Stu Ungar would have been 60 years old today. It’s been almost 15 years since the poker legend was found dead in a Las Vegas hotel room. While his name lives on in the annals of poker history, what many people tend to reflect upon when hearing his name is what might have been had the gin rummy and poker genius not fallen victim to the drug addiction that cost him his life.
A three-time WSOP Main Event champion, Ungar is the last player to win the title in two consecutive years, 1980-81. Given the thousands of players who enter the Main Event today, it is highly unlikely that we will ever see another player successfully defend the title.
When Ungar passed away in 1998, the game of poker was much different than the one we know today. Online poker has changed the game considerably. Thanks to multi-tabling, players can gain valuable experience much quicker than was possible before Internet poker sites began popping up in the early 2000s.
Today’s game also differs in another way that may have made a difference in the life of “The Kid” had the same opportunities been available to him in the 1980s and 1990s that are commonplace today. That difference is the number of high-stakes live tournaments that are being hosted nowadays in comparison to what had been on the docket a couple decades ago.
World Poker Tour host and Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton, a close friend of Ungar, has stated more than once that had there been more live tournament action during Ungar’s heyday, it may have kept the five-time WSOP gold bracelet winner more focused on poker and away from the cocaine that was his downfall.
“I believe the World Poker Tour would’ve saved his life,” Sexton said of Ungar, in an interview with Cardplayer a few years ago. “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.”
Ungar craved action, as evidenced by the millions he won and lost throughout his lifetime on poker, horses, proposition and sports bets. Sexton estimates that Ungar became a millionaire and lost it all at least four times. But Ungar enjoyed the limelight and notoriety thrust upon him by his poker prowess. That stardom was somewhat limited considering that live tournament tours were not as plentiful or as highly publicized as today.
“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,” Sexton added. “Not only would he become the biggest star in the poker world, whoever was the second-biggest would’ve been a distant second.”
To put Ungar’s achievements in the proper context, consider that he won no fewer than ten major No-Limit Hold’em titles featuring buy-ins of $5,000 or more, while playing in only roughly 30 such events. Granted, the number of players who bought in to those tourneys pales in comparison to the amount who enter today. But according to Sexton and several others who played with and knew Ungar well, that would have mattered not, as many consider Ungar to be the greatest No-Limit Hold’em player ever.
What makes it even more astounding is the fact that poker wasn’t even Ungar’s best game. The stories of his gin rummy skills and exploits are even greater than that of his outstanding poker talent. Taking on and beating all comers in gin rummy to the point where nobody would even play Ungar anymore is the reason why the prodigy turned his attention to No-Limit Hold’em in the first place.
Ungar has his rightful place in the Poker Hall of Fame along with his good buddies such as Sexton, Doyle Brunson, Billy Baxter and Chip Reese. He will forever be remembered as the whiz kid who could watch 103 cards from two decks turned over and tell you which card had not yet been shown.
Perhaps in another time or era that afforded more high-stakes tournament competition and publicity such as that in the poker world today, things may have turned out differently for Ungar. As Sexton pointed out, Ungar may have resisted the temptations and demons that plagued him and lived up to the potential of his otherworldly poker talent.