Stu Ungar, the brightest star in poker, blazed his way through circuits and tournaments with a superhuman poker skill till he ended his days as a burnt-out supernova in a haze of drugs and debt. Born in September 8, 1953 in New York, he came from solid gaming stock: his father Ido Ungar was a loan shark who ran a gambling saloon, familiarizing Stu with gambling from an early age. In spite of his parents’ attempts to keep him away from gambling, he won a gin rummy tournament at the age of 10 and by 23 he had earned an excellent reputation as a card player. After his father’s death he took up full-time gin rummy to support his mother and sister, and he turned to alleged mafia boss Victor Romano who became a father figure to him, protecting him in the New York back-alley casinos.
But Stu’s increasing gin earnings could not catch up with his gambling debt, and he moved first to Miami and then to Las Vegas, where he razed the gin rummy tables to the ground and had to take up poker because nobody would play gin against him. He also met his future wife in Vegas, who already had a son and would have a daughter with Stu.
Stu’s reputation is the stuff of legend – he was known to beat a known cheater even as the man was trying to cheat him; he broke down the country’s best gin player, who reportedly “was never the same after that night;” he performed amazing feats of memory, giving his opponents all sorts of advantages before crushing them; and throughout he was aware of his abilities, declaring once, “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”
In 1980, at age 27, he decided to enter the World Series of Poker. Bets were 100 to 1 against, but “The kid” – as he was dubbed for his youthful looks – was no underdog: he not only took the Main Event’s gold bracelet but also won a legendary heads-up against veteran pro Doyle Brunson. Next year, he returned and won again. Unfortunately fortune decided not to smile on Stu any more: around this time his son committed suicide after his high school prom and Stu started using cocaine to enhance his focus and energy in the poker tables. It snowballed into a deadly addiction – during the 1990 WSOP Main Event Stu was found unconscious on the floor of his hotel room, but he had such an impressive chip stack that he still ended in the 9th place and pocketed more than $20,000.
Stu careened into debt and drug addiction, until in 1997 he was needled by rumors that he had lost his powers and decided to enter the WSOP again on a borrowed buy-in. His poker talent shone once more, and he won the Main Event and earned the nickname of “The Comeback Kid.” The support of his friends and family was enough to help him win one more WSOP Championship, but not two – he was unable to show up to the 1998 WSOP because of his drug-ravaged health, and he was found dead of heart malfunction in a Vegas motel, $800 the sole remainder of the vast wins of the man who was called by many “the greatest poker player ever.”
Ungar’s game analysis (by Barry Greenstein):
- Aggressiveness: 9
- Looseness: 9
- Short-handed: 8
- Limit: 7
- No-limit: 8
- Tournaments: 9
- Side games: 5
- Steam control: 2
- Against weak players: 8
- Against strong players: 6