It’s hard work. Gambling. Playing poker. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Think about what it’s like sitting at a poker table with people whose only goal is to cut your throat, take your money, and leave you out back talking to yourself about what went wrong inside.’Stu ‘The Kid’ Ungar
- Stu ‘The Kid’ Ungar was thought to possess a genius IQ and a photographic memory.
- He won back-to-back World Series of Poker Main Event Championships in 1980 and 1981, then again sixteen years later in 1997.
- Physically he was small, his youth and success earned him the nickname Stu “The Kid” Ungar.
- Mentally he was a giant – well known for being exceptionally fearless and aggressive.
Path to Poker
Stuart Errol Ungar was born in lower Manhattan on September 8, 1953.
His father, Ido, was a bookmaker, so it’s not surprising that Stu was fond of gambling, too. Ido also ran an illegal casino out of his bar in New York. Long before his legal age Stu knew what true gambling was.
Ungar’s career began as Gin Rummy ‘s player. He was so good at it, that by the late 1970’s no one wanted to play him. No one wanted to risk it.
When the field of opponents dried up, he needed another career path and that’s how poker came into the picture.
By 1980’s Stu ‘The Kid’ Ungar was already among the top poker players in the world. He won his first WSOP when he was 26, making him the youngest world champion at the time winning it fair and square.
All in all, Ungar won the 1980, 1981, and 1997 WSOP Main Events, along with two additional World Series of Poker tournaments.
He was the first player in WSOP history to win three Main Event freezeout championships.
The Kid was a true legend in the gambling world. He craved action and bet on everything. Whatever he gambled on he was the highest of high rollers, that is if he was allowed to gamble – as he was banned from just about every casino on the planet. He was just too good.
Unfortunately Stu developed a drug habit, and it led him to borrowing money to buy drugs.
He was so heavily involved in the substances that his poker game had slipped, and he was struggling financially.
Entering the 1997 world championship event, he hadn’t won anything meaningful in the previous five years. He’d earned his last bracelet in 1983, although he did have numerous wins in other events throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Actually Ungar didn’t even have the money to compete in the Main Event in 1997. Billy Baxter, a seven-time bracelet winner, staked him the buy-in for a satellite, which he won, and earned his seat in the tournament.
A surprising come back
Despite being drained from an unhealthy lifestyle in 1997 he gathered himself together for a couple of days and defeated 312 of the best players in the world and won the Main Event for $1 million.
One of the most memorable Stu Ungar’s WSOP 1997 moments was a bluff on Ron Stanley.
Excerpt from the book ’52 Greatest Moments World Series of Poker’:
The crowd favorite, Ron Stanley, dared come close to the rolling Stu Ungar. He came within $200K and some thought that his momentum might overtake Stu. Those hopes were dashed on the following hand.
Stanley would limp into the pot from the small blind. Stu limped in from the big. The flop came A♠, 9♥, 6♠. Ron Stanley had a 9♦, 7♦, good for middle pair.
Stu held a Q♠, 10♣. Stanley decided to check the bet and Stu followed.
The turn produced the 8♣. Fourth street gave Stu a gut shot straight draw. So when Stanley bet $25K, he was met by a $60K raise.
Stanley took his time to call given the fact Stu had slow played high pairs earlier in the tournament. But the $60K was just enough for Stanley to stick around.
The river was a K♦. Stu Ungar had completely missed anything he might be shooting for. On the other hand, Ron Stanley just needed to stay in the hand to win it.
Only a bluff could change everything and that is just what Stu pulled. He bet out $220K.
Stanley just did not believe his pair of 9ines was good. He must have thought Stu was slow playing the Ace once again. Stanley folded.
To please the crowd and tilt Stanley (and the rest of the table for the matter), Stu Ungar showed his Q♠, and 10♣ bluff. Chuckles came from the gallery when Ron Stanley displayed what would have been the winning hand.
Jack Binion (L) and Stu Ungar celebrate the poker legend’s third and final WSOP Main Event title in 1997. (Image: New York Post)
‘The only one that ever beat me was myself.’
When Stu became a millionaire after winning a WSOP 1997, a journalist asked him:
“Stuey, let me ask you a question, I think I know you well enough to ask this question. In 1980 and 1981, you won the championship but you weren’t smart after that. Your life didn’t go 100-percent on the right course. Now you’re older, you’re wiser, you’re 43-years old. Do you think you’re going to do things differently now?”
Well, I hope so, Gabe,” Ungar said, “I’ve neglected my kid and I’ve done a lot of stupid things. But I want to tell you something for a fact. There’s nobody that ever beat me playing cards. The only one that ever beat me was myself.’
In the end, unfortunately, bad habits beat Stu Ungar. The three-time WSOP Main Event champion died in Las Vegas on Nov. 22, 1998.
He’ll always be remembered as one of the greatest poker players and a legend.
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