Stu Ungar once said, "It's hard work to play … play poker. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Think about what it's like to sit at a poker table with people whose only goal is Cutting your throat taking your money and leaving you to talk to yourself about what went wrong inside. That probably sounds tough, but that's the way it is at the poker table. If you don't believe me, you're the Lamb going to slaughter. "
Most people in the poker world are very familiar with Stu Ungar's legacy. The New York gin rummy child prodigy was so good that some of his opponents actually believed he was clairvoyant. His full recall ability even earned him a $ 100,000 wager after counting down a six-deck blackjack shoe. "The Kid" beat his opponents so badly that his action eventually dried up and he was forced to switch to poker.
Ungar quickly picked it up and was ultimately considered by many of his peers to be one of the best to have ever played the game. In addition to winning the Super Bowl of Poker three times, he also won five World Series of Poker bracelets. In fact, he remains the only player to ever win the $ 10,000 buy-in main event three times. He won titles in a row in 1980 and 1981 and returned in 1997 to win again.
(Johnny Moss also has three titles for the Main Event, but one was earned through player voting. Johnny Chan won the Main Event in 1987 and 1988 and narrowly dropped out in 1989, finishing second at Phil Hellmuth.)
Unfortunately, he was also a man who struggled with personal demons. While he would undoubtedly have been one of the early stars of the poker boom, Stu never saw the game explode in popularity. He died unceremoniously in 1998 at the age of 45 in a Las Vegas hotel room, the official cause listed as cardiac arrest. He was only a year away from his third major event title.
"Everyone felt awful, but it wasn't a surprise," Doyle Brunson was quoted as saying.
As someone who found the gambling world on my own at a young age, I have always been fascinated by Stu & # 39; s story. On a cold November day, I pulled a chair over to a small table with coffee on the left and my phone on the right to record. Sitting across from me was Stefanie, Stu's daughter, now 38. Although he didn't see her growing up, Stu would have been proud of Stefanie, who arrived smartly dressed and was more than happy to answer the seemingly endless list of questions I put together had, and a side of him that people might not know about.
Authors Note: My conversation with Stefanie Ungar-Campbell lasted several hours and the stories were endless. As much as I want to reveal everything I've learned, more than two thirds of the interview had to be left on the cutting room floor due to lack of space. If you want to hear more great stories about Stu Ungar, please follow her on Instagram (StefanieUngar) as she continues to share his legacy. Stefanie is currently working on opening a restaurant near the Las Vegas Strip named after her father and plans to use some of the sales for addiction recreation.
Stuey the child
Although his father Ido was a bookie who ran a bar and social club on Manhattan's Lower East Side, it was his mother Faye who sparked his interest in gin rummy.
"He had an insatiable appetite for action," said Stefanie. “He got into playing cards by watching his mother play with her friends and making mistakes. She would make fun of the other players and he would watch them openly laugh at her. That was what it sparked for him – his early pursuit of greatness in the game, coupled with his desire for respect. "
Stu & # 39; s early gin skill caught the attention of the mafia who haunted his father's establishment. After the death of his father, the mafia is said to have welcomed the 13-year-old with open arms. You can write these stories off as fiction, but Stefanie confirmed these early connections.
"There were so many gangsters in Stuey's Bar Mitzvah that the FBI was outside of the event, writing down the license plate of every car in the parking lot, ”she recalled. "They couldn't understand who the kid was and why there were so many Italian mafiosos at a Jewish children's birthday party. In reality, he was only 13 years old, whose father had the respect of the mafia, which could make them a lot of money. He joked later when the FBI was smart they had confiscated the guest book. "
Stu grew streetwise beyond his years, but his official training fell by the wayside. The more he got into gin to support his mother and sister, the less important it was to do his homework or even go to school. Although he was smart enough to skip two grades early in his academic career, he often played gin all night in high school. The double life of card shark and student ultimately proved to be too much to juggle, and he dropped out of tenth grade. At that point it didn't matter as he was too ingrained in the gambling world to consider any other path in life.
His mind was in maps and bustle, not books and sheet music. Stuey once played a high-stakes gin match for the Mafia, and the illegality of the game was revealed in the second round FBI kicked in the door and hurried across the parlor. The sudden flood of law enforcement would surprise most people, but Stu quickly jumped off the table and onto a bar stool, grabbing a bartender's rag in the process. In a flash, Stuey transformed from an illegal high-stakes player into an underweight kid who was only there to shine shoes for change. It wasn't the last time that Stu's quick thinking got out of trouble.
The toughest player
When Stu arrived in Las Vegas, he quickly realized that there was everything he had ever wanted: alcohol, women, fancy cars, nice dinners and above all, an endless amount of action. At first he practiced his craft as a gin aficionado, paying off some previous ties to keep his safety safe, but his desire to prove himself didn't stop there. It didn't matter what game it was, Stu found a bet and played as high and fast as anyone would allow.
"Stu was a first-time golf player and left the course for over $ 77,000. I don't know what he was chasing, whether it was an adrenaline rush or something, but he was always pushing how far he could go," recalled Stefanie, "At some point he lost the Mercedes in which he arrived on the golf course. He was a terrible golfer and, to be honest, terrible sports bettor. If he'd stuck to gin and poker his life would have been easier, but it was him Not. "
Poker pro Mark Gregorich struggled with Ungar at the tables in his dwindling years, confirming that Stu had not only lost the $ 77,000 playing nine holes of golf, but had managed to lose an additional $ 300,000 practicing putting greens before he ever got off course. Stop and think about it for a moment. He had never picked up a number of golf clubs in his life, but he was willing to bet a fortune on them in his search for action.
