Stu Ungar

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Stu Ungar

Stu "The Kid" Ungar (September 8, 1953 - November 22, 1998) was a professional poker and gin rummy player, considered to be among the best in history at both games.


From gin to poker to drugs

Ungar was originally a champion gin player. When he was 10 years old in 1963 he won a local tournament, and by 1967 he was regarded as one of the best players in New York. He dropped out of school in 1968 to play gin rummy full time and began winning tournaments earning him $10,000 or more. He later moved to Miami, Florida to find more action, and in 1976 he left for Las Vegas, Nevada.

Despite the fact that he is more well known for his poker accomplishments, Ungar regarded himself as a better gin rummy player, once stating, "Some day, I suppose it's possible for someone to be a better No Limit Hold'em player than me. I doubt it, but it could happen. But, I swear to you, I don't see how anyone could ever play gin better than me."

In 1980 he entered the World Series of Poker looking for more high-stakes action. He won the main event becoming the youngest champion in its history (he would later be superseded by Phil Hellmuth). Ungar looked even younger than he was, and was dubbed "The Kid". He would defend his title successfully the next year.

Ungar was a genius with an eidetic memory, and could easily keep track of every card in a six-deck shoe. In 1977 he was bet $100,000 by Bob Stupak, an owner and designer of casinos, that he could not count down the last three decks in a six-deck shoe. Ungar won the bet. His skill and reputation were so good that he was frequently barred from playing in casinos. He was virtually unable to play blackjack in Las Vegas.

After early success Ungar squandered virtually all of his winnings on cocaine and other forms of gambling. His addiction took such a physical toll on him that in an ESPN piece on Ungar, many of his friends and fellow competitors said that they thought that he would not live to see his 40th birthday. In the same piece, one friend said that the only thing that kept him alive was his determination to see his daughter Stefanie grow up.

Final years

In 1997, Ungar was deeply in debt, but received the $10,000 buy-in from close friend and poker pro Billy Baxter. Ungar clearly showed physical damage from his years of addiction, most notably to his nasal membranes. However, he showed that his mental capacities were still present. During the tournament, he kept a picture of Stefanie in his wallet, and regularly called her with updates on his progress. After his win, which was taped for future broadcast by ESPN, he showed the picture of his daughter to the camera, and dedicated his win to her. He and Baxter split the $1 million first prize 50-50.

By the following year, he was broke yet again. Baxter again offered to pay his entry fee to the main event, but 10 minutes before play started, Ungar told Baxter he was tired and didn't feel like playing.

Seven months after the 1998 WSOP, Ungar was found dead in a Las Vegas motel room with $800 to his name. An autopsy showed traces of drugs in his system, but not enough to have directly caused his death. The medical examiner concluded that he had died of a heart condition brought on by his years of drug abuse.


Ungar is still regarded by many poker insiders as the greatest pure talent ever to play the game; in his life, he is estimated to have won over $30 million at the poker table. Along with Johnny Moss, Ungar is the only three-time WSOP main event champion, winning it in 1980, 1981, and 1997. His win in 1997 is considered particularly remarkable as a comeback after 16 years of drug abuse.

During his career, Ungar won 5 WSOP bracelets and more than $2 million in tournament play. He won ten major no limit Texas hold 'em events

A movie about Ungar, High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story, was made in 2003.

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