A Stu Ungar Story
Sometime during the mid-90s, each year, I began posting odds on who would win the World Series of Poker Main Event, otherwise known as poker’s world championship.
A few gambling websites picked up on the odds and began posting them for discussion. This was back when only 300 people or so entered the $10,000 buy-in Main Event each year. And it was usually the same 300 people. So, handicapping a field of well-known players with verifiable records wasn’t too difficult. Most insiders generally agreed with who should be the favorites and the longshots.
Nevertheless, one year my betting odds managed to piss just about everybody off — especially players who thought they got shafted when I listed them as longshots. Naturally, everyone thought they should be one of the favorites to win. If the average odds of winning came to about 300-1, then those who were listed at 500-1 and 600-1 or worse felt downright insulted. Some people saw my odds and wouldn’t talk to me.
Poker legend Doyle Brunson read my odds and was incensed. He posted at one forum, “You don’t have a clue.”
When Puggy Pearson heard he was listed 600-1, he came hunting for me. That’s funny because I think 600-1 was too generous. If he knew what I really thought, Puggy might have killed me.
But no one was more furious about my WSOP odds than Stu Ungar.
One year while my WSOP odds were out, Mike Sexton and I joined Stuey for dinner. We went to the Tony Roma’s restaurant on East Charleston. That’s the same parking lot where Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal was blown up in his Cadillac. Recall the opening scene from the movie Casino.
Stuey had absolutely no knowledge of the Internet. He didn’t even know how to turn on a computer. He never had an e-mail address. So, he never actually saw my WSOP odds. But he was about to learn about them and react in a way that I’d never seen anyone act before, or since.
When Mike brought up the odds, Stuey was advised that he was listed at 75-1 to win. Stuey wasn’t too upset about that, at least not until he heard the names of other players who were ranked ahead of him. That set off a tirade that would last for the rest of the evening. Stuey had a tendency to stutter when he got excited:
Who-who-who you got ranked ahead of me? Nobody can beat me when I’m playing my game! How can you not have me ranked as the favorite? Tell me!
Arguing with Stuey was pointless. But I ignored the obvious warning signs and danger zone and plunged mouth-first towards my own demise.
While the discussion continued on and Stuey became more curious to know why I’d listed him at 75-1, dinner was served. I hoped full racks of baby-back ribs laced with tangy barbecue sauce might extinguish the flames of tension, especially since it’s hard to talk when everybody’s chewing pig flesh. But a towering plate of ribs wasn’t about to interrupt Stuey’s obsession to know why he wasn’t the favorite to win that year’s WSOP.
I’ve written about this before, but watching Stuey eat a meal was a comedy act. He utterly devoured what was in front of him. It was like a wild beast devouring prey. While talking, he’d gesture with rib bones, pointing and pushing the baby backs directly into your chest when he felt particularly passionate about a certain point.
Stuey had asked me a direct question, and he wasn’t about to let this go without an answer. He kept repeating himself, and stuttering:
Seriously, who–who–who you got ranked ahead of me? Who!
Mike just looked straight ahead like a mute and continued eating his meal without saying a word. He let me swing the hangman’s loop.
“Uh, well. Uhhhhhhhh. Uhhhhhhhh. I think I had T.J. ranked number one. Then, there was Huck Seed. Johnny Chan’s up there,” I said, grappling for straws that were elusive to any common agreement.
Who else? Who-who-who else you got on that list ahead of me? Who!
“Uhhhhh, Dan Harrington was 65-1. I think Barbara Enright was 70-1…..”
Did you say Barbara Enright? Are you fucking kidding me? Please tell me you’re fucking kidding.
“Yeah, Stuey. I mean, she made the final table last year. She’s a goo………………”
Wait! You mean, you ranked a woman ahead of me?
There was particular emphasis on a woman, almost as though the words were painful for him to say.
“Yeah. I mean she…………….”
At that point, Stuey stopped eating completely. Just a few bites into the scrumptious platter, he plopped his ribs down onto the plate as if the entire meal was completely ruined. Stuey sat stoically in a state of disbelief, starring at no place in particular as though he’d been told something impossible to fathom.
You want to write about me and tell everybody my story, and you’ve got a woman ranked better than me?
“Stuey, it’s not that big a deal. It’s just some odds that I posted on a website.”
I can’t believe you have a woman ranked ahead of me. That’s fucking ridiculous. I’d like to see the rest of your odds. That’s a fucking joke.
Gee, I guess Stuey agreed with Doyle.
“Stuey, c’mon. She’s the very best woman player in the world right now. She’s won three gold bracelets. Why do you think……”
Reasoning with Stuey was to no avail:
Really, seriously — you ranked a woman ahead of me? This is a joke, right?
Stuey wouldn’t let this go. The disgust in his voice became more loathsome with each outburst. Mike saw this exchange was going nowhere and finally came to my rescue, making a futile attempt to change the subject.
“Stuey, the most important thing right now is that you get your act together and just be ready to play. I mean, no one even knows if you are going to show up — and if you do show up, what condition you’ll be in.”
Of course, Mike was absolutely right as he always is about matters like this. I didn’t have the balls to say it and Mike was much closer to Stuey than I was at that point, so he could get away with tough talk. But Stuey wouldn’t listen. Mike might as well have been whispering into a pillow out in the parking lot. There was a tinge of sadness and disgust:
He ranked me below a woman.
It didn’t matter what I did or we said and did after that–Stuey’s night was completely destroyed. He didn’t eat another bite for the rest of the evening. Later, we did some other things following dinner and even talked a bit more. But every 20 minutes or so, Stuey would interrupt the conversation completely out of nowhere and mumble to himself while shaking his head as though he’d been shamed beyond redemption.
You ranked me below a woman.
I’m ranked below a woman.
I can’t fucking believe it. He ranked me worse than a woman.