Always brash and cocky about his abilities, Stu got into more than a fair share of confrontations. While it is recorded in the annals of poker history that it was almost banned from 1981 WSOP Main event after spitting on a dealer, Stefanie pointed out that he also had a gentle heart and would often try to make it up to him.
"At his funeral, my mother pointed out several traders present and told me how big the deal was because he didn't always treat her best. When we talked to one of them afterwards, he said that not everyone understood, but Stu tried to make it a goal to stop by after the game and apologize while leaving a sizeable tip. He would only be so frustrated playing for huge sums of money that he couldn't control himself. But when When his anger subsided, he usually tried to get it right. "
Dealing with tragedy
Stu married Stefanie's mother Madeline in 1982, shortly before Stefanie was born. He wanted to "do the right thing" and not have an illegitimate child. Stefanie remembered the countless nights they spent together, cuddling on the couch, playing footsies while talking or playing Monopoly for hours. The marriage also came with a stepchild for Stu. Richie was a 12-year-old boy who adored him as a father and husband. Stefanie explained that they would always hang on the waist and always bet on stupid things.
Hungary's mother suffered a stroke and had to be taken to a nursing home before she died in 1979. The burden of guilt weighed heavily on Stu, and it was too much for some of his "friends" to testify. He was offered cocaine and told it would help him feel better. Stu never drank or smoked as his appetite was always action-oriented, but this time he willingly accepted any means to help with his overwhelming sadness. In the blink of an eye he felt better, refreshed, and ready to go. That one-off cocaine bump quickly led to the realization that the miracle drug could help him keep playing at the tables longer. What had started as a desire to ease one's own pain had instead become a tool to create pain at the tables.
Stu & # 39; s recurring drug habit sparked a row in the Hungarian household, and the couple divorced in 1986. Richie chose to live with Stu instead of his mother, but committed suicide shortly after graduating from high school in 1989.
"I had never seen my father cry, but after Richie died, ten years after his death he still cried himself to sleep at night."
The tragedy, along with Madeline and Stefanie, who left Las Vegas for their family network in Florida, drove Stu over the edge. The medication was no longer there for parties or nightly meetings at the table. They were again used as a tool to relieve anxiety.
When Stu played in 1990 WSOP Main event he made the third day as the monster chip leader but was overdosed and couldn't show up to play on the last day. His unmanned stack still made it to the final table before placing it in ninth place for $ 25,050.
Memory of her father
Stu was a great player, but he was so focused on playing that he often lacked the basic ability to function as a person. For example, he once let a Mercedes run dry and returned it to the dealership. He complained that no one told him his car needed servicing. He even paid a neighborhood boy $ 20 to take out his trash. He did not trust the banks and paid everything in cash. But when it came to the time with Stefanie, he was fully involved and focused.
"He had a Jaguar, that was his car, and he kept swapping the older model for an updated version," she said. “Whenever I came from Florida for the summer, he picked me up at the airport himself. He would come straight to the gate, you were allowed back then, and then we jumped into his car and drove off. If we went to dinner together, it was a matter. We'd be out and about for hours just talking at the table. He always loved Chinese and Italian food and it became our thing. I've heard from the players before that he was completely different around me. "
The world Stu lived in every day was non-stop adrenaline, killing or being killed and overwhelming machismo, and he didn't want any part of it for his daughter. Not only did he not want Stefanie to learn poker, but he was over-cautious.
"I couldn't leave our impasse because he was afraid that I would be kidnapped", remembered Stefanie, who now has two children of her own. "He didn't let me wear makeup or nail polish and I couldn't shave my legs because he told me I wasn't old enough. If I said something" sucked "he would chastise me and tell me it wasn't ladylike When we went to the movies together and I had to go to the bathroom, he would find the cutest old lady he could and would ask her to make sure I was okay. "
“He had seen another world, which luckily most people never see, and (it affected him). However, I was not completely blind to the world he lived in. I knew he always had women around, but when I came to town for three months in the summer I never saw one. Not a woman. Picture this and change your life so much for your daughter. It was for love. "
It is often said that Stu Ungar died alone in a hotel room without a penny in his pocket, leaving nothing to his family. The reality of this is much further from the truth. He left many happy memories for his daughter, teaching her to be faithful, to be respectful and to act with class. He showed how to love and how to act in a world that chews you up and spits you out. It is the same love that Stefanie passes on to her children when she tells them about the man who was their father and how proud he would be of them. ♠
Nathan Gamble is from Texas, where he learned to play Hold & # 39; em from his father. He is a two-time winner of the World Series of Poker bracelet after winning in 2017 WSOP $ 1,500 Pot-Limit Omaha Eight-or-Better Event and 2020 WSOP Online $ 600 PLO Eight-or-better event. He's an integral part of the mix game community and often plays $ 80- $ 160 mix games at Wynn. Gamble is active on Twitter under the user name "Surfbum4life". He is also the main commentator for the Galfond Challenge, which he airs along with mixed game content on his Twitch channel. You can listen to his poker origins story on Card Player's Poker Stories Podcast.