Stu Ungar is one of the most famous players in poker’s long history. We find out why: “This success was testament to the ferocious chip-gathering style he employed years before it became the forte of many modern tournament pros”

He wrote the script on how no-limit Hold’em should be played and claimed that the only player who could beat him was ‘himself’. Sadly, Stu Ungar was proved right in every word

Stu Ungar was the original poker savant and gambling degenerate. He won a fortune in his short lifetime and has arguably the best no-limit Hold’ em tournament record of any player in history, including winning the World Series of Poker main event three times. But he died alone and virtually broke in a rundown motel as a result of a heart condition brought on by years of drug abuse – a fragile, shattered remnant of his former self.

His incredible story began in the New York Jewish community where his father, Isidore, a bookmaker, ensured he was immersed in the gambling world from the beginning. After his father’s untimely death – and free of restraints due to his alcoholic mother – Stuey began gambling around the city, gradually establishing a reputation for himself and being taken in by the mob – who both remembered his father and saw his potential as a gin rummy prodigy.

But Ungar was no hustler, and word quickly spread that he was a man to be avoided at gin. As a result, he turned to poker, which he had first learned watching his mother play and practised in the clubs of New York. His ascent in the poker world was equally rapid, and victory at the World Series in 1980 and 1981 soon catapulted him from a rumour to a legend.

But with success came the drugs; first cocaine and then heroin and crack – which effectively put him out of action for over a decade. Even then though, there was still the legendary comeback of 1997, where a ravaged and sickly Ungar found backing at the very last minute. His main event win is now immortalised in that year’s WSOP broadcast.

It has often been said that he was the best no- limit hold’em tournament player that ever lived, and a detailed look at his record certainly reflects this. In an age where $10,000 events were scarce – and given the brevity of Ungar’s active poker career – managing to win nine outright, as well as having numerous other results (including winning two $5,000 events) is nothing short of astonishing.

Table monster

This success was testament to the ferocious chip-gathering style he employed years before it became the forte of many modern tournament pros. As Barry Greenstein says, if he could spot a weakness, he was ruthless in exploiting it. ‘He was a hard player to bluff, since he was an expert at figuring out when his opponent was on a draw that didn’t get there,’ Greenstein says. In fact, he is said to be the primary cause of current European star Andy Black’s long-time retreat from the poker scene after the 1997 main event, where Ungar demolished the Irishman on his way to a popular victory.

As you would expect then, there are many stories of remarkable hands that Stuey played over the years, and one that has become particularly famous as an example of his reading abilities took place against 1990 World Series of Poker Champion, Mansour Matloubi, during the Four Queens Poker Classic in 1991. Having won in style the previous year, people were beginning to tout Matloubi as the ‘new’ Ungar. Having none of it, Ungar challenged him to a $50,000 freezeout.

After some aggressive play, Stuey opened for $1,600 and Matloubi called with 4-5 offsuit on the big blind before checking the flop of 3-3-7 rainbow to Ungar, who bet $6,000. Matloubi called and both players checked the King on the turn. Then on the river Queen, Matloubi dramatically moved all-in for over twice the size of the pot! Ungar thought, and within ten seconds said: ‘You have 4-5 or 5-6, I’m gonna call you with this.’ Ungar had just called for twice the pot with 10-9.

But the most poignant and spectacular display Stuey made came at the 1997 main event, where despite being flat-broke, he played like a man possessed. Ungar had been on fire during the penultimate day, amassing a huge stack and at one point calling a raise and an all-in with K-Q on a raggedy board – confident his hand was ahead. As his backer Billy Baxter told him the night before the final: ‘Tomorrow, it’s all over. The rest of them – they’re playing for second place’. And it proved to be true.

Stuey summed up his experience of life and poker after his win: ‘I’ve done a lot of stupid things to my myself, but I want to tell you one thing for a fact: there’s nobody who ever beat me playing cards. The only one who ever beat me was myself; my bad habits. But when I’m on stroke, the way I was in this tournament, I really believe that no one can play with me.’

…Great WSOP main event tales


The original chip and a chair

Poker’s most famous expression: a chip and a chair, is credited to Jack ‘Treetop’ Straus, who won the 1982 main event. Straus pushed all-in and lost – but as he stood up to leave the table, he found he still had a single $500 chip remaining. As he had never verbally declared all-in, he was allowed to continue playing. The rest, as they say, is history. Straus’ poker career was cut short when he died during a game in 1988, aged 58. He was inducted into the poker Hall of Fame that year.


The only Brit to win

Britain’s sole winner at the main event came in 1990 when the enigmatic figure of Mansour Matloubi burst through from nowhere to win at his first attempt. Little was known about him when he won, but he described his profession as a former hotelier when appearing at the final table of the 1993 WSOP main event. Matloubi has kept a very low profile in recent years. He is now believed to live in Thailand and recently finished 13th at the Betfair Asian Poker Tour.

This year’s breakthrough player – JUSTIN BONOMO

At just 21 years of age, Justin ‘Zeejustin’ Bonomo is InsidePoker’s pick to take the WSOP by storm this year. He has achieved a level of fame (and infamy) online, but during the end of 2006 he was reborn in the live arena with a stunning run of final tables at the Five Diamond WPT event. He’s certainly not short of confidence, having recently posted the following on his blog: ‘I am one of the best tournament players on the planet, and I am going to be making some noise.’

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