Stu Ungar by Mike Sexton: The real shame is that he never lived to see the poker boom… He would be the greatest poker player out there

Stu Ungar is hailed as the most naturally gifted card player of all time but unfortunately his excessive life style caught up with him and he died in 1998. Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton knew him better than most and recalls the ups and downs of a troubled genius…

I first met Stu Ungar in the late 1970s. That’s when I happened to be in Las Vegas, visiting my friend Danny Robison, who was partnered with Chip Reese – and they were two of the hottest guys on the poker scene. So, even though I was playing $30-$60, because of my friendship with Danny I was around the high stakes players. And suddenly Stu, this tiny kid who couldn’t weigh 100lb soaking wet, was right in there with them.

Stu came to Vegas from New York, specifically to play Gin Rummy. Danny, at the time, was known as the top Gin player in America. He travelled around the country and destroyed people. But he couldn’t beat Stuey. Nobody could. What really wowed me, though, was how decisively Stu beat Danny and all the other Vegas giants – guys like Doyle Brunson, Puggy Pearson, Billy Baxter. Those guys were phenomenal Gin players and the world’s greatest gamblers. It got to the point where Stuey had to give them huge spots – I remember him letting Danny see the bottom card in the deck, which is a massive advantage – but he still slaughtered them.

Right away, even before I got to know him very well, I liked Stuey. He was a fast-action gambler, he dressed sharp, and he had the quickest mind of anybody I’d ever met. The amazing thing to me was what happened after the Gin action dried up. That’s when Stuey began playing poker, and he didn’t start small. He sat right down with the top guys in all of the biggest games – $200-$400 limit Hold’em or no-limit Deuce-to-Seven, both at the Dunes – before winning the first poker tournament he ever played in (the 1980 World Series) and the 1981 Series as well. He made plenty of money at poker – Stu was an incredibly quick learner – but after the games broke up he still had to be in action. And that decimated his bankroll. He would take his poker winnings and use it to bet on craps or sports or horses or Blackjack (until he got barred for card counting).

Straight from the horse’s mouth

In truth, Stuey received good information on horses, and he managed some decent earns. But Stu was such an action guy that he had to bet every race, whether he knew anything about the horses or not. Gambling was the only thing that interested him. He wasn’t the kind of person who’d take time to see a show or go on vacation. Even when he went off with a girl, it was only for 20 or 30 minutes – and he considered himself to be the world’s greatest lover. Many times I went out for dinner with Stu, and he left me halfway through the meal. He paid the tab, but he couldn’t stand to enjoy a steak when he could be gambling in the casino.

A very sick leak for Stu was golf. It was unbelievable how much he lost at that game. His first time on the course, soon after winning a Super Bowl of Poker [a $10,000 buy-in tournament that had been hosted by Amarillo Slim], was with Jack ‘Treetop’ Strauss. Now Jack was one of the shrewdest gamblers you could come across. He knew his suckers, treated them properly, and recognised Stu as prime tuna. Stu grew up in New York and had never seen a golf course, but after 10 minutes he and Jack were putting for $500 a hole. Within two hours, on the first day he’d ever been to a golf course in his life, Stu lost $78,000 on the putting green. I’d like to bet that that’s never happened before or since.

ungar happy

Stu Ungar won the WSOP Main Event three times, in 1980, 1981 and 1997

Once he actually got out on the course, Stu had no golf etiquette and no understanding of the game. He wore two gloves all the time and was allowed to tee his ball up for every single shot – on the fairway, in the sand traps, wherever; that was his spot. He had a four-foot tee and was allowed to use it in the water. Some guys who played with us would see Stuey doing that for the first time and it blew their minds. They’d refuse to gamble under those conditions. And we would say, ‘Okay, you’re out of the group.’ All the sharp players knew that it didn’t matter what you gave Stuey, he’d find a way to blow off money. Early on, I remember asking Chip what he thought of Stuey. I probably commented on this guy being the greatest Gin and poker player in the world. Chip said, ‘Mike, you’re right. But the problem with Stuey is that he doesn’t understand the object of the game. The object of the game is to increase your wealth, improve your lifestyle, make a better life for your family. It’s not to gamble every day until you go broke.’ That was Stuey’s problem. Even worse, though, if he wasn’t in action, he got bored and started in with the drugs.

