The poker world’s most prestigious tournament title is awarded every year at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event.
A $10,000 buy-in, single-elimination affair, the WSOP Main Event has been used to crown the World Champion of No Limit Texas Hold’em for the last 50 years and counting. Over that span, only Johnny Moss, Doyle Brunson, and Johnny Chan, have managed to win the tournament on two occasions.
But while those accomplishments are certainly impressive, they pale in comparison to the WSOP Main Event trifecta owned by Stu Ungar.
Stu Ungar -“The Kid”
Dubbed “Stuey” or “The Kid” due to his small stature and babyface features, Ungar took down poker’s top tournament in 1980, before successfully defending the title in 1981. For the next 16 years, a combination of substance abuse and family tragedy forced Ungar away from the game, seemingly consigning him to join the shortlist of two-time champs.
In 1997, however, Ungar reemerged from his self-imposed exile and entered that year’s WSOP Main Event at the last minute. What followed from there would become a legendary display of poker acumen that seemingly put Ungar on the road to redemption.
“The Kid” stormed through the 312-player field to capture an unprecedented third Main Event title. Johnny Moss technically won three WSOP Main Events, but the inaugural edition wasn’t a tournament, but rather a cash game in which all seven players present voted on the best overall player.
Even better, the entire final table was broadcast live on ESPN, allowing audiences worldwide to follow along with every flop and fold as Ungar absolutely destroyed all comers.
When it was all said and done, the newly named “Comeback Kid” pocketed the $1 million top prize, while solidifying his position as the greatest WSOP Main Event champion of all-time.
Unfortunately, returning to the felt in fine form wasn’t enough to ward off Ungar’s personal demons. Between his sports betting habit and daily drug use, Ungar blew threw his newly acquired bankroll in short order.
Hooked on crack cocaine, Ungar couldn’t muster the strength to attend the 1998 WSOP Main Event, allowing his title to be usurped by Scotty Nguyen without ever showing up. A few months later, a broke Ungar was found dead in a hotel room on the Las Vegas Strip.
Ungar’s untimely death was surely a tragedy, but for his fellow pro gamblers and poker fans alike, he left behind a lasting legacy defined by victory on the game’s greatest stage—not once, not twice, but three times.
Brief Biography of Stu Ungar
Many gamblers like to say they’ve been playing games of chance and skill their entire lives, but in Ungar’s case, he really was born into the industry.
Stuart Errol Ungar arrived in this world back in 1953, born to a Jewish family living in the lower east side of Manhattan. The family’s patriarch worked as a loan shark, while running a gambling parlor called Foxes Corner on the side. As such, the young Ungar grew up surrounded by sports bettors and card players plying their trade in his father’s gambling den.
Despite boasting a photographic memory and brilliant mathematical ability, Ungar wasn’t cut out for the rigid routines of school. He was somebody with innate skills coupled with a lack of social adaptation.
In that era, however, Ungar was simply known as a grade school dropout, one who cut his studies short by the 10th grade. With little else to do but play cards, Ungar quickly developed a mean gin rummy game, taking on players 40 and 50 years his senior at the “underground” tables scattered throughout New York City. At the age of 10, Ungar won his first gin rummy tournament, the first of what would be many card playing titles to come.
Eventually, word spread of the gin rummy genius who just couldn’t be beat. The best gin rummy pro on the coast, a man by the name of Harry “Yonkie” Stein, heard about “The Kid” and issued a challenge.
Stein and Ungar squared off in a dimly lit room, the latter in his 20s, but still in need of a milk crate just to see over the table. With a crush of fellow hardcore gamblers looking on, Ungar proceeded to demolish Stein to the tune of 86 games to zip. The beating was so thorough that Stein retired from the world of competitive gin rummy, while Ungar watched his action in the Big Apple dry up altogether.
Ungar was known to relish in his opponent’s inability to compete, often offering a leg up in the form of letting them look at the last card in the deck, only to win handily despite the disadvantage.
“They’d crumble right in front of my eyes. They’d have this look in their eyes like they realized they couldn’t win. It was… beautiful.”
With nobody willing to sit against him in gin rummy, Ungar flew the coop in 1977 and headed to Las Vegas, where he immediately crushed the locals in his game of choice. Once again, word spread of a player who couldn’t lose, so Ungar found himself boxed out of the biggest gin rummy games.
That prompted him to take up another card game which was becoming increasingly popular due to its use in the WSOP Main Event for No Limit Texas Hold’em.
Ungar Bursts Onto the WSOP Scene in Style
As he recounted later in his 2005 autobiography “One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar, the World’s Greatest Poker Player,” Ungar dived right into the Las Vegas high-stakes poker scene.
In 1978, playing No Limit Texas Hold’em for the first time at the Dunes poker room, Ungar lost $20,000 within 15 minutes on the felt. Undeterred, the notoriously competitive Ungar honed his strategic approach and returned to the same game, winning back his original bankroll plus an additional $27,000 in profit over the course of three days.
In his autobiography, Ungar pointed to another game-playing prodigy when recalling his ability to master card games in a matter of minutes:
“I was a freak. I was like Bobby Fischer, it was freaky what I did. People would show me a card game that I never played, and two days later, I would be better than them. At a card game they’ve been playing for 30 years. I was a freak of nature.”
Ungar stuck to the cash games for the next two years, but in 1980, his friend Billy Baxter—a local poker pro and sports bettor—offered to stake him in the WSOP Main Event.
In his very first poker tournament, playing on the game’s grandest stage, Ungar faced off against 72 opponents. Most were the best players on the planet at that time.
Deploying a hyper-aggressive style that was rare back then, Ungar bullied his opponents into submission over the three-day tournament. He wound up reaching heads-up play against none other than “Texas Dolly” himself, two-time WSOP Main Event champ Doyle Brunson.
Brunson couldn’t beat “The Kid” with $365,000 on the line. Ungar returned one year later and outlasted a 75-player field, defeating Perry Green heads-up to successfully defend his World Champion title. That win was good for another $375,000 in winnings, putting Ungar on the fast track to high-roller status for life.
The Comeback Kid Returns to Make WSOP History
Throughout the 1980s, Ungar continued to terrorize the poker tournament circuit.
In 1984, he won the Amarillo Slim Super Bowl of Poker and the America’s Cup of Poker, both $10,000 buy-in tournaments like the WSOP Main Event. He won the Super Bowl of Poker back to back in 1989 and 1990, and that same year, he nearly saw Ungar win yet another WSOP Main Event.
Ungar wound up building a massive chip lead early on in the tournament, one which he maintained until the final two tables were set. But when play began, Ungar was nowhere to be found, having passed out in his hotel room after a drug binge. Play continued without him, however, and Ungar’s chip stack was slowly blinded off for a ninth-place finish.
The 1990s weren’t as kind to Ungar as the previous decade had been, and he largely disappeared from the poker scene in lieu of drugs, sports betting, and the table game pit. By the time the 1997 WSOP rolled around, Ungar was a shell of his former self, his body and mind ravaged by an intense cocaine addiction.
Hoping to extend his struggling friend a lifeline, Baxter once again offered to stake Ungar in that year’s Main Event. By this point, the field size had swelled to 312 players, putting a cool $1 million up top for the eventual champion.
Despite his deteriorating condition, Ungar proved his bona fides as the best poker player of his era by reaching the final table with a massive chip lead. With the ESPN cameras on hand to document the final table, Ungar put on a show for the ages by absolutely outclassing the opposition.
Ungar’s third victory in poker’s premier tournament seemed to put him in position to repair his life once and for all. But within months, his entire cut of the $1 million prize had been blown on drugs and sports betting.
He neglected to show up for the 1998 WSOP Main Event, ashamed at his diminished appearance and bankroll, choosing to seclude himself in seedy hotels instead.
On November 22nd of that year, Ungar was found dead. His cause of death was ruled as a heart attack, potentially due to culminating effects of years’ worth of drug use. His life was cut short by a series of disastrous choices.
Asked about the possibility that poker’s eventual “boom era” might have provided a different path for Ungar, his close friend Mike Sexton rued what could have been:
“I believe the World Poker Tour would’ve saved his life. Stuey’s problem was that the World Series of Poker only came up once a year; there weren’t many $10,000 tournaments back in those days. Once the event was over, he’d have to figure out what to do for the whole year until it came back again. Now, you’ve got $10,000 tournaments every other week on television. The World Poker Tour would’ve kept him off drugs and kept it straight, and he would’ve been the biggest poker star the world has ever seen, by far. Not only would he become the biggest star in the poker world, whoever was the second-biggest would’ve been a distant second.”
Watching as Ungar stalked his prey during that incredible 1997 WSOP Main Event final table still gives poker players goosebumps to this day. Talents like “The Kid” are generational, arriving seemingly out of the blue before completely transforming the world around them.
Today, the young guns employ a strategy based on well-timed aggression and mathematical certainty, one pioneered by Ungar well before the term “game theory optimal” became well known.
Given the massive field sizes that define the modern WSOP Main Event, the chances of ever seeing a two-time winner again are close to nil, making Ungar’s incredible run of three titles in 17 years the gold standard forever after.
Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...
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