Poker legend Stu Ungar was a generous man and had a heart of gold, his daughter Stefanie Ungar-Campbell told Poker.org in an interview. The late great iconic poker star, arguably the best to ever play the game, led a wild lifestyle that included heavy drug use and mob connections. But he protected and cared for his child whom he had a strong bond with.
“He was my best friend, we were like best friends even though he was my dad,” Stefanie said via a Zoom conversation. “I told him everything, he told me everything, maybe even too much.”
Stu Ungar died in 1998 of heart failure at 45. He was found in a Las Vegas hotel room with $800 to his name just one year after winning the WSOP Main Event for a record third time.
Family came first to Stu Ungar
His downfall was well documented and it was no secret for many years that Ungar had a serious drug problem. But the larger than life figure who barely weighed 100 pounds late in life had another side to him that the public never knew. Stefanie says her father was always generous and cared about people. She told me a story about her dad once giving a random financially struggling mother $500 to buy her kids Christmas presents.
He was also a caring father even during his toughest times in life. Stefanie grew up in Florida with her mother while her dad lived in Las Vegas. But she was fortunate enough to spend more time with him late in his life after she moved out west. During that time, “Stuey” always wanted to make sure she was taken care of.
“I got the last year or two with him before he passed, which was a blessing,” she said. “If I didn’t see him, he would call me and be like, ‘honey, have you eaten, do you need any food? I’ll come drop you off. Are you doing good?’ I’d come home and find a message on my answering machine from him saying, ‘honey, I’m just checking to make sure you got home okay.'”
‘The Comeback Kid’
Stu Ungar became world champion in 1980 and 1981. In 1980, he was new to the game and shocked the poker world when he defeated two-time champion Doyle Brunson heads-up for the title. He also won three additional bracelets from 1981 to 1983. During the 1980s and into the early 1990s, he was arguably the best hold’em player in the world but could also dominate in some stud variations.
But when the 1997 Main Event rolled around, there was absolutely no shot he could win it. In fact, he was so broke at the time despite having previously been a millionaire that it wasn’t going to be easy for him to scrape up the $10,000 buy-in. Or, so everyone thought. His friend and fellow poker legend Billy Baxter, however, staked him.
On the first day, as the late Mike Sexton has said many times, Ungar was a mess. Drugs had clearly taken a toll on his health. He wasn’t even sure he’d make it through that first day of the tournament, but he managed to advance to Day 2 with a big stack. That night, he cleaned up, refocused, and came back the next day looking sharp and well-rested. The rest is history. He went on to win the tournament for $1 million (half of which went to Baxter), creating one of the greatest comeback stories in poker history. Hence, his famous nickname, “The Comeback Kid.”
During the 1997 WSOP Main Event, he carried a picture of his 14-year-old daughter Stefanie with him at the table. In his post-game interview on ESPN, he famously proudly hoisted up her Glamour Shots photo and let the television audience know how much he loved his daughter.
Moving on in life
That teenage girl who became a part of poker history is all grown up now, but surprisingly she has no interest in poker.
“My dad told me he didn’t want me to play poker,” Stefanie Ungar said.
Perhaps, he wanted to protect his daughter from leading a similar lifestyle. Stu Ungar was the greatest gin rummy player ever and got put into games by those connected to the mob. The only reason he ever discovered poker was because he could no longer find gin rummy opponents since he was too good.
Stuey’s lifestyle wasn’t hidden from Stefanie growing up. But she chose a different path in life at her father’s request. Now 38-years-old, she lives in Las Vegas with her husband and two children. She wants to one day produce a movie about her father. For now, she produces videos about the city she loves, her hometown of Las Vegas.
She’s on Instagram (@stefanieungar), as is the production company she works for (@vegasaroundtown). Stefanie grew up around many poker legends, especially those her father befriended. That includes Doyle Brunson and the late Chip Reese and Mike Sexton.
Sexton and the younger Ungar had a strong bond that continued long beyond Stuey’s death. Last year, she proposed the idea of opening a restaurant in Las Vegas to Sexton, who was all-in on the idea because he believes in her. The restaurant, appropriately, was going to be named “Stuey’s.”
Had dinner last night with Stu Ungar’s daughter Stefanie. She (& her husband & 2 kids) just moved back to Vegas from Chicago. She wants to pursue her dream/ambition of opening a very classy restaurant in Vegas called “Stuey’s”. She’s smart & determined to make it happen. 👍👏👏 pic.twitter.com/d1JiKSpaIs
— Mike Sexton (@Mike_partypoker) July 19, 2019
“It’s going to be an Italian steakhouse,” she told Poker.org. “I spoke to Mike just two days before he passed.”
Ungar-Campbell’s restaurant is on hold right now due to COVID-19, but she hopes to one day follow through with the plan she proposed to Sexton, who was one of her father’s closest friends. He was also close to Chip Reese, a Poker Hall of Famer who passed away in 2007.
“Our dog was named after Chip,” Stefanie said. “His name was Chipper. My father and him were great friends. Chip was a great guy and my dad said he was the guy to beat when he first came to town. He very much respected him.”
Stefanie has no interest in playing poker or gambling, although she said she occasionally enjoys playing some blackjack. And she said she isn’t a mathematics genius like her father. But she did pick up one valuable trait from her late dad — “the ability to read people.”
Stu Ungar was far too young when he passed away. Not only did he leave behind his family and many friends in poker who cared deeply about him. His passing also left the poker community wondering how many more titles he would have won had he stayed clean following the 1997 Main Event. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2001.
Sexton, and many others, always said the best poker player he’d ever seen was Stu Ungar. That’s high praise coming from a legend like Sexton who played in some of the highest stakes games against the toughest players since the 1970s. As for Stefanie, perhaps one day she’ll build that restaurant honoring her father. For the time being, you can check out her production work with Vegas Around Town, a fun new Vegas lifestyle show.
Featured image source: Stefanie Ungar-Campbell