|Stuart Errol "Stu" Ungar
(September 8, 1953 November 22, 1998)
The Tortured Champion
|Stu Ungar (1997 WSOP Champion)
Stu Ungar, who was born in New
York City and raised on the city's Lower East Side, became a professional
gambler at age 14, a year after his father, who was a bookmaker and bar
operator, had died.
Stu was an incredible gin rummy player. At age 10
in '63, he won his first gin rummy tournament in a Catskill Mountain Resort
while vacationing with his parents. At age 14, he was regularly playing and
beating the best players in New York. At 15 he dropped out of school when a
well known bookie staked Stu to the $500 buy-in in a big gin rummy tournament.
Stu won the $10,000 first prize without ever loosing a hand, a record still
held in the card rooms of New York City. A week later, after giving his parents
$1,000, he lost the rest on horses at the Aqueduct racetrack. It was a sign of
things to come.
Ungar moved to
Miami where the juiciest Gin games were. He did well but his weakness for
sports and track betting drained him of any success. In 1976 Stu reached Las
Vegas, broke and just about beaten. Somehow he found the money to enter a
$50,000 tournament. On the last two hands he forecast the losing player's cards
- correctly. This bravado was another bad career move as it meant other players
feared his skills. As a result, he could no longer find any games outside the
It wasn't long before he decided to try his luck at
blackjack. He'd cleaned up on poker tables from Nevada to New Jersey and the
time was right to move on. One night at Caesars Palace he won $83,000 but the
manager stopped the play. Stu retaliated by correctly forecasting the last 18
cards left in the single-deck shoe. That was the beginning of the end for
single deck blackjack tables. They were removed from Caesars and later from
other casinos, and Stu's picture was posted up in the security rooms of dozens
of casinos. Result: Stu was banned for life.
His next feat was to bet
any takers $10,000 that he could perform yet another memory miracle: he offered
to count down the last two decks in a six-deck shoe! There were no takers. Then
in January 1977 a former owner of Vegas World and designer of the Stratosphere
Tower stepped into his life. Stu Ungar met Bob Stupak. The new taker offered
Stu $100,000 to count down the last three decks, half-way through a six-deck
shoe. If Stu lost he'd owe Bob $10,000.
Memories of this amazing feat
still linger on today in Las Vegas. To the astonishment of onlookers, and Bob,
Stu didn't miss a single call from a total of 156 cards. When Bob handed him a
check for $100,000, it marked the beginning of a lasting friendship between
them. All over the world, Stu Ungar was now a household name in the gambling
| In 1980
at 24, Ungar entered his first world championship. He won and to silence the
critics of his "fluke" he won the next year as well. He wasn't done with pure
gambling though and he lost $900,000 in RAZZ game in an afternoon, $1m in a
craps session and picked up $5m from Larry Flint (the porn king) over many
heads-up sessions. Ultimately his fever for action took everything in the
physical world and his drug addiction was close to taking his life.
1990 Ungar was once again in the fore at the WSOP Championsip. At the start of
day 3 of the event he was a very solid chip leader but when play began he was
no where to be seen. A search was made and his hotel room forcefully entered.
He was found laying on the floor, unconscious. Despite this he returned to play
and finished 9th, which in 1990 was $20,500 (2005 it was
By the 1997
WSOP tournament in Las Vegas, Ungar hadn't been in the frame for over 7 years.
He was seen around the gambling Mecca playing in small games but was pretty
much written off by the poker world. He didn't have the money to enter the
Championship event but an hour before play an anonymous benefactor produced the
$10,000 entry. Four days later the greatest comeback in poker history had
occurred and the record of three victories established. In all he won 10 major
No limit Hold'em tournaments out of the 30 he entered!
Two months later
he was broke again. Another year of oblivion and Stu was on the comeback trail
again with his old friend Bob Stupak offering to cancel his debts and signing
him up for commissioned card play. With $2000 of Stupak's money in his pocket
(spending money) he checked into a cheap downtown hotel. Two days later he was
dead. He left behind a 15 year old daughter.
He once said although he
could conceive of a better poker player than himself, not in the next 50 years
of the world would there be a better Gin player.
A film of Stu's life
was produced in 2003 and is called High Roller or sometimes Stuey.
The review is available
22nd, 1998 - Oasis Motel, 1731 S. Las Vegas Blvd - Stu Ungar found
The Clark County Coroner's office on Monday ruled Ungar's death
accidental based on the results of toxicology tests that came back from the lab
Friday. A mixture of narcotics and pain killers triggered a heart condition
that killed him. The drugs found in Ungar's system were cocaine, methadone and
the pain-killer Percodan, Clark County Coroner Ron Flud said. No one drug by
itself was enough to cause Ungar's death. "The cause is accidental death by
coronary atherosclerosis". "The heart condition developed over a period of
time. The attack was brought on by his life-style."
Coronary atherosclerosis occurs when not enough blood can be pumped
through the heart muscle. It is not uncommon to find a mixture of cocaine,
Percodan and methadone in an autopsy of a drug user. Percodan is often used to
bring a person down from his cocaine high so he can sleep. Methadone is given
to heroine addicts to get them off the drug. It is not known when Ungar, a
three-time world poker champion, took the drugs that contributed to his death.
Police investigating the scene said they found no drug paraphernalia at that