Its November 18th, and that means this is the final chapter in the life of Stu Ungar, the greatest poker player to ever sit down at the tables. And sadly, this final chapter won't talk about poker much at all.
After winning the 1981 World Series of Poker main event for the 2nd time, Stu Ungar was the most celebrated poker player in the world. Everyone who played the game knew his name, and he couldn't walk into a poker room without everyone recognizing him. Of course, this was good and bad. Most people also didn't want to play against him.
he married Madeline, had his daughter Stefanie, and lost his step son Richie. Up until 1986, Stu was adamantly against drugs. He hated the idea of them. But after Richie's death, and his divorce, he "tried" cocaine. And this little trial was the beginning of the end of his life. You see, cocaine was used by many of the top poker players out there at the time (and still is today it seems) to stay awake during marathon poker games. Top pros talk about playing for 4 or 5 days straight. To put it in perspective, try staying up 24 hours.
And don't forget that Stu did everything in his life to the absolute maximum. I can't imagine anyone who didn't know that if Stu ever tried cocaine, he would do it to the max.
And here is a prime example of just how good of a poker player he was. He played in the 1990 main event. Most people don't talk about it, but it actually was amazing. He spent the first 2 days clean and sober, and playing his tail off. He had a monster chip lead after day 2. But on day 3, he failed to show up. According to the rules of poker, they simply let his chips play, and started pulling the blinds and antes from them. Later that day, Stu was found in a hotel room near death from cocaine use. There was no way he was going to return to the tournament. But his chip stack was so large that without him being they, he finished in 9th place and more than doubled his buy in. There is nobody from those days that doesn't think he would have had his 4th world championship that tournament without the drugs.
So Stu had all that money, and all these problems. Here's an example of how bad his gambling problem was. There was a monster boxing match back then (1990) between Meldrick Taylor and Julio Cesar Chavez, and he wanted to get a bet down on it. He talked to a boxing expert he knew, and that expert told him that the two boxers were evenly matched, and the match was going the distance. So Stu, never one to hold back, bet EVERYTHING HE HAD on that match to go to the distance. Didn't leave himself enough back to buy dinner. And the fight lasted.....11 rounds, 2 minutes, and 58 seconds. Taylor, ahead in the match, got stupid and got pummeled and knocked down with 17 seconds to go. He got up in under 10 seconds, but was unable to respond to the ref, and the match was stopped with 2 seconds to go. And with that, Stu lost every dime he had.
But even with money and drug problems....Stu had no problem coming up with either one. Friends were always around to give him either. Especially if there was a big game where he could win it back plus more.
And of course, in 1997, he borrowed enough to get into the World Series. The funny part is, originally someone only gave him $1000 to play in a satellite qualifier. He got busted out on a bad beat. He then begged everyone he knew, and finally Billy Baxter gave him $10,000 and Stu was the last person to register for the tournament.
Now we all know that he went on to win his 3rd World Series title that year, and he even showed a picture of Stefanie to the camera during his interview and dedicated the win to her. He then took his million dollar prize, and split it with Baxter, giving him a half a million dollars in July 1997. Remember that.
Over the next few months, the drug use got crazy, the sports betting got crazy, and Stu would simply disappear for weeks at a time. And it just got worse and worse. And then for the 1998 World Series....surprise....he didn't have the buy in. A half a million dollars blown. Of course, Billy Baxter once again put up Stu's money, but Stu withdrew from the tournament because he simply didn't feel good. 10 years of cocaine abuse will do that for you.
In the following months he was spotted in casinos around Las Vegas begging for money. Any amount of money. His friends simply cut him off, not out of anger, but out of concern because they knew of the drug abuse.
And in November 1998, he simply disappeared. When he was finally found in a hotel room, there was nothing that could be done. He was pronounced dead on November 22, 1998. Stu Ungar had won over an estimated $30 million dollars gambling in his lifetime, and when he was found in the hotel room there was $800 in his pocket. An autopsy showed traces of drugs in his system, but not enough to kill him. The cause of death was simply a heart attack.
And the saddest part of all, at his funeral, his poker buddies took up a collection to pay for the services. Stu had nothing. He left behind his ex-wife Madeline, and his beautiful daughter Stefanie, who called the SHUFFLE UP AND DEAL at the 2005 World Series Main Event.
For those of us that love the game, there will never be another as great as Stu Ungar. Sure, he had his problems, but when he was at the table, he won. Simple as that.
Thanks for reading, and please come back on Saturday for the final tribute on the 20th anniversary of his death.
And if you want to know ALL the story, please get a copy of the book One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, the World's Greatest Poker Player.
Don't bother with the movie High Roller, the Stu Ungar story. Stefanie hated it. Read the book, its a much better picture.
And to read the rest of the Stu Ungar story, and see great tips on improving your poker game, tune in and read all my poker blogs at: