The boy king of poker

Published July 31, 2005


The Rise and Fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar,

the World's Greatest Poker Player

By Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson

Atria Books, $25, 316 pp

Reviewed by MIKE FASSO

* * *

One day in 1970, Stu Ungar, accompanied by an entourage of mobsters, made his way to the Pennsylvania Hotel on 7th Avenue in Manhattan. Ungar was a spindly 16-year-old, 5-foot-5, 110 pounds, a bookie's son. He was also the greatest gin rummy player in history.

His opponent in the hotel suite that day was Harry "Yonkie" Stein, a renowned big-money player from Canada. After some nervous introductions, the private match got underway. Ungar and Stein played 27 games of Hollywood gin, a variant in which scores are kept in three columns. When they were finished, Ungar had won every game, a total of 81 columns. It was the most devastating defeat ever handed out in high-level gin.

The mob, which was staking the card prodigy known as "The Kid," took its cut of the winnings. Ungar's $35,000 share quickly evaporated at the horse track. That pattern - big wins followed by bigger losses - would repeat itself for nearly 30 years, until 1998, when Ungar was found dead in a $58-a-night Las Vegas motel room, killed by a heart attack brought on by years of drug abuse.

"They used to call me a freak," Ungar says in One of a Kind, Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson's perceptive and unflinching biography of the doomed gambler. "I guess it was like Bobby Fischer in chess. At 15 I was massacring people who had mastered this stuff for 30 years. I made a shambles out of them. I guess you could say I was a freak of nature."

Despite a few lapses into cliche - Ungar's mother, for example, is described as having "curves in all the right places" - Dalla and Alson present a brisk and thorough portrait of the self-described "action junkie" and poker champion. The book began as an autobiography shortly before Ungar's death, and the authors have put the interview material to effective use, setting Ungar's words in blocks of italic text that read like running commentary from the grave.

The current Texas hold'em craze will surely draw readers to One of a Kind, but the extent to which gin set the course for Ungar's life will come as a surprise to the casual poker fan. Ungar's domination of the game was so complete that he could find few opponents after humiliating "Yonkie" Stein. Poker provided a new outlet.

The authors make a good stab at going beyond superlatives to explain what made Ungar, who grew up around gamblers and gangsters and never had a "real" job in his life, so talented at cards.

To start with, there was his memory. Once - on a bet, naturally - Ungar watched a dealer quickly flip up cards from two decks. With the 104th card unexposed, Ungar thought for a moment, then correctly identified it as the 10 of diamonds. He was also amazingly perceptive in reading players. By watching how a gin opponent arranged his hand, Ungar could generally tell all his cards. Once, to get action, Ungar offered an opponent a peek at the bottom card on the deck, a significant edge. He won anyway.

Ungar was fearless in poker. Early in tournaments, he raised aggressively to win the small pots, building a stack of chips he would use later to bully opponents into folding winning hands.

Ungar once said that he would bet on a cockroach race. Dalla and Alson are able to mine that obsession for gambling action to find a wealth of anecdotes that chronicle, if not fully explain, Ungar's downward spiral.

In one typical story, casino owner Bob Stupak challenges Ungar to a $20,000 winner-take-all poker match. The money means nothing to Ungar, who easily dominates Stupak at the card table and wins his $10,000. But on the way to the cashier, the two begin pitching $100 chips to see who can get closer to the wall. The bets escalate as Stupak wins toss after toss, until eventually all of Ungar's poker winnings, plus his own $10,000, are in Stupak's hands. Ungar had been hustled: Stupak developed a skill for pitching coins in childhood and regularly practiced as an adult.

Ungar's greatest poker achievements were victories at the World Series in 1980, 1981 and 1997. One of a Kind provides enough hand-by-hand details, including from Ungar himself, to give a good sense of what made him so dominant.

In 1997, Ungar says, "The most important hand I played on day one was when I made O'Neil Longson lay down three sevens. I raised him on the river when the board paired the sevens. I bet out, he raised me holding a third seven in his hand, and I reraised enough to put him all-in. I knew what he had, but I also knew that he would lay that hand down if I raised him back. He's got to give me credit for the full house." For poker players, it doesn't get much better than listening to Stu Ungar explaining his hold'em play.

That last World Series win had the newspapers calling him the "Comeback Kid," but within a year Ungar was broke again, his $500,000 prize lost to sports bets, blackjack and drugs. The sunglasses Ungar wore at the tournament were not to deceive opponents, but to conceal a nostril collapsed from cocaine.

Ungar had a wife and daughter and friends in the poker world - champion Doyle Brunson, for one, invited him to stay in Texas to see what normal family life was like - but none could save him from a wretched end. Perhaps "The Kid" provides his own best epitaph in One of a Kind: "I've achieved everything a man could want . . . but I have nothing at all."

- Mike Fasso is a Times copy editor.