Sadly, we’ll never know how far his potential could have gone.
Ungar had an unrivalled record in the world’s biggest poker tournaments. In the early eighties he developed a cocaine addiction that would torment him for the rest of his life. He applied his genius to blackjack too and won hundreds of thousands of dollars before the casinos banned him from playing. In 1980 he became the youngest ever winner of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event and was christened with a new nickname, “The Kid”, a reference to his tender age and scrawny frame. Eighteen months later, having declined to defend his title, Ungar was found dead in a low rent Vegas motel room.
The fast-talking gin prodigy settled in Las Vegas in the late 1970s and was soon a regular in the high stakes poker cash games. By the end of his career it was estimated that he had won over $30m from poker.
. He constantly went from millionaire to bust and would often solicit loans for drugs under the pretence of rebuilding his poker bankroll.
At his very best, Ungar played poker with an aggression and creativity that was years ahead of its time. Despite having limited experience, Ungar took to poker with lightening speed. He successfully defended his title the following year.
Ungar’s talent for poker was matched by a capacity for self-annihilation. His success spanned several variations of the game including holdem, draw and stud. Ungar was an enigmatic New Yorker and son of a bar owner and illegal bookmaker. But it was poker where he achieved immortality.
In 1997, emaciated and gaunt, his nose septum completely devoured by cocaine, Ungar begged a fellow player to lend him the £10k needed to sit in the WSOP Main Event. He came first, crushing a field of 312 players and announcing his return as the king of the card room. A self-destructive but generous reprobate with a razor-sharp mind and a supernatural instinct for reading the game, his talents extended far beyond the poker table. Doyle Brunson later claimed that he’d never seen anyone pick up the game as quickly as Stuey. Money won from cards was usually squandered on sports bets. He was unbeatable at gin rummy and destroyed his closest rivals with such fierce certainty that the queue of challengers dwindled to zero. He became the only player to win the WSOP and Superbowl of Poker Main Events three times each