championship at a younger age. The very next year, Stu repeated his amazing feat with another first place finish. By the age of 25, he had two World Series of Poker championships. He would eventually win five WSoP bracelets during his career, collect over $2 million in prize money, and become the only other person in history (along with Johnny Moss) to win three WSoP championships.

Stu Ungar only entered 30 high stakes poker tournaments in his short life. He won ten of them and that’s why Mike Sexton called him “the best no limit player of all time.” If he never let his drug abuse and addiction to gambling get to him, he could have easily won five or six more championships and become the all-time bracelet holder and money winner at the WSoP. He was a notoriously aggressive player and seemed to raise every pot he played in. If he got a hold of some chips, he’d instill fear into his opponents and run right over the table.

Stu was a terrible gambler who would bet on anything. He lost several millions of dollars playing golf on various proposition bets. The first time he stepped on a golf course, he lost $80,000. He once dropped over a million dollars in a Razz game. He also lost another million in one single craps session. On a good note, he did beat Larry Flynt out of almost $5 million playing heads up poker.

Sadly, years of hard core drug abuse and his self-destructive lifestyle eventually led Stu Ungar down a dark path in life. He lost many friends, ran up massive debts, and alienated himself from his wife and daughter. In 1997, Billy Baxter, a close friend of Stu’s, offered to stake him in the World Series of Poker. He had not played in years and in one of the greatest comebacks in poker history, Stu Ungar won his third World Series of Poker Championship. His daughter inspired him to a win that day and he took home first place and $1 million, which he split with Billy Baxter. With a picture of his daughter in his wallet the entire time, he showed the world a glimpse of his card playing genius. Unfortunately, that would be the last time.

One year later, Stu Ungar would be broke again. He was supposed to defend his title at the Horseshoe, but ten minutes before the event started he decided not to play. A few months later, he would die of heart failure in a motel room at the age of 42.

Stu Ungar was a sad degenerate gambler and a drug addict who berated dealers and hurt his loved ones. He had plenty of faults and his close friends were afraid that his card playing skills would most likely be overlooked by his shortcomings and failures. Stu Ungar could have become the Michael Jordan of poker. That’s how good he was. He is and will always be considered one of the preeminent poker players of all time. The drugs and gambling got the best of him and we’ll never know how big of a legend Stu Ungar truly could have become.

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