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Poker News | People in Poker | Poker Superstars

Where are they now - Stu “The Kid” Ungar

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Where are They Now is a series of an in depth look at all poker players - not just the pros - as they travel through one long game. Some of the players profiled are deceased but not forgotten.

What a difference a year makes. The 1979 World Series of Poker Main Event was won by a relatively unknown player, Hal Fowler. The next year introduced the poker world to a player that would go down as one of the best players in history. Stu “The Kid” Ungar was a natural card player almost from the day he was born. His story is truly one of the most fascinating to ever come out of the poker world - some good, some bad, but always very interesting.

With some of the other players we’ve reviewed, we’ve seen that some poker players found poker on their own, and others had it thrust upon of them in one fashion or another, but none of them can claim the background Ungar has. Ungar was born to a mother and father who made a large part of their income from gambling. From before he could even walk, Ungar spent his days in his father’s bar, which was really just a cover up for an illegal bookmaking operation. Growing up in Manhattan, Ungar was quickly exposed to both the joy and hardship that gambling could bring. While passing time in his father’s bar he would pick up a deck of cards, and soon began challenging anyone he could in a game of Gin. Most people, thinking they were just being nice to a kid, would sit down with him, only to immediately realize he was very good at the game, almost genius like. At just the age of 15 he entered a Gin tournament with some of the best players the game had to offer and took it down without as much as losing a hand.

With his father dead from a heart attack, and his mom in ill health, Ungar had very little initiative to continue going to school. The Gin tournament victory had introduced him to more money than he had ever had up to this point, giving him even more reason, at least in his eyes, to drop out of school. Ungar quickly annihilated the New York City Gin scene, which believe it or not, was a highly profitable circuit at the time. He was known to go up against champions of years, and then mock them as he was taking them for their last penny.

After a short stay in Miami, Florida, Ungar, along with his financial backers (believed to be members of the mob, although never proven), decided to go to Las Vegas and attempt to wipe out the Gin scene there as well. The call of all the other gambling games caught Ungar’s attention, and before long he was deep into blackjack and sports betting. One story says Ungar was given $70,000 in preparation for a Gin tournament, while one of his backers went to check into a hotel room. In the five minutes it took to check-in, Ungar has lost the entire stash of money playing blackjack. Despite the initial bad results, Ungar was eventually banned from playing any game that involved cards, except one at a casino, because his card reading ability translated to those games as easy as it had in Gin. The one exception was that he was still allowed to play was poker. After playing poker semi-seriously for a year, and once again wiping out the local Gin scene, Ungar entered the 1980 World Series of Poker.

At the beginning of the tournament Ungar was a player that was almost totally unknown. By the end of it every eye on the casino was on him. For starters, he looked like a kid, and “The Kid,” was totally fearless in dominating and controlling the table against poker champions twice his age and with a lifetime more experience. The final two players were Ungar and Doyle Brunson. When Ungar hit a straight on the flop, he became champion, and the hottest new poker celebrity, something he wasn’t always good at handling.

Ungar was addicted to gambling, there is no other way to say it. Obviously you can make the argument that most poker players are addicted to gambling, but most of them have also mastered the art of bankroll management – one of the most important, if not the most important characteristic of a winning poker player.

Ungar also had a drug problem, and both of these obsessions led to his estimated losses of over 30 million dollars in his short lifetime. Some of Ungar’s gambling stories are amazing, such as the time he won a multi-million jackpot at a horse track. However, the majority of them are excruciatingly painful, such as the time he put every last cent to his name on the boxing fight between Julio Cesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor to go the distance. It didn’t matter on the outcome, it only had to go the full twelve rounds. Instead, the fight went 35 minutes and 58 seconds, just two seconds from seeing the final bell. All of these characteristics of Ungar were quickly identified by other players soon after he became an overnight celebrity in 1980.

A famous story surrounding Ungar, and his always boyish looks, involves him trying to enter a bar shortly after a major tournament victory. When the bartender asked to see his ID, Ungar was livid, surprised the bartender didn’t know his name, or who he was. Instead of pulling out an ID, Ungar pulled out thick wads of cash out of every pocket and said, “How’s this for an ID?” Ungar and his groups of friends were then served.

Despite his major drug addiction, which many friends tried to get him to stop, Ungar was simply amazing at a poker table. Ungar only entered 30 major poker tournaments in his lifetime. He won 10. Other tournaments he was leading, but would miss the entire next day because he was passed out in his room from a heavy night of partying.

Ungar would become only the second man in history, at the time, to win back-to-back World Series of Poker main events when he again took down the title in 1981. After winning that title, Ungar would only sporadically play in the major tournaments due to his drug addiction, and often times being broke. For the next decade and a half Ungar lived in second-rate hotel rooms, and spent the majority of his days betting two dollars a race at the horse track. However, in 1997, Ungar made one of the most remarkable comebacks in poker history.

Always known as “The Kid,” Ungar added the word “Comeback” before Kid in 1997. Minutes before the Main Event started Ungar came in, looking noticeably worn down, including a deviated septum due to his cocaine use, to the poker lobby asking for a stake. Adding more to the legend, Ungar had apparently been up 24 hours straight looking for someone to stake him the $10,000 dollar entrance fee. Longtime friend and seven time WSOP bracelet winner Billy Baxter reluctantly staked Ungar in the Main Event, despite nobody hearing much of Ungar in years. Baxter had staked Ungar in years past, but it was almost seen that Baxter gave Ungar this buy-in out of pity. The investment would pay off.

During the first day of the tournament Ungar’s stack went up and down like a rollercoaster. At various points during the tournament Baxter would look over at his investment and see Ungar starting to fall asleep in his chair. Baxter would apparently scream an obscenity over to Ungar, reminding him whose dime he was on, and Ungar would be shocked awake, eventually making it through the end of day one around the middle of the pack. Not many people really expected to see Ungar back the next day, but to the surprise of many he walked into the casino lobby looking younger and fresher than he had in years. It was on Day 2 that people again started to believe in Ungar. “The Kid” would win his last main event like he did his first, with a straight, this time landing on the river. Amazingly Ungar had come out of nowhere to win his record tying third main event. Baxter and Ungar would split the one million dollar prize. The victory celebration wouldn’t last long though.

Ungar would go on to lose his half-million dollars sports betting and buying drugs. Over the final weeks of his life he again asked Baxter for money so he could play in the high stakes poker game at the Bellagio. Baxter loaned him $25,000, and over the course of a couple weeks he was down to just a small fraction of the loan.

On the night Ungar died, he left Bellagio with at least a few thousand dollars on him. He returned to his hotel room, and the next day he was found dead, with just $800 dollars on him. Nobody is sure what happened to the rest of the money between Bellagio and his hotel room. It would seem obvious to suggest he spent it on drugs, but a toxicity report days after his death only showed trace amount of drugs in his system, not enough to kill him. His official cause of death was called a heart attack, caused by a lifetime of doing hard drugs.

If Ungar would have been able to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and had anything resembling bankroll management, in the eyes of many, he would have broken the major poker records. But, those are big ifs. Instead we are left with the legend of the man who won 1/3rd of the poker tournaments he ever entered, and is idolized by many young poker players coming up the rankings.

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