Stuart Ungar was not born a poker champion, but he was born with an eerie, unnatural card-sense that marks only a player in a generation. That unfailing ability to sense both weakness in his opponents, and the right time to take a highly calculated, mathematical risk, would ultimately lead him to be considered the greatest no-limit hold'em tounament player of all-time.
Stu was born on September 8th, 1953, and grew up on Manhattan's Lower East side. Around the corner from their home, Stu's father ran a bar and grill. There was eating, drinking, and plenty of betting going on between the customers. Stu learned young what the "juice" was on a sports bet, and also what the "juice" was when you went on the street for a loan.
His mother was an avid poker player, and during holidays in the Catskill Mountains, Stu tried his new poker skills against the hotel staff. At the age of ten, Stu's photographic memory paid-off for the first time as he won a gin tournament at one of the Catskill resorts.
Stu was thirteen when his father passed away, and he was too bored to attend high school. Well, he attended occasionally, but mostly he hustled card games and bet on sporting events, including trips to the track. In private New York clubs, he could often be found either playing, or dealing poker games. His gin play was so good that he often took down five-figure scores from games at local country clubs, where his 5'6'', 100-pound frame hardly ever caused fear in his opponents. However, his skill was so great that the games eventually dried up.
During this time, Stu spent most of what he made playing cards on sports bets. In fact, he usually spent more than he made, often owing significant sums to the bookies for losing bets. Trips to Miami helped expand his gin possibilities, but he was just too good.
In 1976, Stu headed to Las Vegas with hopes of finding a few more gin players that didn't know his abilities, and keeping a few steps ahead of the bookies he owed more than $20,000 to. With his last $1,500, Stu entered a gin tournament and managed to take first place, a $50,000 prize. He was only 23, but by the end of the year, there were no more gin games for him to play in, and his chances of playing blackjack were pretty much over also, his $80,000 score at Caesars Palace not withstanding.
He was able to add $100,000 to his bankroll by beating Bob Stupak (owner of the Las Vegas casino, Vegas World) on a 10-1 bet when he correctly counted down the first three decks of a six-deck shoe and was able to recite accurately the remaining 156 cards. The money lasted about a week.
Like many youngsters with money in the 1970's, Stu spent freely on wine, women and song. For Stu, the songs he followed came from several types of recreational drugs. He bet on all types of sports, including his own golf game (which took a beating at the hands of better players like Doyle Brunson and Puggy Pearson, and Jack Straus), and started really focusing on poker. Probably a good idea, since the very first time he walked on a golf course he managed to lose over $75,000 to Jack Straus - before getting to the first tee (he took the beating on the putting green).
Stu wasn't a favorite in poker games that were comprised of the local champions, but he learned enough of the game to be competitive, and in no-limit tournaments, Stu had no fear. None.
Stu felt confident enough to enter several tournaments at the 1980 World Series of Poker. After lasting through the first day, Stu headed into the second day with $21,000 in chips and held down twelfth place among the fifty remaining players. At the end of the day, Stu had climbed into second place, with $92,000 in chips. Starting the third day, the leader was Gabe Kaplan, and included in the mix was Johnny Moss and Doyle Brunson, who both made the final table of nine.
At about 6:00 p.m., Stu called an all-in preflop bet by Richard Clayton, who held ace-queen, and held-on to win with his pocket nines. At this pint there were just six players left, and Stu and Gabe Kaplan had changed places in the standings. Later, Kaplan flopped a set of fours, only to get all in and lose to Johnny Moss, who filled his flush on the turn. The winning pot moved Moss into second place, but Stu had nearly twice as many chips.
The following day, Stu and Doyle were the two remaining players when the final hand arrived. Stu had about $110,000 more in chips than Doyle, and they were playing for a pot of $17,000. Doyle flopped aces and sevens to an ace-seven-deuce board, and bet $10,000. Stu called with four-five. The turn card was a three, making Stu a straight. He made a bet of $40,000 expecting Doyle to come-over-the top with a raise, and he was not disappointed. Doyle raised all-in, but failed to improve his hand, and Stu won $365,000 in real cash as the 1980 WSOP Champion.
Afterwards, Doyle said, "Stu reminds me of a young Puggy Pearson, a natural." "He does things naturally and they come off for him, he will be the best player ever." That was some great praise after the 1980 WSOP, but Doyle's words rang true the following year when Stu won the championship again. He also won the 1981 WSOP deuce-to-seven lowball tournament.
Over the years, Stu continued to battle his drug addiction, but also won an amazing ten, major no-limit hold'em tournaments out of the thirty that he entered, including the Super Bowl of Poker which he won in 1983, 1988 and 1989. By the 1990's, Stu was either broke, and out of action, or playing any game that his bankroll would allow.
In 1997, when as Stu said, "four days ago, nobody wanted to talk to me," he got entered into the $10,000 championship final at the WSOP. It has been said that Billy Baxter (local poker pro and good friend) put up the fee, but wherever it came from, it sure beat the $20 tournament fee Stu footed for a local tournament a month before at the Orleans.
In an amazing show of aggression, instinct, and fortitude, Stu won the 1997 WSOP Championship at a final table played outside on Fremont Street where the temperature climbed to over 100 degrees. The stage was air conditioned, but it was still hot, and Stu's ultra-aggressive style added to the heat, and once again marked him as an all-time champion.
The huge prize money of $1 million dollars was gone before the year was, but Stu signed a deal with long-time friend Bob Stupak, to pay off his current debts. Bob also gave him $2000 in cash, but it was the last time he would see him. There would be no fresh start.
Stu Ungar died at the age of 45, losing his long battle with drugs, but winning the accolades and admiration of nearly every high-stakes player who ever played against him in a no-limit tournament. He won five WSOP championship bracelets and had over $2,000,000 in WSOP earnings. He will be missed.
Ed note: Nolan Dalla has done a terrific book on Stu's life called
One of a Kind. Check it out.