Preface: Last week marked the 25th anniversary of Stu Ungar’s death. In remembrance of the occasion, I was featured in a few interviews and was asked to share my memories of being with Ungar.
I remembered my experiences of working with him, and eventually co-writing One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘the Kid’ Ungar, the World’s Greatest Poker Player (with Peter Alson).
What follows is the longer (unedited) version of the full interview with Santiago García Mansilla, a writer-journalist based in Argentina. The article is in Spanish and can be seen HERE. Also, The Sporting News did a story on this, which can be seen HERE.
Question: It is almost 25 years since the death of Stu Ungar. What feelings does that anniversary give you?
Answer: Other than feeling 25 years older, and wondering how the time passed by so quickly. I don’t really have any special feelings about the anniversary date one way or another.
Question: How did the idea of writing his biography come about?
Answer: From 1994 through 2001, I was a regular columnist for Card Player (a bi-monthly magazine) which was considered the primary publication for the game of poker worldwide. All the other columnists had books they sold via links and ads in the magazine — mostly on poker strategy. But from the first poker hand I ever played, what most interested me about the game were the people–and especially the eccentric individuals that were such a big part of poker in its early years. Back when I first started writing about the game in the early 90s. I decided that if and when I did my first book it would be a narrative on the people, or at least someone who was fascinating in the same way successful authors Al Alvarez and Tony Holden (in the UK) wrote their masterful groundbreaking exposes about the poker subculture ten years earlier. Ungar had become an almost forgotten player by the time the 1995 and 1996 WSOP rolled around. So, the idea of doing anything with Ungar personally — who was also chronically unreliable due to his self-destructive habits — would have been unthinkable. Especially for me, since I had no real credentials to take on such a task. Then, out of nowhere when he won the 1997 World Series of Poker and I was there during the entire time covering the event, hanging out with him, talking to people within his inner-circle, I realized this made for a perfect storm of opportunity. Unfortunately, it took eight more years to release the final draft, in large part because of my notorious problem as a procrastinator who gets bored easily, no matter what the subject matter. Writing the book and that struggle to finish it was almost as interesting a story as the book itself, and certainly a remarkable and educational experience for me as a first-time author.
Question: How did you notice Stu in the interviews? You wrote that he had good days and bad days. Did you imagine what happened?
Answer: Initially, when I reached out to him right after he won in ’97, Ungar couldn’t care less about doing a biography. His objection was simply because that required time and work on his part and there was no significant upfront money for him. So, he ignored my several overtures and to be frank about it, I wasn’t well-known at the time — either as a writer or a poker journalist. So, I completely understood the rejection. I then realized I needed to get creative. That’s when I decided to send him a mock copy of a book cover with him and then superimposed a title with his name and my name on it, showing Stuey what the book would look like. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words and imagery is important, especially to Ungar who had a huge ego. Since I also knew Ungar probably wouldn’t respond to me personally, I also sent a copy to Mike Sexton. It’s important to know Sexton was one of his closest friends and he absolutely was ecstatic with the mock cover design. By the way, it turned out not to be the same cover that was used (mine was actually better, but that’s another discussion). Anyway, Mike Sexton told me later that he was with Stuey downtown sitting down in a coffee shop at the El Cortez and Unger was halfway out of it mentally. By this time, he had blitzed through all the prize money he’d won and then Mike pulled out the mock book draft copy and — I still remember his exact words to this day in a phone conversation he had later — “Suddenly, Stuey lit up like a Christmas tree. He thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, especially with his name and image on the front cover. Stuey was hooked the moment he saw that cover.” Mike went on and told me Stuey was showing the cover design to waitresses and to anyone who would look at it and saying all of the sudden — “look, they want to write a book about me. They’re going to make a movie about me.” Can you imagine that wild scene? Well, that’s exactly what he needed at the time, mentally. Broke and aimless and age 44, Stuey needed something meaningful to focus on, and suddenly this was it. So, I flew back and forth between the East Coast and Las Vegas to meet and attain what I could. The book project (initially presumed to be a ghostwritten autobiography at the time) at least for a short period became another comeback, another attempt at retribution and for a while he was focused enough to meet with me on a number of occasions mostly in dingy hotel rooms but the more he talked about the past the more he remembered and it became more of a conversation than an interview. He opened up and even called me in the middle of the night with obscure remembrances. He absolutely loved the project. So, that’s the basis of what became the book, especially the early parts of Ungar’s life which really had no documentation other than what he told me during those interviews.
