Stu Ungar: Brilliant & Troubled

The story behind one of gambling's most amazing minds and the roller coaster life he led

stu ungar

In the world of professional gambling there might not be many more notorious names than Stu Ungar. Ungar was a brilliant gambler with an incredible mind, but also loved to punt to the point that he would take on anyone at anytime.

His ups and downs in both gambling and life are now legendary.

Gin Rummy Prodigy

Ungar was born in New York in 1953. His father ran a bar, but for the most part he earned his money by taking bets on sports on the side.

As a kid, Stu would help his dad keep a tally of all the punters and he quickly learnt what to do and what not to do.

Throughout his childhood, Ungar was always fascinated with cards. He originally started by watching his mother play her weekly poker game. Before he had even had his tenth birthday he was giving his mother advice on how to play.

Ungar knew he was good at cards; he was always the best at any game he played. He just seemed to have a knack for them and he had an incredible, almost photographic, memory. Stu particularly enjoyed playing Gin Rummy, and by the time he was 15 he left school to go and play around the country.

Ungar began playing card games all around America, and he was able to make around $500 per game. The problem with Stu was simply just that he was too good.

While a better hustler might let his opponents win a game or two to butter them up, Ungar would simply annihilate them to the point of embarrassment. It wasn’t all that long before Stu simply couldn’t get anyone to play against him.

Ungar began dabbling in other games such as poker and blackjack. He always needed to be gambling so he was willing to take on any game. He was eventually banned from playing blackjack at most casinos, so that left him with poker.

From Poker Rookie To Champion

In 1978 Ungar headed to Vegas to start his poker career.

Unlike most when relatively new to the game, Stu sought out the highest stakes games he could find straight away. He walked into a game at the Dunes Casino and threw $20,000 on the table. As the story goes he had lost it in 15 minutes. However, a day and a half later, he had won it all back, plus another $27,000.

Two years after his initial debut, Ungar entered the WSOP looking for more action. He ultimately won the event, beating the legendary Doyle Brunson and pocketing a cool $365,000. It was incredible to think that it was one of the first tournaments he had ever played.

Money was never something that Ungar really ever cared about. At the height of his gambling career, he had millions of dollars saved.

Despite this, he rarely paid his bills and regularly had his power cut off. Over the course of his life he never had a bank account and would buy groceries at a fuel station.

During his career, despite winning plenty of money, Ungar also found enough ways to lose it all through gambling. He would bet on everything from greyhounds to rounds of golf, a sport that he couldn’t even play. Ungar simply needed to gamble.

He was also married and had a daughter, however as a husband he had numerous shortcomings. He would go missing for days at a time as he would be playing cards and lose track of time.

Ungar also had an ongoing battle with cocaine. In 1990, Ungar was staked by another player to enter the WSOP. He was one of the leaders early in the piece, however on day three he failed to appear. He was found in his underwear, unconscious. Given his big stack early he eventually took out ninth place even though he never returned to the table.

The Comeback

Over the following few years, Ungar began to decline. His addiction got the better of him and he was struggling badly. In 1997, a friend put up the money to enter the WSOP. He arrived and many thought he looked like a homeless man.

In what is one of the greatest comeback stories in gambling history, Ungar went on to win the 1997 WSOP and take out the $1 million first prize.

Unfortunately, over the coming months, Ungar didn’t improve and his battle with addiction continued. Within four months he had lost all of his share of the winnings.

It wasn’t much later that Stu Ungar was found dead in a cheap hotel room at the end of the Vegas strip. He didn’t have any drugs in his system at the time, but his years of abuse had caused a heart condition that ultimately took his life.

Stu Ungar will go down in history as a troubled yet brilliant gambler, with a mind like few others.

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