Years before I met Stu, back in the 70s, he was already doing cocaine real big. But all the players were doing it then. It seemed like a miracle drug that allowed them to feel good and play forever. I remember one time when Stuey stepped back from a poker table and headed up to his hotel room. Danny Robison looked at me and said, ‘Mike, go up with Stuey. He’s gonna give you something for me.’

Well, I went up to that room and the door was ajar without a Do Not Disturb sign on it. Inside there was a glass-topped desk and it appeared to be covered with a pound of sugar. I don’t know anything about drugs, but I was aware enough to recognise that the white stuff was cocaine and to realise that I needed to get out of there. Stu gave me an envelope for Danny, and to this day I don’t know what was in it. It might have been money or cocaine or pills, but I didn’t ask any questions. I was just a gopher back then.

Money down the drain

For all of Stu’s bad habits – beyond the drugs, he was the world’s worst money manager and never paid a bill in his life; he’d have $2m in his pocket and no electricity in his house – there was nothing better than sweating him at the poker table. I remember sitting behind him while he was playing a $100-$200 no-limit cash game of Hold’em during the World Series. Everybody had about $20,000 in front of him, including Stuey. Stu was in the big blind and a guy raised the pot, coming in for $800. Stuey had 5-6 of diamonds and he called the $800. Then the flop came J-10-2, no diamonds and all different suits. Stuey led out and bet $1,500 at the pot. The guy called him. At the turn, a Seven came off. Stuey bet $2,500. The guy called again. On the river, the board paired Sevens. With no hesitation, Stuey pushed $8,000 into the pot. This other guy went in the tank for three minutes, trying to figure out what to do. Finally, he turned over his cards, showed the A-10 of hearts and mucked.

As Stuey raked in his chips, he leaned toward me and said, ‘Sexton, remember this: there are a lot of guys who’ll fire one shell at a pot. Some guys will bluff a second time. But not many guys have it in them to fire three shells at a pot.’ By bluffing at the pot three times, he got this guy to lay down the winning hand. And Stuey was right, few people have the guts to do it. But that’s why it worked.

Stu was so fast that when he played a $10,000 tournament he was under torture for the first three levels. They started with blinds at 25-50, then went to 50-100, then to 100-200. Each level lasted two hours and they didn’t put an ante on until the fourth level. That was when Stuey came to life. Once the antes came into play, each pot had a lot more money, and Stuey was able to steal. Players anted with green chips, and within a couple hours Stuey usually had big stacks of greens.

Away from the table, though, Stuey’s problems were catching up with him. In the late 1980s and early 90s drugs started taking control. He began going on cocaine binges instead of gambling and he was always in debt. Bookies gave him credit because they knew he was a big fish – Stuey’d bet every game on the sheet – but they also knew he had earning power. Same thing with the drug dealers. I doubt that many drug dealers will put you on a tab. But Stuey owed them all and he didn’t care. He had protection, so to speak – guys who
would straighten out anyone who tried putting too much heat on him.

When it became obvious that things were getting bad with the drugs, some poker players tried to help Stuey. Chip and Danny and Billy Baxter were all willing to send Stu to rehab. Chip told him, ‘Stuey, if you play $75-$150 every day for an entire year, I will stake you. Then, at the end of the year, I will put you into the highest games you want to play.’ But Stuey couldn’t do that. He couldn’t play in a game knowing that there was a bigger game being spread. He would rather do drugs than play in the second-biggest game.

Midnight run

I remember one night in the 1990s when Stu woke me up at 4am, phoning from the seediest part of downtown Las Vegas. He was broke and asked me to come get him. I got out of bed, started getting dressed, and my girlfriend said, ‘Don’t you dare go down there. You’re liable to get yourself killed.’ But I had no choice. I had to go get Stuey. He was wandering the streets, he was completely out of it, and his fingers were blackened from smoking crack. He told me he had to go someplace where nobody could find him. He owed money to some real bad drug dealers and was afraid that they’d track him down and kill him. So I checked him into a small, out-of-the-way motel, under my name. Nobody would expect him to be there.

ungar chips

Ungar in happier times when he was accumulating chips as fast as he was attention

Then, two days later, he called me and said, ‘Sexton, you got to come get me. They’re gonna find me and kill me.’ I wondered how anyone could know where he was at. He admitted that he had called another drug dealer and had him make a delivery. So now the word was out. I came over and moved him to the Gold Coast, over on Flamingo. I got him a room for $49 a night and figured it would cost me $1,500 a month. Then, after just a few weeks, I stopped by to check on the bill and it was $6,000. Stuey had been ordering room service everyday and watching Pay Per View movies. I turned white as a sheet because I didn’t have the money to pay that bill. Stuey kept telling me he was sorry, and I put the $6,000 on my credit card. It really hurt.