Question: How did you find out about Stu Ungar’s death?
Answer: The phone rang late on a Sunday night. I still remember the exact moment, being at home in Washington and answering it. When I heard Mike Sexton’s voice, he seemed sad. I think he said something like, “well, I’ve got some terrible news…..” Mike didn’t even have to finish the sentence. I knew what was coming next.
Question: What was the writing process like? Did you meet with Stu first and then sit down and write with Peter?
Answer: I met with Ungar several occasions and I also found that he was much better (meaning coherent) when he was with his pals. He had pride in himself and would never be seen on drugs with his friends. He kept that very private. So, Mike and I took him over to Puggy Pearson’s house a few times. We hung out with Billy Baxter and when Ungar was with his friends they would say things and he would remember stories. Of course, to me taking all this in was like siting in the locker room of the 1927 New York Yankees. It was poker’s ultimate insider group and to just be in the circle, even as an observer with a tape recorder, I felt privileged. If I have any advice to fellow writers, and especially biographers, it’s to get the subject into a comfort zone where they feel in a position to openly express themselves in a relaxed atmosphere, rather than an interview which can kinda’ feel like a police interrogation. You see, that’s critical to getting good material out of someone, which is identifying that comfort zone. And it’s different for everybody. When Stuey was with Mike, and Puggy, and Billy, and Mickey, and Doyle, and the rest of his peers, that triggered memories where they’d all tell more stories, which was much more than I could have gotten out of him one-on-one. My only regret now was that I didn’t interview him more in depth, and my own experience wasn’t deep enough at the time to ask the right questions I’d ask now. Of course, nobody knew that he would die right in the middle of the project, which was woefully incomplete. As for Peter (Alson) and his involvement, he’s such a great writer. He’s far more disciplined than me, for one thing. He also has a big name in literary circles because of his uncle (Norman Mailer), so collaborating with Peter turned out to be the salvation of the project. Peter didn’t really join in until years later, as most of the research material had already been gathered that was available. But the editing and pretty much the final draft as you see is Peter’s work more than mine. The book would not have happened without Peter coming in and rescuing the material — that’s the truth. He deserves far more credit than he’s been given as many people think of this as a “Nolan Dalla book.” But it’s just as much Peter’s. I also have to acknowledge Greg Dinkin and Frank Scatoni at Venture Literary who put up with a lot of obstacles and negotiated an agreement that got everyone together on the book deal, and various movie rights. They put up with a lot and were the driving force.
Question: How many players and family members did you interview?
Answer: I don’t have an exact count. And what disappointments me to this day is that after the book was published, so many people would come up to me and tell me stories. I wondered — hey, where you were you a year ago when we were doing the draft? Anyway, I interviewed everyone that was living associated closely with Ungar in any way from long lost relatives to deli workers to poker dealers. I tracked his sister down who lived in Puerto Rico (she’s deceased now) and she gave me some interesting stuff about their childhood that really explained why he turned out as such a prodigy. I tried to track his half brother down, a college professor who absolutely hated Stuey. He gave me a tiny bit of stuff, but I could tell that even decades later he was still intensely bitter. Of course, I talked to his daughter Stefanie who is only 14 when he passed away and then Madeline was also essential to really understanding who Stuey was. They were immensely helpful. What really impressed me about them was they were so open about some painful memories. But I think they also wanted history to know a side of Stuey that was positive and inspirational to people, which he was. I also had some doors slammed in my face. Some people didn’t like Stuey and refused to cooperate.
Question Did you get to see him play live at the WSOP or another tournament?
