I hesitate to write this story because so many great writers have written it before.  I had the honor of meeting the man that very few people ever really knew.  Stu Ungar was a prodigy in both Poker and Gin Rummy.  He was the greatest poker player that ever lived.  I both played poker and just hung out playing Chinese poker for hours with Stu. I admired the abilities of the man and hated the way he was throwing away his life.

1998 found me at Binion’s Horseshoe for the World Series of Poker; Stu was there, too. Stu had won the main event in 1997 and had split the million dollar prize with his backer, Billy Baxter.  I will never know if Stu paid his taxes but I would venture a guess that he did not.  In the year that passed Stu went through the entire $500,000 and was once again broke.  The fact is he was broke in just a couple months.  Now Stu was back and had Baxter to stake him in the 1998 main event.

The 1998 World Series was a true hell for Stu.  Baxter had put the money up for him to play and Mike Sexton was watching guard over Stu every minute of every day in the room Binion’s had provided for Stu.  Stu was in bad shape from drug abuse and was trying to clean himself up to play the main event.  This is the time when he and I crossed paths.  I spent many hours talking with Stu and I can honestly say it was painful to talk to him and amazing to watch him play poker.  His body was spent but his mind was still very sharp, even if he had difficulty communicating with the rest of us.

I saw Stu go through a shuffled deck of cards in under one minute and recite them in order with no mistakes in less than 30 seconds.  The man had a phenomenal mind even in his drug addled stupor of 1998.  This was just one example of how a strung out drug addict made me realize he was truly the greatest that ever lived in his chosen profession.

I remember Stu grabbing my 13 card Chinese poker hand and setting it in less than two seconds.  I had been struggling with the hand for what must have been an eternity to Stu and was probably 20 seconds to you and I.  He took the cards from me and laid them down three, five and five.  The hand was obvious to him and troubling for me.  I must have been donating the dollar a hand we were playing for just to be in his company.  Surely I could not believe I was going to win.

I have made many bad decisions in my life and on this particular night I would make yet another mistake.  I gave Stu $100; we called it a loan and I knew very well I would never see the money again.  I should have known Stu would put it into drugs.  Mike Sexton and Billy Baxter had worked so hard to get Stu straightened out for the main event that it really is a shame that I sabotaged the program by giving Stu access to cash.

The main event finally rolled around and as was the custom of the time the event was late getting started.  The event was scheduled to start at noon and cards were in the air by 12:40.  Matt Damon and Edward Norton were there playing in the main event promoting the upcoming movie Rounders.  Stu was nowhere to be found and had not come down from his room.  Some time after one o’clock there was an announcement that Stu was not feeling well and would not be playing.

For most of my life I thought the 1998 main event was Stu Ungars’ last hurrah.  Stu was quoted as saying; he felt showing up in his current condition would be more embarrassing than not showing up at all.   He declined rapidly during 1998, seriously addicted to crack cocaine.  I would never see Stu again and I would only read the stories for the last six months of his life.  He passed away in November 1998.

I recently learned that in October 1998 Stu had been given one last chance to get it together.  Bob Stupak had taken Stu in and offered to pay off his debts and stake him in poker tournaments.  Stu accepted.  Unfortunately, he was able to talk Bob out of $10,000 in up-front money for walking around.  The world will never know where that money went.  Stu was found with $882 on him when he died, all that was left of the $10,000 stake.  This was about $880 more than I expected him to have.  For the previous six months he had spent every dime he got hold of on crack. 

Stu was 45 years old when he passed away.  He died from bad choices in his personal life.  He was an unmistakable drug addict.  He never had a bank account and dealt exclusively in cash.  He loved strippers and hookers, bought Cristal champagne and partied like a rock star.  He had horrible eating habits and had the table manners of a wild animal.  Yes, he talked with his mouth full.  Stu never washed his hair as an adult.  He was dysfunctional on so many levels that it is truly amazing that he was so proficient at black jack, rummy and poker.

I will be 45 years old this year and I have lived my life pretty hard and made plenty of bad decisions.  When I need inspiration to improve my lifestyle I look no further than true tragedy that was the life and death of Stu Ungar.


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One Response to “Tragedy”

  1. thecasinoguru Says:

    we all cry for Stu. drug addiction is a disease of brain chemistry and not just bad behavior. but no matter how sad his life was he won the WSOP main event title 3 times and was the greatest poker and rummy player who ever lived. My great uncle was a world champion in bridge and he said Stu was the greatest card player who ever existed on this planet. we can only hope that Stu found some peace finally and we can also hope that we will start to see more enlightened and sensitive treatment of addiction in the future. Rest in peace Stu. you will always be the greatest.

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