Stuart Errol “Stu” Ungar is said to be the best ever professional poker and gin rummy player to have ever lived. He holds the record of being the only player to win three World Series of Poker main events. Not only that, he has also won three Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker. During its time, it is the most prestigious poker title in the world.
Ungar was born on September 8, 1953 to Jewish parents at Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was exposed to gambling at a young age because his father, Isadore, is a loan shark that operates a social club that’s a front for a gambling den. His father didn’t want him to gamble but Ungar made a name for himself playing tournament gin.
He won a gin tournament when he was just 10 years old. By the year 1976, he was regarded as the best in the state of New York. He dropped out of school to pursue a gin rummy career to help support his mother and sister parents when his father died due to a heart attack in 1968.
This is the time he met Victor Romano, who acted as the father figure to him. They got close because they both share the same love of math and gambling. Ungar love to openly criticize his opponents that are inferior to him and because of his relationship with Romano, other player don’t dare cross him. There’s a story of a man who tried to hit Ungar on the head with a chair after he was defeated. That man was found shot to death a few days after.
Because he was already the best gin rummy player, no one dared played with him anymore. He would even set handicaps to level the field. He would let his opponent look at the last card of the deck, offer rebates, or play each hand at the dealer position. There was a story about Ungar playing a match with a known cheater. The other player blatantly cheated throughout the match yet Ungar still managed to win it.
He then moved to Las Vegas, hoping to find more competitors. He would win or place high in most tournaments that hotels would ask him not to join at their events because players might not enter if they know Ungar is in it.
In 1980 he entered the World Series of Poker and won the main event, beating poker legend Doyle Brunson and at that time became the youngest champion in WSOP history. That’s where his nickname The Kid is from. He repeated the victory the next year be defeating Perry Green for the 1981 WSOP title.
His next WSOP main event win would come 16 years later. Another poker pro and close friend, Billy Baxter, gave Ungar he $10,000 so hat he could join in the event. During the first day of the tournament, he was exhausted because he had to stay awake for 24 hours trying to raise the money for the buy-in. Midway through the first day, he fell asleep in his table. After encouragement from Sexton and a scolding from Baxter, Ungar settled in and made it through day one.
During the whole tournament he kept the picture of his daughter Stefanie in his wallet and would call to update her about the tournament. Feeling refreshed the next day; he eventually got the chip lead going to the final table. He won the event to become the first person to ever win three WSOP main event titles and was nicknamed The Comeback Kid by the media. He split the $1 million purse with Baxter.
Sadly, he lost most of his 1997 WSOP winnings on drugs and sports betting. He tried to stay away from drugs but his addiction is too high for him to stop. Before the 1998 WSOP main event, Baxter again offered to foot his buy-in but Ungar declined the offer, saying that he was tired and did not feel like playing. He would later confide to friends that the reason why he didn’t want to enter the said event was that he feels that showing up in his current condition would be embarrassing than not showing up at all.
After the 1998 WSOP event, he would disappear from the public eye. He would stay at different hotels in Las Vegas, oftentimes not going out his room. He would be spotted outside poker rooms, begging for money. He would say that it would be to start his bankroll but in reality he will use it on drugs.
He was found dead on November 22, 1998 in a room at the Oasis Motel in Las Vegas. Autopsy showed that there are traces of illegal substances in his body but it is not enough to cause an overdose. It is concluded that he died of a heart failure due to his history of drug abuse.
Though his death was tragic, he is still remembered as the best poker player to have ever played the game.