Poker Legends: Stu Ungar
“I never want to be called a good loser. Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you just a loser.”
Despite his controversial reputation, Stu Ungar remains a fabled figure in poker lore. Many still consider him the greatest Hold ‘Em player of all time, and his dramatic rise and fall certainly contribute to this ongoing fascination. Either way, he definitely earned a spot among the poker legends.
The arc of Ungar’s life story reads as the archetypal genius yet degenerate gambler. He began his career at the young age of 10, when he began playing Gin Rummy at underground games in New York City. It wouldn’t be long before the entire NYC scene dried up because nobody could beat him.
Ungar dropped out of high school and moved to Vegas. Coming in at 5’4”, 110 lbs, and with a full-on baby face, Ungar earned his nickname “The Kid” after taking down the 1980 World Series of Poker—it just happened to be the first poker tournament he’d ever played.
Stu Ungar at The World Series of Poker (Photo credit: Line.17QQ)
A Gift for Cards
By the time Ungar was 26, his natural talent had made him into a Vegas high roller. Even to this day, he remains one of two poker players to have ever won the WSOP main event three times, and he’s still the only person to win Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker three times.
Despite his childish appearance, it didn’t take long for the other pros to recognize Ungar’s gift. “I thought this must be some rich kid,” recalls poker legend Doyle Brunson. “I didn’t know I was looking at one of the best poker players to ever live.”
Over the course of his career, Ungar used his quick math skills and photographic memory to win nearly $30 million dollars. However, when he died at the young age of 45, he was virtually penniless.
Angels and Demons
Ungar was a man of extremes. He was extremely generous, almost to a fault. One popular legend tells of him pulling a $100 bill out of his pocket to give to a random stranger who asked for cash. He was also devoted to his family and tried his best to support them.
In the end, though, his demons got the best of him. After winning his second WSOP title, he quickly found himself on a downward spiral. What started as recreational cocaine use to fuel all night poker sessions developed into a full-blown addiction. It wasn’t uncommon for Ungar to spend $1000 per day on coke, and his nose collapsed twice as a result.
He also started gambling on just about everything. He could easily lose tens of thousands of dollars in an evening betting on horses or sports. His insatiable need for action, on top of his drug habit, led him to blow $1 million over the course of just 4 months after winning the 1997 WSOP.
Ungar met his end at a cheap motel in 1998 as a result of a heart condition brought on by years of drug abuse. He was posthumously inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2001.