Nicknamed by many “the card genius”, Stu Ungar has been one of the legends of poker. He possessed a brilliant mind, an unmatched ability to concentrate and a unique style of play that made watching him play a spectacle.
His markedly aggressive game, with notorious swings that made him win and lose money in large amounts in very short periods of time, seems to have had a parallel with his personal life: Stu Ungar was someone who had a short life (he died at the age of 45), but he lived it intensely, which has contributed to raise him to the Olympus of the legends of youth who left us before their time.
Who was Stu Ungar
He was one of the great poker players of the 20th century. The figure of Stu Ungar was so important that a film would transfer the fundamental aspects of his life to the big screen, portraying iconic performances of the New York player.
He was champion of the World Series of Poker Main Event on three occasions: in 1980, 1981 and 1997. Known as “The Kid”, he had a daughter named Stephanie and his whole life was marked by gambling.
Although his family tried to keep him away from this hobby (at the age of 8 he was already showing interest in gambling), at that age he was already capable of taking his father’s bets, and he made his first bets at the age of 10. It was proven years later that Stu had the IQ of a genius, even though, as is often the case, he was never an outstanding student.
During his teenage years he got to rub shoulders with Victor Romano, a well-known gangster of the time who also proved to have incredible gambling skills and, in a way, was both Stu’s mentor and protector.
He offered Stu his services in exchange for 20% of his winnings. Romano also had the IQ of a genius, could play bridge and liked to gamble. It is more than possible that Stu saw in Romano a father figure, a mentor, who would mark his entire career.
Despite his extraordinary poker skills, Stu Ungar was unable to take advantage of his ability to remember cards and read opponents in betting. Stu was incredibly talented in games of skill, but in sports betting his gifts were not very useful to him, which is why he did not end up excelling in this segment.
In addition, Stu Ungar liked to burn his hard-earned money, and he ended up in debt to dangerous moneylenders. This pushed him to flee New York and settle temporarily in Miami and Los Angeles, where he managed to organize several games that would allow him to partially pay off his $60,000 debt.
He finished paying off his debt when he managed to organize a game against Danny Robinson, which brought him $100,000 in winnings. That allowed him to live in Las Vegas with Madeline Wheeler.
Gradually, his skill was such that no one wanted to play with him. He switched to Black Jack and once a manager ended up closing the table because Ungar accumulated $83,000 in winnings. His card counting ability was overwhelming, there has been no one like him since.
Stu Ungar died on November 22, 1998. Although the specific causes of his death are a matter of debate, it is widely accepted that his lifestyle and substance abuse played a major role in his untimely demise. It is believed that he died due to a heart attack caused by years of drug abuse.
Stu Ungar’s poker strategy
Stu Ungar had a clear strategy in his games. His game was based on aggressiveness, embarrassment, provocation, even humiliation. Once, a dealer resigned just so he could assault Stu. Even a legend like Doyle Brunson admitted that, although he had never seen anyone improve as much as he did in the games, he nearly lost his temper and punched him on several occasions.
His style didn’t sit well at the poker tables: Stu Ungar tended to taunt, to count his opponents’ cards out loud. His uncanny ability to pull it off meant that in the end no one wanted to play with him. It was not only because losing was almost a certainty, but because to play against Stu was to expose oneself to public humiliation. That’s why he didn’t play poker: Stu Ungar preferred other games, and only turned to poker when he needed to win real money back.
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Stu Ungar Movie
In 2003, the rise and fall of Stu Ungar was captured in a film directed by A. W. Vidmer, “High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story”. Released as a “docudrama”, it faithfully portrayed Stu’s life, from his origins to his fall from grace due to the family drama he lived with his mother, who had a stroke, and the debts he accumulated by melting his money on sports bets, which he made without any criteria or head.
High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story was a highly appreciated work and is still one of the best options to know the life of Stu Ungar in audiovisual support. It stars Michael Imperioli, Steve Schirripa and Renée Faia.
Stu Ungar Quotes
Due to his provocative and aggressive character, Stu Ungar’s quotes have a lot of “juice” when consulted because they reveal how he saw things from his particular point of view, being faithful to his transgressive style. Here are some of the most famous ones:
- “It [the money] goes away. It’s not the women, because I’m not a playboy anymore. But it goes: horses, sports…anything.”
- “Really, I don’t know if there is life without gambling. If there is, I don’t think I can enjoy it. The only time I have any respect for money is when I don’t have it…but I always get someone to bankroll me. The problem is that poker doesn’t stimulate me as much anymore. I spend most of my time hibernating. I go out to play only when I need some money. And I don’t like to lose. I don’t ever want anyone to say I’m a good loser. Because someone who is a good loser, no matter how good he is, he’s just a good loser.”
- “In the beginning I used coke to keep playing. But when you have hundreds of thousands [of dollars] in cash, they chase you home to offer it to you.”
- “Las Vegas is paradise for every degenerate. It’s possible to play 24 hours. When I came in and ran out of chips, who bankrolled me? Tony Spilotro, the guy Joe Pesci is supposed to play in the movie Casino.”
- “If I had to categorize, I’d say gin rummy is the most player-dependent. Then would come poker and backgammon.”