Stu Ungar: A Gin Rummy Legend
Stuart Errol Ungar, most commonly known as “Stu Ungar” and nicknamed “The Kid” by his peers, is a legendary card player who passed away in 1998 at age 45. He is best known for his accomplishments in poker, having won the World Series of Poker main event a record setting three times. Today with the growth of poker over the past decade and Stu’s absence due to death, it’s impossible to know how he’d have faired in the modern poker era. However, it’s safe to say in his other favorite game Gin Rummy, most consider him by far the greatest player in history.
Stu Ungar predicted his legacy many years ago when he told now fellow Poker Hall of Fame member Mike Sexton, ”Someday, 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.”
Those who knew Stu Ungar have many stories to share, including the time he named every card by suit remaining in the end of a blackjack shoe to successfully win a prop bet. Due to his photo like memory, his losses at Gin Rummy were rare; in fact, many claim the only times he lost is when he was distracted by a sports bet he had made, scoring drugs or had other things on his mind. Simply put, when Stu Ungar focused on winning, he was nearly impossible to beat.
It was Ungar’s reputation as an unbeatable player that at first helped make him money, as many of the world’s top Gin Rummy players anted up big money for a chance; however, ultimately, the games dried up for him as players realized they did not stand a chance. Ungar, struggling to get action in Gin Rummy, was forced to take up poker, where he earned millions of dollars and became the only three-time World Champion of No Limit Texas Hold’em.
Stu Ungar Early Years
Stu Ungar was born September 8, 1953. His father managed an underground club taking sports bets and offering casino games such as roulette. Having been around gambling his entire life, Ungar became intrigued by cards after his mother taught him how to play as a method of pass time. At age ten, he won his first gin rummy tournament. At age 15, after his father passed away, he dropped out of school to support his mother and sister. This is something he did well, as soon later he was frequently taking down prizes of $100,000 or more in Gin Rummy tournaments.
Stu Ungar Crime Associates
At age 18, Stu Ungar befriended a notorious mob boss Victor Romano. The two became friends during a game where the Kid Ungar defeated Romano in Gin Rummy. This was quite the accomplishment, as legend had it that during his time in prison Romano became so familiar with the dictionary it was said he could recite every word and definition in the book. Romano also spoke four languages and was an expert at calculating gambling odds. Romano was so impressed with Ungar’s ability that he took him under his wing and became a father-like figure to him.
Stu Ungar was well known for his loud mouth and constant player and dealer abuse. Never afraid to criticize or even fight with players, dealers, or even street criminals, it was Ungar’s relationship with Romano that held gamblers back from retaliating against him.
Stu Ungar Addiction
Stu Ungar had many vices which became apparent in 1976. At age 23, he was known as the best card player in New York, but unfortunately for him his winnings were not enough to cover his losses at the horse tracks, or enough to support his cocaine and prostitution habits. No matter how much Ungar won, he found away to spend it fast. This same year, he was forced to leave New York due to his debts to local bookies, and after a brief stay in Miami Florida, he eventually moved to Las Vegas, Nevada in 1977.
Marriage and Children
While living in Las Vegas, Stu Ungar met his eventual wife who already had one child (a son), and he fathered a second child (a daughter) with her.
Stu Ungar After Gin Rummy
Stu Ungar was so widely known as the best Gin Rummy player in the world that he had to offer odds or other gimmicks in order to get action. After months of playing from the dealer position every hand, giving opponent’s rebates back on their losses, etc., he found it too difficult still to even get a game. Las Vegas Casinos eventually asked Ungar not to participate in Gin Rummy tournaments, as the other players were declining to enter due to his presence.
In 1980 Stu Ungar defeated Doyle Brunson to win the World Series of Poker (WSOP Main Event) becoming the youngest player ever to do so. The following year, he successfully defended his title defeating Perry Green in heads-up play.
Stu Ugar was also known as a prolific blackjack player. It was his photographic memory that allowed him to excel in all games. In fact, in 1977 he bet casino owner Bob Stupak $100,000 that he could count down the final 2 decks of a 6 deck shoe. Ungar won the bet with ease even rambling off the suits for certain unseen cards, despite suits having no relevancy in blackjack.
Stu Ungars Demise and Death
Stu Ungar’s card playing career took a fatal turn after his adopted son Richie committed suicide and his wife left and divorced him in 1986. A broken down Stu Ungar became more and more heavily involved with prostitution, drug abuse, and reckless gambling and these vices dominated most of what was left of his short life.
In 1990, Billy Baxter gave Ungar the $10,000 buy-in to play the WSOP Main Event. After two days of play held, he had a massive chip lead; however, he then went on a cocaine binge and was unconscious for much of the remainder of the tournament. He was blinded out, finishing in 9th place worth $20,500. Failing to show up for the final days of the tournament was the last straw for Ungar, who was by then financially broke. He no longer could find a stake because no one trusted him with money or had faith he’d actually see a tournament through. He spent the next 7 years away from the poker scene.
In 1997, Ungar made a return to the WSOP and won the event. He was noticeably tired through out and it was a photo of his daughter that gave him the motivation and strength to stay awake through it. This 1997 victory gave him a record still unmatched today as the only player to win 3 World Series of Poker Main Event bracelets.
In 1998, Ungar’s health was so poor due to drug abuse for weeks leading up to the tournament that he declined a loan that would allow him to buy-in to the event and defend his title. A couple months later, on November 22, 1998, he was found dead in his Las Vegas motel room. According to the autopsy report, Stu Ungar died from a heart condition resulting from his years of drug abuse.
Legacy of Stu Ungar
The world might never know just how great Stu Ungar really was. He’s noted for having higher than an 80% win rate in multi-player Gin Rummy tournaments. In his career he entered an estimated 20 poker tournaments with buy-ins of $5,000 or more and won first place in eleven of them. These victories include 3 WSOP Main Event Championships, 2 additional WSOP bracelets, 3 Main Event wins in Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker (the second most prestigious tournament of the time), and three additional victories.
Stu Ungar Poker Hall of Fame
Stu Ungar’s final card playing accomplishment came a few years after his death when in 2001 he was inaugurated into the Poker Hall of Fame.