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Poker News | World Poker News

Tenth Anniversary of Stu Ungar’s Death, Not Forgotten

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The anniversary was on Saturday, November 22 - not the kind of anniversary that is celebrated but one that is mourned and pondered. Stu Ungar was somewhat of a legend in the poker community, and his death in 1998 not only signified the end of an era but pointed specifically to the dangers of a particular kind of lifestyle. At the time of the tenth anniversary of his death, it’s important to remember a person who contributed so much to poker, yet allowed his genius to be overcome by addictions and excess.

He was born Stuart Errol Ungar on September 8, 1953 in New York, and the youngster discovered gambling at a young age. His father ran a bar in which its patrons participated in regular gambling activities, and he learned how to hustle in his youth, especially when it came to cards, having found a particular penchant for the game of gin. Upon his father’s death and mother’s severe illness, he took to the streets at the age of 18 and played gin rummy to support his mother and sister. Through tournaments and underground games, he earned a reputation as a very skilled player.

Gambling debts soon sent Ungar to live in Florida temporarily before he moved to Las Vegas. Though gin was the game that supported his lifestyle via high-stakes games, the action soon dried up when players no longer wanted to play against him. It was even rumored that casinos asked him not to play in tournaments because it thinned the field too much when the players knew Ungar would be involved. It was during that time that he met Billy Baxter and began playing poker with Baxter acting as his backer when necessary.

Ungar took to poker almost as he had to gin. Cards seemed to be second nature for him, and the first time he played Texas hold’em was supposedly when he played in the 1980 WSOP and won the $10K No-Limit Hold’em World Championship. Not only did he defeat Doyle Brunson to do that, but he became the youngest winner to ever hold the title at that time. Ungar went on to win two WSOP bracelets in 1981, one of which was the main event to take the championship title for the second year in a row.

Through his years in Vegas, Ungar also became a successful blackjack player due to his ability to count cards. An Atlantic City casino attempted to fine him for cheating at blackjack, but he took the case to court and won on the argument that he merely counted cards, which was not illegal. However, as time progressed and casinos became aware of his abilities, he was banned from playing the game.

Ungar struggled throughout his life with personal demons and issues that led him to find an escape through drugs. During his marriage to wife Madeline, Ungar adopted his step-son, Richie, who ultimately committed suicide during his high school years. The stress that put on the marriage led to its demise in 1986, and it was estimated that he began using cocaine at that time. By 1990, the addiction became overwhelming and led to a drug overdose.

Though his daughter, Stefanie, gave Ungar some incentive to be responsible with finances and break his addiction, it wasn’t nearly that simple. Between forays into gambling in which he would lose his entire bankroll and have to start from scratch, and periods of time that he would disappear as the drugs and mental struggles took a significant toll on him, the 1990’s were rough for the man who many said had nearly limitless potential should he choose to use it.

By 1997, Ungar convinced long-time backer Baxter that he was ready to play in the WSOP main event again, and it turned out to be a struggle from the last-minute registration to the first day of play where he performed after having been awake for more than 24 hours. But once past the first day, he made it to the final table and won the entire event, which was then worth one million dollars and split down the middle with Baxter.

Despite his comeback in the poker world, it was rumored that Ungar lost all of his $500K winnings in only a few months between his habits of drugs - which turned from cocaine to crack because his nasal membranes had been destroyed from years of cocaine abuse - and sports betting. The next year was a difficult one for Ungar, and he even passed on playing the 1998 WSOP main event because of his admitted drug use.

Months later, on November 22, 1998, Ungar was found dead in a room at the Oasis Motel in Las Vegas by a motel clerk. He was in possession of only $800, the only money left from a $25K loan from Baxter the week earlier to play in a high-stakes poker game. At the age of 45, an autopsy showed that he died of a heart condition, though it was widely accepted that that was likely the result of too many years of drugs.

The loss of Ungar was a stunning one for the poker world. It wasn’t that anyone was shocked at the outcome of Ungar’s life, after having lived so much of it on the edge of danger and risk, but it was the staunch irony of it. Ungar possessed the IQ of a genius and a memory that floored anyone who witnessed it, and his potential in the game of poker - and anything he put his mind to, for that matter - was practically without limit. But it was the access to excess, and the temptations he was faced with and could not turn away from, that overcame any and all of his potential.

Ungar was a slave to his wants, desires, and addictions, and despite years of proclaiming the goal of being more responsible for the sake of his daughter, he could not escape the dark side. Ultimately, it consumed him and took his life.

Poker players look at Ungar’s life with mixed emotions. His card skills were something to be envied, and players everywhere strive to have the mental capabilities and uncanny ability to read other players, if only to end up with half the skills of someone like Stu Ungar. But at the same time, Ungar’s inability to turn away from the temptations of all of the negative opportunities that Vegas and the gaming world have to offer scares players that read about Ungar today. Those temptations face almost every person that enters the world of poker on more than a casual basis, and Ungar’s susceptibility to it reminds everyone of their own weaknesses.

Stu Ungar, known in poker circles as “The Kid” because of his uncanny young looks, was a casualty of the poker world. Unbeknownst to him, he was an example to everyone who has ever picked up a deck of cards with more than a passing interest of one’s potential for good and propensity to fall to the bad.

The tenth anniversary of his death brings back memories for those who knew Ungar and should be a time for newer players in the game to reflect on their poker lives. There are lessons to be learned in every story. This one just happens to be a particularly poignant one that took place in our poker world.

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