Through the 1990s, Stu was on a downhill slide. By opening day of the 1997 World Series Championship, nobody thought Stu stood a chance of winning. He came down to the Horseshoe that morning, high as a kite and trying to find someone to stake him. Finally Billy Baxter reluctantly put up the money, and, by six o’clock that night, Stu had $16,000 in chips. But he was in a zombie state, coming off drugs and gasping for air. He told me that he couldn’t take it, that he couldn’t continue playing. I told him that he had to make it through the day’s final sessions, get some rest, and that he’d be fine. Something must have clicked because by the end of that first day he was second chip leader. By the close of day two he was chip leader and he never looked back. Stu won his third World Series in ’97 and it was unbelievable. It looked like he’d turned a corner. Not only did he have money, but he also had personal pride and status.

The day Stu won the ’97 Series he had no ID on him. So he couldn’t collect his 50 percent of the $1m first prize. Stu asked Billy Baxter for ‘walking around’ money and Billy offered him $5,000 or $10,000. Stu said, ‘No. I need $50,000.’ Billy said, ‘You need $50,000 to walk around?’ But Stuey had been broke for so long that he desperately wanted to have a good chunk of cash in his pocket. Billy was baffled, but he gave him $50,000 anyway.

I stayed with Stu for an hour after the tournament ended. Then, as I understand it, he went over to the Lady Luck casino and played Blackjack. It’s the one place where he wasn’t barred and he lost all his money. They gave him $25,000 in credit and he lost that, too. The rest of his $500,000 went to sports, poker, horses, drugs and more Blackjack. Very little was used to pay off his debts. Nobody was shocked when Stuey ended up broke again. That’s simply the way he was. And for Stu, a $500,000 bankroll just wasn’t very big.

Go for broke

During most of the 1980s I owed Stuey money, but in the late 90s he was in debt to me for as much as $16,000 – and that was a lot of money to me at the time. I remember being broke once myself and needing some of the money back. So I went up to him, to see where he stood financially. But Stuey was such a good reader of people that before I got to him, he said, ‘Sexton, I know what you’re going to ask me. And if you mention one word about the money I owe you, you’re going right to the bottom of the list.’ I didn’t say a word and just hoped that things would turn out okay.

Stu-Ungar late

Ungar’s friends could see what he was doing to himself but were powerless to help

By the 1998 World Series he was flat broke and Billy had agreed to stake him again. Stu spent the first weeks of the tournament in his hotel room at the Horseshoe, played in none of the preliminaries and, three days before the Main Event, he was fresh and ready to go. Then, that evening, I went to his room with Todd Brunson and Bob Stupak. As soon as we walked in, it was obvious that Stuey was high on drugs. Bob stayed up there, to speak with Stu in private, while Todd and I went downstairs to the Horseshoe bar.

Todd told me that Stu’s behaviour was making him sick. And suddenly he came up with an idea: kidnap Stu, tie him up, put him in a car, and take him someplace where there are no dope dealers. I was ready to go along with it and suggested that we drive him up to Doc Earl [a poker player by the name of Phil Earl, who knew Stu well and was able to reason with him] in rural Nova Scotia. But we never followed through with the plan and Stu didn’t show up at the 1998 Series.

That summer and autumn he continually called poker players, trying to get money. But nearly everyone had cut him off; most of them would have been happy to pay for rehab, but they had no interest in giving him money for drugs. Just a couple of weeks before Stu died, though, Billy Baxter came through with $25,000. He said, ‘I know I’m throwing this money away. But I’m doing it for old friendship and to give you a shot. But if this goes, don’t call me again.’

Stu took the money, went to the Bellagio, and lost $10,000 in the poker room. Then he dropped out of the game, left the casino, and two weeks later the hard drugs finally took a toll on him. He was found dead in a cheap motel on the north end of the Vegas Strip.

The real shame is that he never lived to see the poker boom. With all these tournaments and a $10,000 buy-in every other week, I believe Stu would be off drugs, playing high stakes poker, and getting the publicity and recognition that he craved. He would be the greatest poker player out there and so famous that number two would be 10 miles behind.

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