Sexton's Corner, Vol. 19: Ungar, Baxter Joined in WSOP Lore
There is a lot of history between Stu Ungar and Billy Baxter that would make an incredible movie! We couldn't call it the Odd Couple, as Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau already claimed that title. Stuey, of course, was this mysterious, legendary figure of poker lore, who was considered the greatest No Limit tournament player in history. Along with Johnny Moss, Stuey was the only three-time winner of the WSOP Main Event, and Stuey was also the three-time champion of Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker. Out of the 33 major $5,000 or $10,000 buy-in events he entered in his lifetime… he won ten times. That has got to be the highest winning batting average in majors in poker history! Of course, his fast-lane lifestyle combined with his drug problems, led to an early death on November 22nd, 1998, as he ended up at the Oasis Motel in Las Vegas in room 16, found dead at the young age of 43 with $800 in his pockets.
Stuey was a genius in both gin rummy and poker, with a photographic memory, but a junkie for action who never had a bank account or carried ID. His money management skills were non-existent, no matter how much money he ever won. Billy Baxter lives in a beautiful home in Las Vegas, and is one of those rare, unique, success stories in the gambling capital of the world. He is suave, debonair, polished, and known as a southern gentleman, who might be the only professional gambler in the world who attends the Masters in Augusta every year. He has been a winning sports bettor for over 30 years, who is modest and low key, practically under the radar. For example, you might be surprised to hear that Billy has won seven WSOP gold bracelets, while Stuey won only five. Stuey is in Poker's Hall Of Fame, as he deserves be, but… so is Billy Baxter!
Stuey was totally reckless in keeping any financial records, while Billy actually won a landmark legal case against the IRS in 1985 in Federal Court in Reno, and again in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Los Angeles. After two victories verses the government, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court before the government dropped its appeal. The government withheld $180,000 in tournament winnings from Billy, maintaining that poker was a game of luck. Billy's position that poker was a game of skill was upheld by the judge, as he ruled in his favor, telling government lawyers, "If you think poker is luck, I invite your side to play Mr. Baxter in a poker game." The importance of this case paved the way for poker winnings to be treated as earned income. The government was forced to return the $180,000, which barely covered his legal expenses. Billy will tell you that wasn't the point, as it was a matter of principle. All poker players should shake Billy Baxter's hand the next time they see him, and thank him for winning this epic battle against the IRS. It truly was a landmark case that benefited all poker players!
Billy is widely known as Stuey's financial backer in 1997, when Stuey made his amazing comeback and won his third WSOP Main Event. The fact that Billy backed up Stuey to enter the 1997 WSOP, may very well qualify as the most amazing story of all! For those that didn't know, let me take you back in time to the 1990 WSOP Main Event, and highlight the journey that Stuey and Billy experienced together, that definitely set another WSOP record, that doesn't get as much publicity. It all started out great in 1990, as Stuey was one of the leaders with $70,000 in chips. On day two, Stuey ended up as one of the chip leaders, in good position to win, but during that day, something extremely bad happened to him. To aptly describe it, I'll take the liberty to quote Stuey himself, as Nolan Dalla recorded that last summer of Stuey's life at the Gold Coast Hotel. Nolan had recorded Stuey's memoirs, with the intention of writing the most authentic autobiography on the rise and fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, the world's greatest poker player. In Dalla and Peter Alson's amazing book, One of a Kind, on page 206 and 207, listen to Stuey's own words:
"Midway through the second day, I had the tournament won. I had pocket tens, the flop came ace, ten, rag. I flopped three tens. The other guy pushed in all his chips on a gut-shot straight draw. I called him in a heartbeat. He had a king and a jack. On the river a queen came. He hit the gutter ball. If I had won that pot, I would have had five hundred thousand in chips early in the tournament! It would have been all over. I mean over. Done! No one else would even have had two hundred thousand. There was no way I'd lose if I won that pot. But those are the bad beats you have to take."
I've never seen this theory written about, but I firmly believe it was this very hand, that caused Stuey to dwell that long night in his room at the Golden Nugget. He wanted to win so bad, that his weakness to escape overcame him, and he got extra high on drugs. He passed out, and never showed up for Day Three. When the tournament director, Jack McClelland, called Billy to inform him that Stuey was a no-show, Billy raced downtown and rounded up security at the Golden Nugget. Security opened the door to Stuey's room, and everyone was in shock, as Stuey was sprawled out on the floor in his underwear, barely breathing. He looked like a broken bird, and the paramedics loaded him on a gurney and took him down the service elevators, almost like Howard Hughes being transported out of a hotel in secrecy.
With Billy following the ambulance to the hospital, Stuey ended up at UMC. Billy tried hard to wake Stuey up talking sternly in his ear, but Stuey was completely out of it. A nurse got mad and told him to leave. Billy checked with the doctor, trying to explain the importance of Stuey getting back to the WSOP tournament, before getting anted out. The doctor convinced Billy that Stuey wouldn't be going anywhere for at least a couple of days. Billy left the hospital mad and bewildered, thinking he would never back Stuey up again. Amazingly, Stu Ungar had accumulated enough chips on Day Two in the 1990 WSOP to actually come in ninth place, winning $20,050! This is a WSOP record that has never been equaled. Billy actually made a 100% profit on his $10,000 investment, while the player he backed up was unconscious in the hospital.
