One Of A Kind - A Book on Stu Ungar
Reviewed by Jason Kirk  

If someone asked you who was the greatest poker player of all time, the list of answers you could give with any seriousness is a pretty short one. Johnny Moss won the inaugural World Series of Poker and went on to claim Main Event title twice more, so he's definitely a nominee. Doyle Brunson certainly has the greatest reputation of any living poker player, and his two Main Event titles and ten WSOP bracelets put him in the running for sure. Johnny Chan was the last back-to-back Main Event winner and also holds ten bracelets, making him a possibility. But if I were to give my own answer, I'd probably bypass these three and go with Stu Ungar.


Stu Ungar was the son of an illiterate underground New York bookie and was surrounded by gambling from an early age. He quickly showed himself capable of understanding the ins and outs of sports betting, and almost as quickly learned that he was as good as any adult at card games. He began learning to play poker by watching his mother play in games where she would regularly lose $100 in a $1-2 game, and by the time he was ten he was correcting her play while sitting behind her. This aptitude for cards turned Ungar into a full-blown gambler when he reached his early teens. His gambling became the focus of his life at fourteen after his father died, leaving him without an authority figure to keep him in line. Within eight months, Ungar had beaten one of the top gin players in New York in a five-minute match. He stopped attending high school altogether, the mob began backing him in big-money games, and within a few years nobody in New York would sit in a game with the most feared gin player around.


At the age of 21 Stuey headed to Las Vegas, to play in high-stakes gin games that was supposed to make his backers a fortune. Instead, he demolished the best gin player in Vegas, Danny Robison, for $100,000 on the first night. Outside of a handful of matches with people who wanted to take on the kid, he couldn't get any more action once word of his feats got around. He came home, went broke betting thousands every day on sports, and ended up so far in debt to a crime boss that he skipped town. While on the lam, he discovered tournament gin and crushed the competition so thoroughly that he was banned from playing because he was scaring away the competition. Not long afterward he began playing high-limit poker with Robison and Chip Reese, which led to no-limit games with Doyle Brunson. Tournament poker was the end of this progression, and Stuey won the second tournament he ever played - the 1980 World Series of Poker Main Event.


One Of A Kind chronicles these events, and the rest of Ungar's life after he arrived in Las Vegas, in vivid prose. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Dalla and Alson's use of direct quotes from Ungar. The book was originally intended to be Ungar's autobiography, but his death in 1998 made changes in the work necessary. Dalla and Alson illuminate their prose with sections of Stuey's thoughts, which is a little strange at first but quickly grows on you. Using this method, the authors are able to make sure Ungar's full character is on display. Lesser writers would have focused solely on the darker side of his life, a simple task with a character like Ungar, but Dalla and Alson make a point of showing the love he had for his family and the characteristic generosity he displayed whenever he wasn't too wrapped up in the action. Ungar was a captivating man. While the authors don't pull any punches, they do serve him well by refusing to portray him only as a drug addict or degenerate gambler.


"The Kid" forever altered the way no-limit poker was played when he won his first two Main Event titles, and by all accounts he was as fearsome a player as ever sat at a poker table - in any game. As poker professional and WPT announcer Mike Sexton says in his foreword, "Stuey Ungar was the greatest gladiator in poker history." His cunning and aggression at the table were legendary, he dominated his opponents like no one else, and to this day he is the only player to ever win three WSOP Main Event tournaments outright. Even more impressive, the last of these came nearly two decades after his first two wins. Sadly, the key to it all was that Stuey didn't care about the money - almost every dollar he ever won ended up behind the cage at a sportsbook sooner or later. Was this a tremendous waste of talent and energy? Without a doubt, the answer is "yes." But, were these qualities the makings of a master poker player, the likes of which the world may never see again? Once more, there's no other answer but "yes."


One Of A Kind: The Rise And Fall Of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, The World's Greatest Poker Player is available from Atria Books.

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