Stu Ungar was an American poker player widely considered to have been the greatest player in history. He won the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event on three occasions (1980, 1981, 1997). He won two more WSOP bracelets in 2-7 Draw (1981) and Seven Card Stud (1983).
His youthful looks often made him appear younger than he was, earning him the nickname "The Kid."
Ungar's talent and powers of recall saw him excel not only at poker but blackjack and gin rummy as well. His dominance of gin rummy cannot be understated, with nearly all gin action drying up as a result of his skilled reputation and almost clairvoyant abilities.
In November 1998, Ungar died of a heart condition brought on by years of drug abuse. He was just 45. Ungar is buried at Palm Valley View Memorial Park in East Las Vegas. He was posthumously inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2001.
Ungar was born in Manhattan, New York on September 8, 1953. His father was a bookmaker, and this was how Ungar was first exposed to gambling.
The first game that Ungar played was gin rummy, even dropping out of school in order to support his family after his father Isidore died in 1967. Within ten years, Ungar had built up a reputation as one of the best gin rummy players around, regularly travelling across the country to take on other gin players.
"Some day, I suppose it's possible for someone to be a better no limit hold 'em player than me. I doubt it, but it could happen. But, I swear to you, I don't see how anyone could ever play gin better than me." —Stu Ungar
He traveled as far as Miami and Nevada to find the juiciest gin games. Ungar's talent was so prodigious that he almost single-handedly caused gin rummy games to dry up, once beating gin legend Harry "Yonkie" Stein 86 games in a row.
1980 WSOP Main Event
Ungar first visited Las Vegas in 1977 to play gin, and first entered the WSOP Main Event in 1980. Amateur Hal Fowler's win the previous year saw the field grow to 73 players.
With poker legend Johnny Moss making the final table, Ungar eventually defeated Doyle Brunson heads-up to win $365,000. Such was the intensity between the two, heads-up play lasted just 15 minutes before Ungar turned a straight after Brunson flopped two pair.
Read More: Mike Matusow Reminisces About Stu Ungar
1981 WSOP Main Event
It is widely known that Ungar often lost most of his poker winnings betting on sports or horses, or spent it on drugs. However, in spite of this Ungar returned to the WSOP in 1981 and retained his Main Event champion, defeating Perry Green heads-up for $375,000.
"I never want to be called a 'good loser.' Show me a good loser and I'll just show you a loser." —Stu Ungar
Ungar is one of four players to win consecutive WSOP Main Events. The other three are Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, and Johnny Chan.
That same year he won his third bracelet in a side event, winning $95,000 in the $10,000 2-7 Draw event. In 1983, he won his fourth WSOP bracelet in the $5,000 Seven Card Stud event for $110,000.
Away from the WSOP, Ungar won three of Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker (1984, 1988 and 1989).
In 1990, with ~25 players remaining in the WSOP Main Event, Ungar was in the chip lead. He went to his hotel room and suffered an overdose of cocaine. He was rushed to hospital, and was unable to return to play.
However, his chip lead was so vast that he was blinded off and eventually finished in ninth place. This was the only time that Ungar entered the Main Event and did not win.
1997 WSOP Main Event
By 1997, Ungar was severely unwell, with his body showing damage from years of addiction. However, Billy Baxter staked him into that year's Main Event.
The story goes that Baxter plied Ungar with coffee to keep him awake and away from drugs. In a plot almost out of a movie, Ungar won his third WSOP Main Event becoming just the second man to do so. He was immediately dubbed "The Comeback Kid". Ungar came into the final table with over a third of the chips, and defeated John Strzemp heads-up to win $1,000,000, the largest cash of his career.
Ungar's life was eventually immortalized in High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story
In 1982, Ungar married Madeline Wheeler and had a daughter, Stefanie. Ungar also adopted Madeline's son from a previous marriage Richie.
In 1986, Ungar and Madeline divorced. Three years later, Richie committed suicide.
Following his 1997 WSOP Main Event triumph, Ungar soon went broke - some say within two months. In a tragic end, Ungar checked into a motel and died two days later. Contrary to popular belief, Ungar did not die of an overdose. Although cocaine, methadone and pain-killer percodan were found in his system, Clark County Coroner Ron Flud announced the cause of death as accidental by a heart condition brought on by Ungar's lifestyle.
Why Was Stu Ungar So Good?
Whether it was his photographic memory or natural ability to dominate any card game he turned his hand to, Ungar was undoubtedly a poker genius. He was believed to have a genius IQ of over 140.
"People would show me a card game that I never played, and two days later I would be better than them. At a card game they’ve been playing for 30 years. I was a freak of nature" —Stu Ungar
Once, Bob Stupak counted down a deck of cards, and bet Ungar $10,000 he couldn't name the final card. Ungar correctly named the ten of diamonds and won the bet.
He was recently barred from casinos for his blackjack counting ability, and often could tell his opponent's entire hand in gin rummy after only two or three turns.
Stu Ungar WSOP Bracelets
|1980||Event #12: $10,000 NLHE WSOP Main Event||$365,000|
|1981||Event #12: $10,000 No-Limit 2-7 Draw||$95,000|
|1981||Event #13: $10,000 NLHE WSOP Main Event||$375,000|
|1983||Event #13: $5,000 Limit Seven Card Stud||$110,000|
|1997||Event #22: $10,000 NLHE WSOP Main Event||$1,000,000|
WSOP Main Event Winners 1972-81
|1981||75||Stu Ungar||United States||$375,000|
|1980||73||Stu Ungar||United States||$385,000|
|1979||54||Hal Fowler||United States||$270,000|
|1978||42||Bobby Baldwin||United States||$210,000|
|1977||34||Doyle Brunson||United States||$340,000|
|1976||22||Doyle Brunson||United States||$220,000|
|1975||21||Brian Roberts||United States||$210,000|
|1974||16||Johnny Moss||United States||$160,000|
|1973||13||Walter Pearson||United States||$130,000|
|1972||8||Thomas Preston||United States||$80,000|