Stu Ungar Biography

Stu Ungar - The Greatest No Limit Hold'em Player?

Younger Years

Stuart Errol Unger was born on September 8th, 1953 in New York City. Early on Stu had more than just glimpses of what life had to offer a professional gambler. His father, Ido Unger, was not only a loan shark, but ran a gambling establishment in Manhattan.

To say that Stuey's childhood was dysfunctional is a slight understatement. His father saw first hand the rough life losing gamblers made for themselves and constantly rode his son not to play cards. Stu had won his first gin rummy tournament in 1963 at the age of ten. Even though Stu showed he had a gift for the game, his father still tried to persuade him not to play. His mother may have been a severe hypochondriac, she was always saying she was sick and that made it difficult for the family to ever leave the home and practice a social life. To top off an already fragile home life, when Stu was 15, his father died of a heart attack in the bed of a woman he was having an affair with. He loved cards and loved people. His parents did not completely prevent him from his passions but they did send mixed signals on what life was all about.

Middle Years

With his father gone, Stu took it upon himself to support his mother and sister. It was a case of right place and right time. The country had a taste for gin rummy (sort of similar to poker now) and he could play very well. Right through the mid 1970s Stu was known as the best gin rummy player in New York and won more than enough money to keep his sister and mom fed and housed, but he ran into a new problem. Stu love the ponies, but was not a very good handicapper. So he had to leave New York for two reasons. First, no one wanted to play rummy with him, he just never lost. Second, some people really wanted him hurt bad, he owed folks big time for loses at the track.

In 1977 he ended up in Las Vegas. This would be the time that Stu would make a forced transition from gin to poker. It was forced due to a lack of opponents willing to play against him and hosts not allowing him to play in big events because no one else would show up if he was there. Even those with bankrolls that would allow for a huge loss and think nothing of it, did not want to play against him. Stu had a bad reputation for not only beating his opponents soundly, but also needing to humiliate them.

In 1978 he was married to Madeline who already had a son, Richie. Stu and Richie got on very well together and Richie adopted the Unger name. Madeline and Stu would have a daughter together and name her Stephanie.

Later Years

During his Gin rummy days, Stu perfected use of a photographic memory which would cause success at two new games. Stuey could win some big money at blackjack, but by the mid 1980s none of the casinos would allow him to play. His photographic memory and reading people would be the foundation for becoming the greatest no limit hold'em player ever.

In 1980 Stu Unger would win the World Series of Poker Main Event, leaving Doyle Brunson content with second place. He would repeat as champion in 1981 and this time the poker world knew it was not a fluke and dubbed him "The Kid". In 1981 he also won a bracelet for the $10k deuce to seven draw event.

Even before his back to back championships, Stu was already beating the biggest no limit cash games in Las Vegas. He would go on to win more money in cash games then tournaments, but the tournament wins would bring the bigger fish with deeper pockets to cash games tables. The same lure amateur poker players have now for wanting to be in a game with Brunson, Ivey or Helmuth was very present in the mid 1980s. Everyone wanted their story of having played with Stu Unger, even if it meant they lost big money, the story was worth it.

After 1981 Stu Unger attained celebrity status. He started traveling more and he probably felt pulled in different directions. He was doing what he felt was necessary for his home life and family. He fought and won an accusation of cheating at blackjack and that had cost time and money. He considered all of these reasons why he did not win the 1982 Main Event. In 1983 he did win another WSOP bracelet, this time for Seven Stud. Also, in 1983, he was the Champion for Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker. (During that time most considered this the second best tournament, there was no WPT back then)

The years from 1985 to 1998 were not kind to Stuey and he was not kind to himself. In 1985 his son Richie committed suicide. It was about this time that Stu was introduced to cocaine. Originally taken to stay up for longer playing sessions it eventually lead to a full out addiction. With the turmoil created from his son's suicide and the cocaine addiction, Madeline divorced him 1986. He would fight the cocaine addiction all the way to his death. He would hit rock bottom, get someone to stake him on the tables and stay sober long enough to win a ton of money, get out of some of the debt he had incurred and use the left over money to buy drugs again. At least 3 times during this period he went from destitute to millionaire back to destitute. His only shining moment of this time was winning the 1997 WSOP Main Event. (Becoming the ONLY player to win it three times. Sorry guys, Johnny Moss only won it twice, that first year he was voted the winner, how stupid)

Even though Billy Baxter had offered to front the $10,000 entry fee for the 1998 event, Stuey declined to play. His deteriorating physical health from years of constant drug abuse was such a detriment that Stuey felt it would be more embarrassing to play than just not show up. A few months later Stu Unger was found dead in a Las Vegas motel room. An autopsy confirmed he had a heart condition from all the drug use.

Final Thoughts and comments

He won 10 major events (events with more than a $5,000 entry fee), yet he entered less than 40 in his lifetime, maybe even as few as 30 entered. Most pros these days will enter more than 40 major events in a two year period. If they win two or three it is a big deal.

In the 1990 Main Event, Stuey did not show up for play on day 3. He was found unconscious in his hotel room. However, that did not stop him from being blinded down to a 9th place finish. That was number four in the bag. (See drugs will do nothing for you)

Before the 1997 WSOP he had a nose surgery to fix problems from the cocaine usage. After the surgery he did cocaine again and his nostrils caved in. that is why he wore those goofy blue sunglasses.

Stu had said that there may be or one day there could be a better poker player than me, but no one will ever be as good at gin.

It is quite evident from reading different professional poker player's comments that even though Stuart Unger was brash to dealers and fellow players, he was a good friend, a good tipper and generous when needed