It was about 30 years ago, when I remember being at the Dunes Hotel, where the Bellagio sits today. Danny Robison came over to me and said, "Tom, see that guy over there that looks like a 15-year-old kid? That is Stu Ungar from New York, and his people want me to play him gin rummy. I've heard he is supposed to be the best…. I've been up for two days playing poker, but I don't think there is any way that kid can beat me in gin rummy!" My brother, Mike, and I grew up in the same neighborhood with Danny in Dayton, Ohio. Danny, of course, found instant fame as Chip Reese's partner when the two of them stormed Las Vegas in 1974. Danny was, and still is, considered one of the best 7-card stud players on the planet. He was known for being one of the best gin rummy players, as well.
Danny had already made a lot of money in Las Vegas when he and Stu Ungar sat down to play. Stuey desperately needed to hit a big score that night, as he owed a lot of money to a scary bookmaker back in New York. Stuey had previously entered a $1,500 gin rummy tournament in Las Vegas at the Union Plaza, and won $50,000 for first place. However, Stuey needed much more, to escape having to worry and look over his shoulder from the past. At the time, Stuey was 23 years old, flamboyant, and cocky. Danny, if you have ever seen him play, is Mr. Flamboyant, with a gift of gab at the tables unlike any player in the world. Thus, their epic gin rummy match unfolded. When the dust cleared over the week-end, Stuey had cleaned Danny's clock, winning $100,000 from Danny!
It was this gin rummy match that helped Stuey make a clean break from New York and permanently move to Las Vegas. He moved into the Jockey Club, with his girlfriend, Madaline Wheeler, and her four year old son, Ritchie. The Jockey Club was the perfect location for Stuey, as it sat right next door to the Dunes, where all the highest limits were played every day. In the beginning, this all seemed like heaven to Stuey, as his legendary, bigger-than-life story unfolded over the next 20 years.
Stuey took on all comers in gin rummy, and ran over everybody those first few years in Las Vegas. After the action dried up for him in gin rummy, he was forced, more or less, to start playing poker. It was Hall of Famer Jack Straus who pointed out to Stuey, "Nobody can beat you in gin rummy, Stuey, you're just too damn good! All the money and action is out there on the golf course. Come out to the golf course with me, and I'll show you a few fundamentals." Jack led Stuey out to the golf course, and remember, not only had Stuey never played golf, he had never even seen a golf course; he was from the city.
Once there, Jack told Stuey, "This is the putting green – this is where all the money is won. Let me show you a few basics on putting." As they waited for their tee time, something amazing happened on the practice putting green. Stuey wanted to putt for $100 per hole. Of course, he had never putted and had zero touch on the putting green. As his losses mounted, he kept raising the stakes to $500 per hole, then $1,000 per hole, and soon $5,000 per hole. Before Stu Ungar reached the first tee, he had lost $80,000 on the practice putting green. Action was Stuey's middle name, but I seriously doubt anyone else on the planet would've lost $80,000 on the practice green before playing their first hole!
Stories about Stuey are legendary, like the time in 1989 when Stuey was running late to get to Caesars for the final table of Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker. Here was Stuey speeding down Hwy. 15, and as he took an exit he crashed into another vehicle in his Jaguar. The car he ran into, of course, was a police car. Always hyper, Stuey got out of his car to explain why he was trying to get to the poker tournament in such a hurry. Incredibly, the police officer recognized him, and as it turned out, he was a big fan of Stuey's. In 1989, Stuey had already won the 1980 and 1981 WSOP Main Event, plus two Super Bowls of Poker… he was like a living poker legend, who was on his way to try and win his third Super Bowl of Poker. The officer decided to let Stuey off, without even a warning ticket, as most of the damage was to Stuey's Jaguar. Stuey was lucky in the sense that another policeman might not have been so amused. He might very well pull his handcuffs out, explaining that they love to play cards down at Clark County jail. Stuey did arrive a little late, but unfazed, and amazingly went on to win his third Super Bowl of Poker that day.
Once at La Costa Country Club in Carlsbad, California, Stuey and Mike Sexton were at the bar with a few others. As drinks were ordered down the line, the bartender hesitated when he got to Stu Ungar. The bartender thought he looked too young, and said he would have to see some ID first. Stuey said, "Whaddya talking about? I don't carry ID on me."
The bartender said, "Then I can't serve you."
As he began to walk away, Stuey said, "Wait! You're telling me that if I don't have an ID, you won't serve me?"
The bartender said, "That's right." With that, Stuey cocked his head and said "You want to see ID? It's Benjamin Franklin!" Stuey stood up, reached into his pockets and pulled out about $20,000 and slapped it on top of the bar. "There's my ID," Stuey said. "Now, let me ask you, you think a teenager would be walking around with that kind of money?"
The bartender, now hoping to receive a nice tip, said "You've got a good point, sir, what will you have?" When the bartender served Stuey a Budweiser, Stuey promptly tipped him $200. This was classic Stuey.
During the summer 1998, the last summer of Stuey's life, my brother had helped Nolan Dalla connect with Stuey, to record Stuey's memoirs to write his autobiography. Mike had helped Stuey with a place to stay, by checking him into the Gold Coast Hotel on his credit card. Stuey could charge for any food or movies, and I learned firsthand of some of Stuey's eccentric ways. Mike asked me to take $100 per week over to Stuey every Monday, and said be sure you don't give him any more, as Mike didn't want Stuey to be tempted to buy drugs. He loved Stuey, but always worried about Stuey's weakness of taking drugs. This would be for pocket money only for him, as Mike had to go to Europe for several weeks. He could charge anything he needed to his room. The first Monday I met Stuey at the Gold Coast, we sat down at that little ice cream shop that used to be across from the check-in front desk. We shook hands and sat down. I pulled my checkbook out, where I had tucked a $100 bill in it for Stuey. The moment I pulled my checkbook out, Stuey jumped up very upset, and said, "You're not going to write me a check, are you? I don't have ID or a checking account… please don't tell me you're giving me a check!"
As soon as I pulled his $100 bill out of the checkbook, his whole demeanor switched to being really nice, like a little kid happy to get what he wanted. After meeting Stuey every Monday at the Gold Coast for three weeks, I got a panicked phone call from him in the middle of the night. Stuey said, "Mike said to call you if there was any kind of #@!#& emergency while he is out of town."
I asked, "Why, what's wrong Stuey?"
Stuey went on, "The manager said he was throwing me out of the hotel tomorrow. I tried to tell him who I am, but he said it didn't matter, that I still have to get out of the hotel tomorrow!" I told Stuey I'd be right over.
When I got there, I asked to see the manager at the front desk. When I asked him what the problem was with Stu Ungar, he said, "There is not really a problem, other than the credit card he is staying here on has expired, that's all. I tried to explain it to him, but he went off like a helicopter."
I said, "If that is all that it is, here is another credit card for you to use."
About that time, Stuey came flying around the corner shouting with his hands up in the air, "Did you explain to this guy who I am, and put a stop to this %$*&#?"
I told Stuey I did explain everything, and that Stuey wouldn't be asked to leave now. Again, Stuey's body language completely changed and relaxed, once his problem seemed solved.
Stu Ungar was someone with a genius IQ and a photographic memory with cards, but who struggled with many of the normal, mundane things we all have to deal with in life. He couldn't set up a VCR, or put oil in his car. He was eccentric, impatient, temperamental, and explosive in disposition over small things, but on the big stage, when the spotlight was on him, he was the most decorated and accomplished tournament poker player in history. Stay tuned for Part 4 of Stu Ungar's story.
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.