When it comes to card-playing phenoms, Stu Ungar might be the greatest there ever was.
Ungar’s unique talent for calculating odds and reading his opponents was a virtually unbeatable combination, and he rode these skills to riches in many forms of cards and gambling. His success includes a record of three titles in the World Series of Poker Main Event.
His life in gambling began in Manhattan when he was 10 years old playing gin rummy, and ended at the age of 45 when he died in Las Vegas of a supposed heart attack following years of drug addiction.
Following his father’s death, Ungar dropped out of school in the 1960s to support his mother and sister playing rummy. By 1976, he was widely known as the best player in New York City.
Ungar moved to Miami and then to Las Vegas, and had to give up gin rummy because he was so good. Perhaps his greatest feat was when he played Harry Stein, who was known as the greatest player of his generation. Ungar beat him 86 times without losing a game.
Gin rummy was a popular tournament game at the time, and Ungar always won or finished very high. He often was asked not to play because the tournaments would not get big fields due to his presence. Eventually, Ungar had to switch to other games because nobody would give him any action.
He proved to be brilliant in virtually every card game he tried, including blackjack and poker.
Ungar won the 1980 and 1981 WSOP Main Event titles. Then 27 years old, he beat poker legend Doyle Brunson heads up to win the tournament in 1980 and became the youngest player to win the Main Event.
By then, according to his autobiography, he had begun using cocaine, based on advice from other players. He said they told him the drug would keep him awake for a long time, which he thought would be helpful while he was gambling for long hours. His recreational use turned into an addiction that lasted for nearly 20 years.
As sad as that is, one of his most improbable poker feats occurred because of that addiction.
During the 1990 WSOP Main Event, he was found unconscious on the floor of his hotel room following a drug overdose. Even though he was not at the table, his chip stack continued to be blinded out while the tournament continued. He had built such a big stack during the first two days that by the time he returned to the table, he had enough to ride to a ninth-place finish and the $25,000 prize.
The damage from more than a decade of addiction also reared its ugly head during the 1997 Main Event. His friend Billy Baxter paid for his entry fee at the last minute. Ungar had been awake for more than 24 hours at the time and fell asleep several times while playing on the first day of the event. He eventually made it through the first day and regrouped in the following days.
Ungar won the tournament to become the second three-time winner. He split the $1,000,000 first-place prize with Baxter. This was when Ungar was given the nickname “The Comeback Kid.”
His addiction eventually caught up to him in November of 1998. By then, he was using crack, because he could smoke it through a pipe. His nostrils were so damaged from using cocaine he could not snort anything.
He was eventually found dead at a hotel at the end of the Las Vegas Strip in November 1998. No drugs were found in his room, and an autopsy found only traces of drugs in his system. A medical examiner ruled his death was from a heart condition as a result of drug use.
Despite the sadness surrounding his life away from the table, Ungar is regarded as a legend. When he was at the top of his game, he was rarely beaten.
Stu Ungar stats
Total live tournament winnings: $3,677,961
World Series of Poker
Highest main event finish: 1st (3 times)
Total WSOP winnings: $2,081,478