Monday 26 October 2015

The Tortured Champion: A Professional Gambler From the Age Of 14!

They called him The Tortured Champion: Stuart Errol ''Stu'' Ungar.  He who was born in New York City and raised on the city's Lower East Side, became a professional gambler at age 14, a year after his father, who was a bookmaker and bar operator, had died. Stu was an incredible gin rummy player. At age 10 in '63, he won his first gin rummy tournament in a Catskill Mountain Resort while vacationing with his parents. At age 14, he was regularly playing and beating the best players in New York. At 15 he dropped out of school when a well known bookie staked Stu to the $500 buy-in in a big gin rummy tournament.

Stu won the $10,000 first prize without ever loosing a hand, a record still held in the card rooms of New York City. A week later, after giving his parents $1,000, he lost the rest on horses at the Aqueduct racetrack. It was a sign of things to come.

Ungar moved to Miami where the juiciest Gin games were. He did well but his weakness for sports and track betting drained him of any success. In 1976 Stu reached Las Vegas, broke and just about beaten. Somehow he found the money to enter a $50,000 tournament. On the last two hands he forecast the losing player's cards - correctly. This bravado was another bad career move as it meant other players feared his skills. As a result, he could no longer find any games outside the tournaments.

It wasn't long before he decided to try his luck at blackjack. He'd cleaned up on poker tables from Nevada to New Jersey and the time was right to move on. One night at Caesars Palace he won $83,000 but the manager stopped the play. Stu retaliated by correctly forecasting the last 18 cards left in the single-deck shoe. That was the beginning of the end for single deck blackjack tables. They were removed from Caesars and later from other casinos, and Stu's picture was posted up in the security rooms of dozens of casinos. Result: Stu was banned for life.

His next feat was to bet any takers $10,000 that he could perform yet another memory miracle: he offered to count down the last two decks in a six-deck shoe! There were no takers. Then in January 1977 a former owner of Vegas World and designer of the Stratosphere Tower stepped into his life. Stu Ungar met Bob Stupak. The new taker offered Stu $100,000 to count down the last three decks, half-way through a six-deck shoe. If Stu lost he'd owe Bob $10,000.

Memories of this amazing feat still linger on today in Las Vegas. To the astonishment of onlookers, and Bob, Stu didn't miss a single call from a total of 156 cards. When Bob handed him a check for $100,000, it marked the beginning of a lasting friendship between them. All over the world, Stu Ungar was now a household name in the gambling community.

In 1980 at 24, Ungar entered his first world championship. He won and to silence the critics of his "fluke" he won the next year as well. He wasn't done with pure gambling though and he lost $900,000 in RAZZ game in an afternoon, $1m in a craps session and picked up $5m from Larry Flint (the porn king) over many heads-up sessions. Ultimately his fever for action took everything in the physical world and his drug addiction was close to taking his life.

In 1990 Ungar was once again in the fore at the WSOP Championsip. At the start of day 3 of the event he was a very solid chip leader but when play began he was no where to be seen. A search was made and his hotel room forcefully entered. He was found laying on the floor, unconscious. Despite this he returned to play and finished 9th, which in 1990 was $20,500 (2005 it was $1,000,000).

By the 1997 WSOP tournament in Las Vegas, Ungar hadn't been in the frame for over 7 years. He was seen around the gambling Mecca playing in small games but was pretty much written off by the poker world. He didn't have the money to enter the Championship event but an hour before play an anonymous benefactor produced the $10,000 entry. Four days later the greatest comeback in poker history had occurred and the record of three victories established. In all he won 10 major No limit Hold'em tournaments out of the 30 he entered!

Two months later he was broke again. Another year of oblivion and Stu was on the comeback trail again with his old friend Bob Stupak offering to cancel his debts and signing him up for commissioned card play. With $2000 of Stupak's money in his pocket (spending money) he checked into a cheap downtown hotel. Two days later he was dead. He left behind a 15 year old daughter.

He once said although he could conceive of a better poker player than himself, not in the next 50 years of the world would there be a better Gin player.

A film of Stu's life was produced in 2003 and is called High Roller or sometimes Stuey.