Answer: I saw him play live several times in the mid-90s. I don’t remember much earlier than that, but my relevant time with him was at the 1997 Series when he won his third world championship and then on some NFL Sundays when we hung out inside sports books, went out to dinner, and just hung out talking. To me, those are the special moments I remember fondest; just the hanging out and talking and being around one of the most eccentric gamblers in history. Any of the poker experiences were secondary, though I do remember playing $10-20 Omaha High-Low at the Horseshoe about six months before he died. It’s a funny story, really. I was sitting in this cash game waiting to meet Ungar for another interview who was characteristically late, meaning at least a half hour to an hour. We used to have this running joke between us, that “Ungar time” meant adding 30 minutes later because he was always late. Anyway, he finally came downstairs and we had to wait for someone else to join us, maybe it was Tony Shelton, who was running the poker room at the time. I left my seat go to the restroom and out of nowhere Ungar gets impatient and tells me he’s going to sit down in my poker seat and play my stack in the $10-20 Limit Omaha game. Well, the looks on the faces of the other players in the game was like they were seeing a ghost. They all turned white. Ungar was the world champion at the time and was just such an imposing personality in any game. That Ungar would even sit down in a game of such insignificance back then was unheard of. I guess those eight people could later claim they played poker with Stu Ungar. Oh, and while he sat in for one round, he didn’t play a single hand. Funny, I still remember that.
Question: What relationship did Stu have with his daughter Stefanie?
Answer: I can’t speculate that much on their real private relationship. I will say that Stuey acknowledged being a neglectful father. I could tell he was emotionally broken up about his squandering of all the money and gambling winnings and I still remember the terrible shame that he carried. Just a few months before he died, in August of 1998, he confessed he couldn’t buy his daughter school clothes for the coming year for Stefanie, who was starting high school, I think. He had to borrow money to be a dad and be a provider. There was a deep shame in that moment for him that I’ll never forget. But that pain in a strange way also endeared him to me as a human with very real feelings instead of just a poker pro and gambling icon. We learn much more about people and who they really are when they lose than when they win.
Question: Do you think he would have been able to recover from his addictions without the tragedies he had in his life?
Answer: I don’t know enough about addictions or the science of drugs and impact on the brain to speculate on that. I do know the power of addiction is like a death’s grip. It won’t let go. Perhaps someone that’s been through that experience and shed those demons on their own would be better suited to offer an opinion.
Question: How many bracelets would Stu have won without the addictions and excesses in his life?
Answer: This is another question that it’s hard for me to answer. Maybe impossible. You have to remember that the best players were not chasing gold bracelets back then. Many of the legendary greats in poker would have had 15 or 20 or maybe more gold bracelet wins, if they would have concentrated on the tournaments in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The main focus for high-stakes players back then, especially during the World Series of Poker was the side action and cash games which were often all-nighter red-velvet rope so-called nosebleed stakes played with no one recording the events. They wanted the money and weren’t so much interested in preliminary tournaments or anything like the gold bracelet chase is today. In fact, most of them didn’t want any public attention. Billy Baxter, Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Johnny Chan, Chau Giang — they all told me at various times, they even later regretted to some degree, that they didn’t add to their legacies by playing more bracelet events. Unger probably fits in that same category. What’s most interesting to see how he might have adapted to today’s games and landscape, which is very different than 30 or 40 years ago. He’d be 70 today, so everything is entirely speculation.
Question: Were you present at his funeral and induction into the Hall of Fame? What do you remember about that?
Answer. No and yes. I was living in Washington D.C. when Ungar died. It also happened right around Thanksgiving. So, I did not make the funeral which happened in late November. I was present four years later for his Hall of Fame induction in Las Vegas and spoke on his behalf. Back then, the PHOF ceremony and fanfare wasn’t as big a deal as it is now. I wish I could say Stuey’s inclusion was a memorable moment with lots of drama but honestly — that happened during a real down year during the World Series which was 2002 and Binion’s Horseshoe was at rock bottom financially speaking and in its relationship with players, and also because several of Stuey’s friends had boycotted that year. So, the event itself was a bit of a downer.
