"Poker Greats" - Stu Ungar (Part I)
By Mike Sexton
When anyone talks about the greatest poker players of all time, Stu Ungar's name will surface immediately. If it doesn't, it should. His accomplishments in poker are second to none. He is considered by many (and put me on that list) to be the greatest No Limit Hold'em player of all time.
But don't just take my word for it, check the record books. Ungar is a three-time World Champion (with five WSOP bracelets). He won ten major No Limit Hold'em championship events (in which the buy-ins were $5,000 or higher). The next two guys in line, T.J. Cloutier (all-time leading money winner at the WSOP) and Johnny Chan (two-time World Champion), have won half that many. Amazingly, Ungar only played in about 30 of these championship events in his life!
To further understand his greatness, think about this. For years, the second largest poker tournament in the world was Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker. At that time, every great poker player attended Slim's tournaments. Like the WSOP, the main event at the Super Bowl of Poker was a $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold'em championship. Only one man in history captured titles at both the WSOP and the Super Bowl of Poker, and that man was Stu Ungar. And he won them three times each!
I first met Ungar in 1978. He was a 22 year-old (who looked 14) streetwise, fast-talking whiz kid out of New York. He ventured to Las Vegas to play high stakes gin rummy against all comers (and he played anyone for any amount). He defeated them like Secretariat handled the Kentucky Derby.
As great as Ungar was in No Limit Hold'em, he was better at gin rummy. Several months after he captured his third world poker title, Ungar said to me, "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."
Ungar turned to poker in Las Vegas when his gin action dried up. He started out playing the biggest games in town. In 1980, with virtually no experience at No Limit Hold'em, Ungar entered the $10,000 buy-in World Championship event at Binion's Horseshoe for the first time. He won it. (The press dubbed him Stu "the Kid" Ungar.) The next year, (the second time he played in it), he successfully defended his title. Think about that. Ungar had entered the World Championship twice and was a two-time World Champion at the age of 25! Fittingly, he captured his third world championship (1997) the last time he played in the event.
Ungar had a genius IQ and a photographic memory. He also had the quickest mind of anyone I've ever met. His talent at all card games was truly incredible. He was barred from playing blackjack nearly everywhere. In No Limit Hold'em, he was relentless. Describing how Ungar played No Limit poker is like talking about someone who is a fearless warrior with a combination of the artistry of Mozart, the moves of Michael Jordan, and the focus of Tiger Woods.
Ungar never had a job in his life. He was always a gambler - and I mean an ultra high-stakes gambler at everything - poker, gin, sports, horses, golf - you name it. He never had respect for money. Money was simply a tool to gamble with (the more he had, the more he bet).
For most of his life, money came easy to him. It also disappeared quickly. Ungar was a high roller and a big spender. (He was also a big tipper whether he had money or not). He went from being broke to a millionaire (and broke again) at least four times. Gambling was his life. Ungar craved action. He always had to be in action. He was hyper and couldn't sit still. If you went out to eat, he couldn't sit through a meal. He would always pay for it, but he couldn't sit through it. He had to get back to the action.
Sadly, all is not cheerful and bright when talking about Stu Ungar. He was notorious for dealer abuse. (In the days Ungar started playing, when Johnny Moss ran the high stakes poker, dealer abuse was the norm. Ungar said, "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser.") Many top players behaved poorly back in those days. Poker has changed for the better with regards to dealer abuse, but we could still improve. It's terrible when poker players, especially champions, get out of line.
Ungar's biggest problem was his sickness. For twenty years, he abused himself with drugs. I can't help but think what might have been. What a waste. His life, even with the exciting times and conquests, was a tragedy. Drugs consumed him. I'm astounded when I think of what he achieved in poker, but I shudder to think of what he might have accomplished. Ungar died in 1998 at the age of 42.
Some can't see the "greatness" of Ungar. To them, he was a gambling degenerate and a drug addict who died broke. They confuse his lifestyle, bad habits, and sickness with his ability and extraordinary talent. Don't make that mistake. When it came to "playing the game", Stu Ungar was in a league of his own. He certainly deserves his place in history as one of the "Poker Greats".
Here's some exciting news! Nolan Dalla is authoring "Behind the Shades", a gripping true story about the life of Stu Ungar. This book is riveting and will mesmerize you! (It is due out by summer. I believe it can make the best-sellers list as this story could reach far beyond the poker world. I also wouldn't be surprised if it became an Academy Award winning movie. Take it from me, "Behind the Shades" is a sensational, powerful book.)Part Two