Poker Legend Stu Ungar Remembered

By Ross Everett

Stu Ungar didn't have much going for him in most areas of life. In fact, it could very well be argued that he was downright inept in most areas of existence. He also had a self destructive streak that manifest itself in heavy drug use and other behaviors. Ungar, however, had one great gift--he was a prodigy with a deck of cards. He would become one of the first superstars of poker before it became a fixture on ESPN, but wouldn't live to enjoy the 'boom'. Ungar would eventually be done in by his baser elements, and would be found dead in a Las Vegas hotel room in November, 1988.

The only way to accurately describe Ungar's poker skills is to evoke a sports metaphor--Ungar's skills at the card table were like those of Michael Jordan or LeBron James on the basketball court. Ungar's greatest accomplishment was his three World Series of Poker victories, an accomplishment not far removed from Michael Jordan's six NBA titles. While countless volumes have been written on poker strategy, Ungar's understanding of the game was almost instinctive. Although he won millions playing poker, the amazing reality was that it was essentially a 'plan C' for him as a professional card player. He started as a Gin Rummy prodigy, but quickly ran out of willing opponents in his native New York. He then moved to Nevada, and cleaned out the gin players in the Silver State. He turned to blackjack out of necessity and was almost instantly successful, only to be barred as a card counter at a number of Las Vegas casinos. Needing a new way to earn money as a card player, he took up poker.

The problem, however, was that as masterful as Ungar was at life in the poker room, he was profoundly inept at existence beyond the casino walls. He fought a number of addictions-most notably to drugs and sports gambling. Following his WSOP victory in 1997, the 1998 tourney found him broke and almost wasted away from drug use. Though he had secured financial backing that would have enabled him to play, as the games began Ungar sat in the dark in his hotel room at Binion's unable to compose himself enough to appear.

Other stories of Ungar's troubled life away from the poker tables evoke the same theme: buying a new Mercedes with cash after a WSOP victory and driving it until it fell apart from lack of maintenance; signing mortgage papers as he played in the Dunes poker room; losing 1.5 million dollars betting on sports or golf in the course of a weekend on more than one occasion.

Tragically, Ungar's death came as he'd began to show signs of turning his life around. Noted casino owner and longtime friend Bob Stupak had stepped in to help Ungar pay off his debts, clean up his life, and provide the stake money to enter the major poker tournaments. Ungar was found two days after the two had formalized the agreement in a contract. Ungar also left behind an ex-wife and a teenage daughter, who still live in Las Vegas. The official cause of death was listed as "coronary atherosclerosis" and a mixture of drugs including cocaine, methadone and Percodan were found in his system.

Most of the famous gamblers of Las Vegas legend-guys like Puggy Person and Doyle Brunson-- have been tough, larger than life individuals with a healthier than normal dose of self-preservation skills. In this respect, Ungar was an anomaly among gambling greats-he was physically frail and almost completely helpless away from the poker table. With a handful of cards and a pile of chips, however, he became a ruthless and indomitable warrior. His story is certainly not one that the modern day, publicity conscious Las Vegas will celebrate. He will be remembered, however, as part of the tradition that gives the city its unique character. From the mobsters that pioneered the city, to the Rat Pack that civilized it, to the corporations that cleaned it up, characters like Stu Ungar have provided the spice that makes Las Vegas America's 'Paris in the desert'. Ungar may never have a statue on Fremont Street, but his spirit will live on. - 30230

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