By 1990, Stu’s drug problems were well-known throughout the gambling circles, and most players believed he would not live to see forty. The autopsy determined that this was not an overdose case, as traces of drugs found in his system were not high enough. Instead, it is believed that years of drug abuse led to heart failure.
There were no drugs in the room, and while the autopsy identified trace amounts of drugs in his system, the coroner ruled Ungar’s cause of death as the result of a heart condition caused by years of substance abuse. Take a look at Ungar’s lucky river draw against casino executive John Strzemp to win and earn his place in poker history. Notice how emaciated Ungar looks, and the obvious damage cocaine abuse had done to his nose. After his father passed away from a heart attack in 1967, and with his mother struggling after a stroke, Ungar became active in the New York gambling world. At age 18 he became friendly with mobster and card shark Victor Romano who ultimately served as Ungar’s protector and mentor. Such protection came in handy when the notoriously arrogant Ungar angered some of his competitors.
And having become a pet of the extended Genovese crime family after honing his skills in the shadowy card parlors of New York of the 1960’s, as his biogarphy recounts, he embraced the wiseguy swagger. “He’s there leaning back. He’s got his mop top. You can just see the disregard on his face for everything around him.” One popular legend tells of him pulling a $100 bill out of his pocket to give to a random stranger who asked for cash. He was also devoted to his family and tried his best to support them. Despite having earned an estimated $30 million in his career, Stu Ungar was penniless by the time of the 1997 WSOP.
His ability for total recall even won him a $100,000 prop bet after he was able to count down a six-deck blackjack shoe. ‘The Kid’ beat his opponents so bad that his action eventually dried up, forcing him to switch to poker. His story is certainly not a conventional poker player story that you may see if you open the profiles of players winning poker tournaments these days, but it is certainly one more than worth reading about. The best gin rummy player in the world had a near-clairvoyant ability to read other peoples hands and had perfect recall and an uncanny ability to count cards. Arguably the greatest gin rummy player to ever exist – and a handy poker player too – Stu Ungar gin skills were so revered; Vegas wouldn’t let him play anymore. At the time Ungar first visited Las Vegas in 1977, gin was still popular in a tournament format, much like heads up poker tournaments.
You’ll be bored out of your mind nowadays if you watch the WSOP. In the old days there were key highlight hands, it was exciting, there was some poker but it was minimal compared to what you’ll see right now. “I wouldn’t say Stu Ungar was a role model of mine, but I got a chance to play with him about a week before he died. In the Bellagio top section he started a No Limit Hold’em game, something I rarely played, and I thought ‘I might never get a chance to play with him’ so I sat down. I remember him playing a super aggressive style and he went off for five or six buy ins.
You have the ability to analize just as he did that’s probably the reason that you drew a liking to him. Alot of people highlight his drug problem as if that was who he was but there was so much more to this briliant man. He would tell me he didn’t even like the high anymore.