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Stuey Ungar is poker’s tragic hero. He lived his life as if it were a poker game
; he had huge swings – amazing highs and equally devastating lows. He is the only person to win three WSOP Main Events (Johnny Moss was voted the champ in 1970), only person to win a Main Event and a Superbowl of Poker title, and was thought to be the best No Limit Hold’em
player in the world. Ungar’s genius was equaled by his frailty; he was addicted to drugs and gambling, which ultimately proved to be his downfall.
Ungar was born in 1953 in New York City and would come to know every underground card room in the city. His father ran a bar on Manhattans Lower East Side which became a front for his bookmaking business. By the time Stuey was in sixth grade his father had noticed his natural abilities with numbers and had him keeping the books.
Stuey’s father died of a heart attack when he was only fourteen. In the wake of his death Stuey’s mother was devastated by grief and distracted by a growing drug addiction, as a result he was left largely unsupervised. Ungar ran wild at all the card rooms in the city, he was allowed because he was known to most of New York’s unsavory types because of his father’s business. He eventually got a job dealing cards, but could not keep himself distanced from the action as dealers should. His mouth often got him in trouble but being that he was well liked by the right people a hair on his head was never touched.
Ungar began playing gin so well that people all over the city would flock to play some kid who could barely sit up to the table. He would drop out of high school during his sophomore year and finish his education on the streets. He would often be gone for days at a time; playing cards for thirty hours straight then crash on a couch for a few hours wake up and do it all over again.
He would win several hundred dollars at gin or poker and then would head off for the horse track and lose it all. This would become a routine throughout his life – an inability to hold on to any money. Mike Sexton guesses that Ungar went from millionaire to flat broke at least four times in his life.
Ungar arrived in Las Vegas to repay debts he made in New York. Ungar’s understanding of poker would be taken to a new level. In his career Ungar won ten championship events, a buy-in of $5,000 or more, in No Limit Hold’em and he only competed in about thirty. Not only is he the only person to have won Amarillo Slim’s Superbowl of Poker and the WSOP Main Event – he won both three times each. He won five WSOP bracelets in his career; three from the Main Event, a $10,000 Deuce to Seven Draw in 1981, and a Seven Card Stud event in 1983.
Ungar possessed an uncanny ability to remember cards and player tendencies, many believe that he had a photographic memory. He won a legendary $10,000 bet against casino owner Bob Stupak that he could count down a two deck shoe and know what the last card was. He sat and watched as each card turned face over, after the 103rd card he said it was the ten of diamonds, it was.
After winning his second Main Event Ungar returned to New York to visit friends and family, but found himself in Atlantic City. Ungar was playing blackjack at Resorts and was arrested for what they believed was cheating. He could have paid a $500 fine and been done with it, but Ungar refused to pay the fine believing it to be an admission of guilt. He believed that for a professional gambler to admit to cheating would be the death of his career. He sued the casino and eventually won the case. He estimated he spent more than $50,000 in legal fees and travel fighting the case. The case took such a toll on him that he believed his performance was negatively affected in the 1982 Main Event.
Riding a wave of success from his back to back Main Event titles Ungar became a king in Las Vegas. He would wager tens of thousands of dollars each week. Ungar was so engrossed in gambling he had little idea of how the real world worked. He never held a day job, never kept any money in banks, and didn’t have a Social Security number until he won the Main Event and they wouldn’t pay him until he had one. He owned several expensive cars but rarely drove them. According to Mike Sexton, “Stuey’s taxi bills alone were probably higher than what most people make in a year.”
Ungar had many failures as well. During the 1990 Main Event Billy Baxter saved his life. Baxter had become Ungar’s most loyal backer during his later years. On the morning of the third day with the tournament approaching the final table, Ungar couldn’t be found. Baxter had secured Ungar a room at the Golden Nugget across the street from the Horsehoe. Armed with a security guard Baxter got into his room and found him unconscious on the floor, suffering a near fatal overdose. Ungar was rushed to a hospital while his chips were being blinded off. His chip stack was big enough that officially he took ninth and never played a hand that day.
By the time of the 1997 WSOP Ungar was broke, strung out and looking for someone to back him in the Main Event. He had burned so many bridges most players had cut him off. Even Baxter had vowed to not help him again after what happened in 1990, but at the last minute put up the stake for Ungar to play in the Main Event; he was the last player to register. Ungar’s nose had been damaged beyond repair from his cocaine use that he wore a blue pair of sunglasses to hide his collapsed nostrils. He played brilliantly for four days and found himself heads up for title against John Strzemp. The Vegas media dubbed him “The Comeback Kid.”
Ungar suffered from his drug addiction so badly that he didn’t show up to defend his title 1998 because he was too embarrassed by his condition, a move that would alienate the Binions. Ungar was found dead in a seedy motel with only $800 in his pocket.