Stu Ungar was one of the greatest poker players of all time. He was also a young gin rummy player of such precocious ability that he couldn't find anyone to play against. But as many poker fans will know, Stu's story is a sad one: a man of enormous potential who couldn't beat his demons.
His daughter, Stephanie Ungar-Campbell, once said that her father was a generous man with a heart of gold. But his life as a player and poker genius is Ungar's true legacy to the poker community at large.
A precocious child and gin rummy
Stu Ungar grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and his father was a bookie and loan shark, which introduced Stu to the game from a very early age. His father also ran a Foxes Corner club, where Stu hung out when he was young, surrounded by older boys doing all sorts of things.
Although Stu's father, Ido, tried to prevent his son from gambling, his efforts did not bear fruit as Stu began playing underground games of gin rummy in New York City while still at school.
Ido died when Stu was 14 years old, and his mother fell ill around the time of Ido's death. As a result, Stu was free to roam the streets of New York as a teenager and was drawn into the world of organized crime.
When he was 18 years old, he befriended Víctor Romano, a gambler, an exceptional card player involved in organized crime in the city. Romano took Stu under his wing and introduced him to card games in different parts of New York, offering him protection from the crime-ridden streets.
In 1976, Stu Ungar was regarded as one of the best gin rummy players in New York City, but he left the city the same year due to debts he had run up at the race tracks. What he won at the tables at night disappeared in the morning at the racetrack. As expected, he left New York for Nevada, where he made the transition to poker.
Poker in vegas
Ungar switched to poker by accident...mainly because he couldn't get a seat at a gin rummy table, due to his reputation. He was used to destroying anyone who challenged him, and was infamous for his explosive temper, something many of his competitors disliked about him.
By the early 1980s, Ungar had established himself as a skilled poker player and entered the main event of the World Series of Poker in 1980 - truly the second edition of the legendary WSOP - and played spectacularly in his first professional poker tournament and defeated legendary player Doyle Brunson to win the title. At the time, Stu Ungar became the youngest WSOP champion in history and was affectionately nicknamed "The Kid" as a result. Brunson never knew how to play that "annoying person" who talked so much at the table and kept moving and getting up, as well as having a defiant attitude.
The following year, during the run-up to the 1981 WSOP event, Ungar became embroiled in a controversy with Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas after allegedly spitting in a dealer's face during a heated exchange. As a result, he was almost banned from defending his title, but was eventually allowed in and again won again, this time defeating Perry Green.
It would be 16 years before Ungar's third and final WSOP victory, winning the main event again in 1997, dubbed by the media as "the comeback kid" triumph. Unfortunately for Ungar, it would be his last big win at the poker table.
Despite his prodigious talent as a poker player, Stu Ungar battled demons throughout his adult life. After his mother's death in 1979, Ungar began using cocaine and soon became addicted. His addiction was exacerbated by the suicide of his stepson in 1989, and the poker star turned to alcohol and drugs to try to mask the pain of loss.
During the 1990 WSOP main event, Ungar was found unconscious on his hotel room floor from a drug overdose. He suffered from some sort of partial blindness for the entire next day, but still finished ninth overall, walking away with $25,000.
After losing most of his winnings in the 1980s and 1990s, Ungar's return to the WSOP in 1997 was heralded as a new dawn, and he was trying to start anew.
However, in November 1998, Stu Ungar was found dead in a budget motel on the Las Vegas Strip. It was concluded that his cause of death was the result of a heart condition brought on by years of drug abuse.
Stu Ungar's Legacy
Despite his demons, Stu Ungar is widely respected as one of the greatest poker players of all time. He ended his poker career with five WSOP bracelets and earned more than $3.6 million in tournaments alone. He was also a main event winner at the Super Bowl of Poker in 1984, 1988 and 1989, when it was considered the second most prestigious poker tournament in the world.
Four years after his death, Stu Ungar was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame, and several biographies and films have been released documenting his incredible rise and fall. At the peak of his powers during the 1980s, Stu Ungar was estimated to have won over $30 million from gambling, but he died with no assets and was virtually bankrupt, despite his victory in the main event of the WSOP of the previous year.
Of all that has been written and said about Stu Ungar over the years, two things are true. One: he was the best gin rummy player NYC has ever produced. And two: we doubt we'll see another poker player with his star temperament, charisma and ability again at the WSOP.
To better understand the figure of Stu Hungar, we recommend viewing: "One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stu Ungar" (Unique in its class: The rise and fall of Stu Ungar), one of the best documentaries on the beginning and expansion of Texas Holdem. English subtitles.
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