Every subculture has its legends. A legend is, in a sense simply a story. In the subculture of the poker world, players often spend as much time telling or listening to stories as they do playing the game they love. Often times, these stories outgrow the reality that was. In the poker world, there is no one the 'old timers' talk about more than Stuey Ungar.
Having just watched the ESPN documentary 'One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stu Ungar', set to premier this Saturday, July 29th at 7pm EST on ESPN, I can tell you that this legend still lives up to the stories. The people interviewed in this documentary would often get lumps in their throats when talking about Stuey, thought by most who lived in the poker world back then to be the greatest player ever. The tragedy of Ungar's life, and indeed the legend of Ungar still brought emotion to the people that knew him, nearly eight years after his death, and fifteen years after the beginning of the sad spiral that his life became.
There has been an ESPN show on Ungar before, and indeed some of the footage in this doc has been seen before. But, most of the interviews are new, and by far the most haunting thing about this show is the new audio from author Nolan Dalla's interviews with Stuey – originally intended for an autobiography. For some reason, audio of dead people always gives me chills, and this was no different. Ungar speaks of himself in the past tense in these interviews, and although brief, you get the sense this was a broken man on this tape.
No one can deny Ungar's results at the poker table, and many of poker's finest are interviewed about Stuey. Doyle Brunson retelling the story of the last hand in his heads up battle with Ungar at the 1980 WSOP is fascinating. Making the moment all the more real is the footage of the hand itself, when Ungar, with a scowl on his face asks "How about the chips in your hand, Doyle?" as Doyle moved all in, but still had a few chips in his hand. Doyle put the chips in, Ungar said 'I call', and the legend was born.
Interviews with Brunson, Billy Baxter, Mike Sexton, Dalla, Steve Z, Eric Draiche, and others help build the story of this legend's rapid ascension, and more rapid decline. Interviews with Ungar's wife, and daughter paint a man with a big heart who just couldn't manage the challenges that everyday life brought him.
The show itself feels a lot more like something you would see on iFC, or Bravo, with a lot of cutaway footage, and background build footage – most of which has nothing to do with Ungar, but is shot and produced really well. For whatever reason, the footage from Ungar's funeral in 1998 brought a lump to my throat.
Because of the explosion of poker, and the mass of media covering even the most minor poker 'celebrity' these days, I think its safe to say the legend of Stu Ungar will remain the most fascinating story in this game's history. For fans of the game of poker, this is must see TV. The story of Stu Ungar may remain the biggest of all, and if you believe the people interviewed in this documentary, the biggest thing about Ungar might have been his heart.