Stu Ungar, profile of a flawed poker genius

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Posted on: January 18, 2023 3:00 am EST

Stu Ungar was one of the greatest poker players of all time. He was also a young gin rummy player of such precocious skill that he couldn’t find anyone to play against. But as many poker fans will know, Stu’s story is a sad one – a man of such enormous potential who couldn’t beat his demons.

His daughter, Stephanie Ungar-Campbell, once told PokerOrg that her father was a generous man with a heart of gold. But his life as a gambler and poker genius is Ungar’s true legacy to the wider poker community.

A gin rummy protégé

Stuart Ungar grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and his father was a bookmaker and loan shark, which introduced Stu to gambling from a very young age. His father also ran a Foxes Corner club, where Stu would hang out as a youngster, surrounded by older guys up to all sorts of things.

Although Stu’s father, Ido, tried to prevent his son from gambling, his efforts didn’t pay off as Stu started playing underground gin rummy games in New York City while he was still at school.

Ido died when Stu was 14, and his mother fell sick at the time of Ido’s passing. As a result, Stu was free to roam the streets of NYC as a teenager and was swept into the world of organised crime.

When he was 18, he became friends with Victor Romano, an exceptional card player involved in organised crime in the city. Romano took Stu under his wing and introduced him to card games in different parts of New York, offering him protection from the crime-ridden streets.

By 1976, Stu Ungar was regarded as one of the best gin rummy players in New York City, but he left town the same year because of the debts he had accumulated at racetracks. Unsurprisingly, he left NYC for Nevada, where he transitioned to poker.

Poker in Las Vegas

Ungar switched to poker primarily because he struggled to get a seat at a gin table due to his reputation as one of the best players. He destroyed anyone who challenged him, and he was infamous for his short temper, which many of his competitors disliked about him.

By the early 1980s, Ungar had established himself as a skilled poker player and entered the main event at the World Series of Poker in 1980, making Las Vegas history. He played remarkably at his first-ever professional poker tournament and defeated legendary player Doyle Brunson to win the title. At the time, Stu Ungar became the youngest WSOP champion in history and was affectionately dubbed “The Kid” as a result.

In the lead-up to the 1981 WSOP event, Ungar was embroiled in a controversy with Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas after allegedly spitting in a dealer’s face during a heated exchange. As a result, he was almost banned from defending his title but was ultimately allowed to enter and went on to win again, this time defeating Perry Green.

It would be 16 years before Ungar’s third and final WSOP win, winning the main event again in 1997, which the media dubbed as the triumph of “the comeback kid”. Unfortunately for Ungar, it would be his last major triumph at the poker table.

Stu Ungar personal demons

Despite his prodigious talent as a poker player, Stu Ungar battled demons for the entirety of his adult life. Following the death of his mother in 1979, Ungar started using cocaine and soon became addicted.

His addiction was exacerbated by the suicide of his stepson in 1989, and the poker star turned to alcohol and drugs to try and mask the pain of loss.

During the main event of the 1990 WSOP, Ungar was found unresponsive on the floor of his hotel room due to a drug overdose. He was blinded out the next day but still finished ninth overall – walking away with $25,000.

After losing most of his winnings in the 1980s and 1990s, Ungar’s return to the WSOP in 1997 was heralded as a new dawn, and he was trying to start afresh.

However, in November 1998, Stu Ungar was found dead in a budget motel on the Las Vegas strip. It was concluded that his cause of death was the result of a heart condition brought on by years of drug abuse.

Stu Ungar’s legacy

Despite his demons, Stu Ungar is widely respected as one of the finest poker players of all time. He ended his poker career with five WSOP bracelets and won more than $3.6 million in tournaments alone.

He was also a winner of the main event at the Super Bowl of Poker in 1984, 1988, and 1989, when it was regarded as the world’s second most prestigious poker tournament.

Four years after his death, Stu Ungar was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame, and several biographies and movies have been released documenting his incredible rise and fall.

At the peak of his powers during the 1980s, it was estimated that Stu Ungar had won more than $30 million from gambling, but he died without any assets and was practically broke, despite his win at the previous year’s WSOP main event.

Of everything that has been written and said about Stu Ungar over the years, two things are for certain. One – he was the greatest gin rummy player NYC has ever produced. And two – we’re doubtful to see another poker player with his temperament, charisma, and skill star at the WSOP again.

Featured image source: Stefanie Ungar-Campbell