OK, a lot of people have asked me why I changed my name and avatar to honor Stu Ungar, when he died a decade ago. And my answer is simple: Because he died a decade ago. In fact, in one month (November 22nd) he will have been dead exactly 10 years. So, I have decided to dedicate one blog a week to his memory for the next month, and honor him with my name and avatar for the same period. Why? Because he was, and still is, the greatest poker player ever to have lived. It is as simple as that. There was no better. Over the next month I'll be writing about his poker play, gambling problem (poker wasn't gambling to him), drug problem, family and death, but today, I'll be writing about his life before poker.
Stu Ungar was born in 1953, in New York (Manhattan). His father ran a bar, which was actually a front for a giant gambling operation. The funny part was, his father refused to gamble. He preferred to get wealthy off of others who were willing to gamble. So he was perfectly happy taking the vig from the bets, and allowing others to gamble their money away. Stu hung around the bar and gamblers a lot, and discovered the game of gin rummy early on. And what he discovered was that he was VERY good at it. In fact, he was amazingly good at it. Back then, gin was the game of choice for the upper class and elite, and poker was considered a back room activity for the lower class. So a person in New York who wanted to make serious money did it playing gin.
Want to know how good Stu was at it? He won his first gin tournament in 1963. He was 10 years old! It has been said that within 8 draws, he knew exactly what the other guy was holding. And he would just hold the card they needed to win in his hand until he had gin himself. He later dropped out of school as a teenager after his father died, and he supported his family on his earnings from playing gin. He was regularly winning tournaments with prizes up to $10,000 as a teenage high school dropout.
But Stu had a problem that would haunt him all his life. He didn't know how to HUSTLE. He would sit down to play, and simply destroy the other person, right from the start. So he made money, but eventually people just stopped playing against him, because he couldn't be beat. He was so good that he once played against a famous gin rummy cheater. Stu's bodyguard pointed out that the guy was cheating during a break. Stu replied "I know, but I'm going to beat him anyway"....and he did.
So where does a great card player go when the action dries up in New York? VEGAS BABY!!!! And in Vegas he continued to crush gin tournaments and games. In fact, many casinos refused to allow him to play in tournaments because others wouldn't join if he was in them.
There's a famous quote from Stu Ungar about his ability to play gin...and remember, most consider him the best poker player ever to play the game. Stu said: "Some day I suppose it's possible for someone to be a better no limit hold 'em player than me. I doubt it, but it could happen. But, I swear to you, I don't see how anyone could ever play gin better than me."
One of the reasons he was so good at all of this was because he had a memory that was unmatched. He would play blackjack in the casinos, and didn't rely on "counting" the cards. He just memorized what was played and knew what was left in the shoe. Now remember, casinos used different amounts of card decks to try to beat the players with a memory. For example, they simply wouldn't allow him to play at the one-deck or two-deck tables. But they did allow him to play at blackjack games using a 6-deck shoe. 312 cards! Nobody could memorize 312 cards!
Weeellll....not exactly nobody. Stu once won a $100,000 bet that he couldn't memorize a six-deck shoe. All he had to do was tell the dealer what was left in the shoe after 310 cards were dealt out. He nailed the final two, and pocketed the money.
(Here's a thought that is rarely discussed: Could it be possible that Stu was actually borderline autistic? That would explain a lot)
So he couldn't find a gin rummy game, and was eventually banned from playing blackjack. Heck, he was charged once with cheating at blackjack in New Jersey, and refused to pay the $500 fine because he would have had to admit he was cheating, and he wasn't. Instead he spent over $50,000 fighting the charges, and won. All to protect his name.
So there you have it, part one of the Stu Ungar story. Next week we'll discuss his No Limit Hold 'Em play, and his World Series titles. Hope you find it interesting, and if not, then by all means skip the blog on Tuesday for the next month.