Stu Ungar
by Greg Cavouras  

Stu Ungar was one of the greatest players to play Poker. Tragically, we must refer to Stu in the past tense, as he deceased in 1998. Ungar was a gifted player and devastatingly intelligent; he rode his skills to three WSOP victories, and won many millions in his long gambling career. His counting ability was nothing short of legendary, and Stu Ungar won’t be soon forgotten.


Stu Ungar was born in New York in 1953, and raised in the city’s lower east side. His talent with cards was evident at a very young age; At age 10, he won his first Gin Rummy tournament in the Catskill mountains.


At 13, Stu suffered a tremendous blow when his father died; the elder Ungar was a bar owner and bookmaker, and young Stu would become a professional gambler the following year, at age 14. At 15, Ungar dropped out of school, and entered a $500 Gin Rummy tournament. He didn’t lose a single hand and went on to win the $10,000 pot. While this was a sign of the boy’s brilliance, it was also foreshadowing of his fatal weakness: Ungar quickly lost his winnings at a local horse track, an unfortunate trend that wouldn’t soon be broken.


After his success as a young man, Stu would head west to Miami where the largest Gin games were held. His winning would continue, but unfortunately his weakness for horse racing would drain his winnings before he had a chance to enjoy them. In 1976, Stu scraped together the funds to enter a $50,000 tournament, which he won easily. However, by reading and announcing his opponents losing hands, Ungar had so intimidated his rivals that few wanted to play against him, and he struggled to find matches outside tournament play.


Stu Ungar’s next career move was to become a blackjack player- and why not? His amazing ability to read and countdown decks was well suited to the game. Legend has it that it was because of Stu Ungar’s ability to count cards that single-deck shoes are no longer used in play in blackjack. The incident is reported to have gone like this: Stu had won over $80,000 at Caeser’s Palace. Once word got to the Casino manager, play was stopped immediately and Stu was asked to leave; Stu’s response- he correctly counted down the remaining 18 cards in the deck, without making a single mistake.


Ungar’s picture was immediately posted in all the security rooms on the strip, and he was banned from Casino play.


Despite being banned from blackjack at many casinos, Stu Ungar had discovered his talent for card counting, and it wouldn’t be long before he capitalized on it. With no money left, Stu put out an open bet- He would bet anyone willing that he could count down the last two decks of a six deck shoe. Amazingly, nobody took him up on this offer.


It was through this incredible offer that Stu would meet one of the few positive influences on his life, a former casino owner named Bob Stupak. Stupak gave Ungar 10-1 odds, but challenged him to count the last THREE decks of a 6 deck shoe; if he succeeded, Ungar would collect $100,000, and if he failed, he would add a $10,000 debt to Stupak to his growing tally. To the amazement of onlookers, Ungar forecast 156 cards without a single miss.


Stu Ungar was then to shift his focus to Poker. In 1980, he entered the WSOP for the first time, and won the title. He was 24 years old. He came back the next year and won again. Shortly after his title win, he lost $2 million at Craps, and was quickly broke again. His gambling and drug addictions were slowly squeezing the life out of a very talented young man.


Despite his personal troubles, Stu Ungar wasn’t done leaving his mark on the Poker world. In 1997, after years away from big time poker, Stu decided to play in the WSOP again. With two hours to go before showtime, he didn’t have the money for the buy-in, but miraculously, with an hour to go, an anonymous sponsor put up the money for Stu to play. In a story that makes Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 victory pale in comparison, Stu Ungar then went on to win his 3rd World Series of Poker title, after 8 years away from big time Poker.


Tragically this was the beginning of the end for Ungar. Only weeks later, he was yet again broke, having succumbed to his weakness for narcotics and gambling. With his life in a downward spiral, his old friend Bob Stupak offered to help him out. Bob would look after his debts and help him clean up and put his life back together, but it wasn’t to be. Only 2 days after signing an agreement with Bob, Stu Ungar was found dead in his motel room.


November 22nd, 1998 truly marked the end of an era for Poker. Stu Ungar’s death marked the passing of one of the most purely talented card players of all time. Of the 30 major poker tournaments Stu entered, he won 10 times. He still holds the record for most WSOP main event victories, with three.

Stu Ungar's Profile


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