Happy 60th Birthday Stu Ungar
As September nears a close, I’d be remiss were I not to acknowledge what would have been the 60th birthday of the late Stu Ungar.
The gin and poker savant was born September 8, 1953. Also worth remembering — in a few months, it will be the 15th anniversary of his death.
Over the years, much has been written about the man-myth-legend, some by my hand in One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘the Kid’ Ungar, his biography and swan song.
During the many interviews I’ve done since, I’m most frequently asked how Stuey would fare in today’s poker world. Certainly, the game is much different now than when the three-time world champion was at his very best. This is a complex question,, which calls purely upon speculation. No one really knows the answer. I suppose it’s the universal question asked of all past greats who die too early — from Marilyn Monroe to James Dean to Jimmy Hendrix.
It’s taken me considerable time for my opinion on this to evolve. In fact, I didn’t know how to answer the question for a very long time. But now, I’m convinced poker’s immense popularity might very well have lifted Stuey from his darkest hours. Moreover, the game’s increasing strategic complexities would certainly have provided new challenges that were unforeseen during the 1980s and 1990s, helping to keep him better focused and more motivated to continue playing and winning. Stuey always possessed insatiable pride and being anything other than the very best wasn’t acceptable.
When I spent private time with Stuey during the final year of his life, it became apparent that his biggest demon was boredom. Hard to imagine, but Stuey got bored easily — even while living in Las Vegas. This was understandable perhaps. By the time he was 30 he’d beaten every foe. He’d met every challenge. He’d won every tournament there was worth winning. And then, he just as readily gambled it, shot it, snorted it, and wasted it all away again.
It was always about the action. And back then, the action was pretty much limited to a few major tournaments held in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and the accompanying high-stakes side games. The rest of the time, Stuey tried to satisfy his cravings inside sportsbooks, casinos, and even out on the golf course — even though he was a terrible player.
However, with poker and the international tournament scene now a year-around enterprise with far more money at stake almost every weekend than he ever earned in a single championship, I believe Stuey would have taken extraordinary measures to continue his legacy. The vast sums of money and number of titles he could conceivably have added to his stellar record are perhaps immeasurable.
And yet for all the satisfaction winning would have continued to bring him on one level, the aura of being a bona fide celebrity might still have been his ultimate — and frankly foreseeable — doom. We’ve seen how many people react to being famous. They can’t handle it. They self-destruct.
Some time before the book was published, Stuey was shown a mock book cover with his name and face roughly affixed to the front. For the first time ever, Stuey saw the potential of his celebrity. At that instant, he could hardly contain himself. He was so excited he took the mock book jacket and ran over to a hotel desk clerk and showed it off proudly.
“Look, they’re going to write a book about me and make it into a movie,” an exasperated Stuey said to a puzzled hotel employee, who had no idea who Ungar was. “I’m going to be famous — you’ll see.”
In the end, Stuey did indeed become famous, just as he predicted. But not and never as famous as he could have been.
Coming Next: In tomorrow’s article, I’ll write about one of the worst bad beats of my professional life, which involves Stu Ungar and the Academy Awards.