Question: What feedback did you get from players and the poker media when the book was published?
Answer: The feedback I got and the reaction to the book surprised me. First, the New York Times reviewed it positively and even did a full page story on it. So, that was huge. That publicity led to various documentaries, including a one-hour special on ESPN. Gee, how many first time authors are fortunate enough to get a positive New York Times review and an ESPN documentary based on the material? I mean, the ESPN documentary One of a Kind is narrated by Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons. How amazing is that? [Note: See link below to the documentary] Later, we even signed a movie contract with Warner Bros. and executive producer Graham King, whose movies have won dozens of Oscars, including Best Picture. However, I was swamped with work back then because it was right smack in the middle of the poker boom as One of a Kind was released in the summer of 2006. So, it was perfect timing during the poker boom, but also terrible timing for me personally–being able to focus more on it. Back then, I was in the middle of several intersections — Media Director of the World Series of Poker, plus I traveled to every tour stop with the WSOP Circuit, and I worked full-time as PokerStars Director of Communications, which was then the second-largest poker site in the world. Now, my phone was blowing up with book interviews and more movie offers (which later came but the right script never materialized). Full confession — I didn’t really handle the attention well. I missed lots of opportunities. I wish I could go back over that period and correct many of the mistakes I made. Had I focused more, I know we would have had a huge movie from it.
Question: Can you explain?
Answer: I’ll let the book and the Stu Ungar story speak for itself. Not to be falsely humble, but I do think any competent writer who had just a simple command of grammar and was able to gain access and do the same interviews I conducted probably could have told the story about as well, simply because the Ungar story is so incredible and unusual and probably will never be matched within this genre of subject matter. What I didn’t expect was so many people would know me mostly for being the co-author of that book when I’ve done far more work and spent many more years in gambling elsewhere on other projects. One of a Kind was a tiny fraction of so many experiences and amazing people I’ve worked with in my life. Years ago in an interview, poker journalist Remko Rinkema told me I was best known for One of a Kind. I was like — what? I’ve written 5,000 articles and 2,500 World Series of Poker tournament reports over two decades. How’s that possible? I guess, you can’t predict how people react to things, nor control what you’re known for.
Question: Many young players don’t know who Stu Ungar was. Why would you recommend they read “One of a Kind?”
Answer: I really have no interest in young poker players or the game of poker, anymore. I do not mean that rudely, nor am I dismissing the question. I don’t recommend they read anything particularly and even if I did, they wouldn’t listen to me. I’ve turned the page on that chapter.
Question: What did you think of the film that was released about his life in 2003?
Answer: There’s a lot of conflicting ways to look at High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story. That came out in 2003, I think it was, a few years before my book release and was done by film director Anthony W. Vidmer, whom I greatly respect and has since become a friend. I had very little to do with the actual film other than some consulting on a few things. That movie had no access to my research, other than what I shared. I prefer to not criticize another artist nor detract from their creative vision, but the film did not live up to the subject matter considering the material that was available to them. Perhaps this is just professional jealousy, and even envy on my part. I mean, to Vidmer’s credit, he actually did something remarkable. Considering how small the budget was for the entire movie, just $1 million I think — which is peanuts in Hollywood production numbers — plus the obvious limitations on filming a period piece parts of which take place in the 50s and 60s, and it’s really a pretty remarkable achievement to just get that film done in the first place. I’ve only watched it once, so maybe I should re-watch it again. High Roller has developed something of a mini-cult following, but then that’s because they’re so little otherwise available on Stu Unger. Anything about him is rare and precious, especially to people who want to know more. So, the answer is that I have mixed feelings.
Question: What poker player or character would you like to read their biography that hasn’t been written yet?
Answer: I can’t think of one. Maybe mine, if I could write and tell the truth about all the things I’ve witnessed and people I’ve met.
Note: Special thanks again to writer Santiago García Mansilla, for the interview and the special feature.
More Info: Watch the ESPN-production, “One of a Kind,” based on the book — CLICK HERE.