With this story in mind, can you imagine Billy Baxter's reaction when Stu Ungar hounded him to put him in the 1997 WSOP? Billy told him, "Stuey, do you remember what happened in 1990?"
Stuey shot back, "I don't want to hear that s!#t! Are you going to put me in or not?" Billy told him to try and find someone else to put him in. On the day of the 1997 Main Event, Stuey played in the last $1,050 one table satellite for the last $10,000 seat, before the Championship was scheduled to begin. Stuey had $500 and borrowed $600 from Doc Earle. Doc sat behind Stuey and watched, as Stuey got down to heads up with a player from Houston, named Herman Zewalski. Herman pushed all in with Q-7 trying to steal the pot, and Stuey called him immediately with A-Q. Stuey had him beat! The flop came without a seven, the turn was a blank, and then, that bolt of lightening hit like the scene with Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid… the seven hit the river! Stuey was crushed, as his opponent hit a three-outer. The $10,000 seat Stuey wanted so bad had disintegrated into thin air Worse, there were only 15 to 20 minutes left before Stuey would be shut out of entering the Main Event.
Stuey made a few calls on a house phone to call his last hope… Billy Baxter. With no answer, Stuey walked into the tent where all the tables were set up. Time was of the essence, as there were only about five minutes before the tournament was to start at this point! Like laser radar, Stuey scanned the room, and instantly spotted Tommy Fischer in the room. I just happened to be sitting right next to Tommy at the time. The two of us were sitting at an empty table in the room together. Tommy went to the University of Oklahoma on a wrestling scholarship. He was a Missouri State High School Champion one year, and runner-up the next. I went to the University of Oklahoma on a gymnastic scholarship, so Tommy and I had something in common there.
Stuey's mind was so quick… he knew Tommy Fischer and Billy Baxter were very close friends, and asked Tommy to call Billy on his cell phone. Tommy dialed it and Stuey grabbed the phone and asked Billy, "Are you going to put me in or not? This thing is starting in one minute! You're my last hope Billy………just tell Tommy to give me $10,000 and you can reimburse him when you get to the room!" Even with that awful experience with Stuey in 1990, Billy showed a ton of class at this point, and asked to speak to Tommy. Billy then directed him to give Stuey the $10,000. Tommy hung up, and immediately reached in his bag and handed Stuey two packets of $5,000 each. Stuey literally ran over to enter and was the last one to enter out of 312 entries!
Besides Tommy and I graduating from the University of Oklahoma, we had something else in common. We both witnessed Stu Ungar literally running into the WSOP record books! I remember when Stuey got the $10,000 cash entry fee, and took off as fast as he could to enter… Tommy just rolled his eyes in disbelief, thinking that it was wasted money down the toilet! Stuey's reputation of drugs and unreliability had made just about everyone turn away. If you ask Tommy Fischer his opinion today, of what Billy Baxter's secret has always been in being so successful in the gambling world, he'll tell you: "Billy has always had the ability to follow the right people, whether it is in betting sports or poker."
Kudos to Billy Baxter's intuition: Stuey absolutely dominated the tournament and won his third WSOP Main Event, winning $1,000,000. Billy's $10,000 investment in Stuey made him $500,000… not too bad! In the audience at the 1997 WSOP final table, watching his winning horse, who looked like Secretariat winning the Kentucky Derby, Billy was relaxed and smiling holding a fine glass of wine. He knew he had bet on the winner! The seat Stuey had at the 1997 final table allowed him to glance straight out ahead into the audience, to see Billy in all of his composure and confidence that Stuey was the man! This had to have a very reassuring effect on Stu Ungar, throughout the whole final table.
One last thought: The night before the 1997 final table, Billy Baxter and Mike Sexton went up to Stuey's room. Billy wanted to make sure the debacle from 1990 didn't repeat itself. What he told Stuey, was the smartest thing he ever could have done. First, he let Stuey know in no uncertain terms, if he didn't show up he would kill him, sort of half jokingly… sort of! Then as it's recounted in One of a Kind, he told Stuey, "Anyway, it's over."
"It's over? What are you talking about?"
"Tomorrow. It's all over. The rest of them — they're playing for second place." Billy then added that the price of minus $140, against the field, had convinced him to bet everything on him to win. The confidence this sparked in Stuey was the smartest thing that Billy could have done, as Stuey began bouncing around the room like Muhammad Ali anxious to showcase his talents and win his third WSOP championship. Perhaps poker history would have been different if Billy hadn't answered that last phone call from Stuey. The link between Poker Hall of Famers Stu Ungar and Billy Baxter, at the WSOP, will forever be immortalized as a big part of poker lore.
The Cab is Parked,
Tom Sexton is a featured columnist for PokerNews.com. Tom attended the University of Oklahoma on a full gymnastic scholarship, where he was captain of the team four straight years, becoming the first NCAA All-American and Big Eight Champion in OU's gymnastics history in 1968. The Sexton family is well established in poker and includes Tom's brother Mike, the World Poker Tour commentator and poker's "First Ambassador", as voted by his peers. Tom welcomes your thoughts and comments about any of his articles. His e-mail is TSStarbuck1@aol.com.