Legends at the Table: Stu Ungar

May 8, 2019 6:15 am


Stu Ungar was among the most celebrated players in poker history. Many deemed him to be an exceptional Texas Hold’em and gin rummy player. He had a genius-level IQ and was among the two individuals in the history of the card game to have clinched the World Series of Poker Main Event three times.

Ungar was native to New York and the son of Isadore Ungar, a bar owner and a loan shark. He was exposed to card games at a young age, and remarkably won his first gin tournament at the age of 10! The gifted youngster dropped out of 10th grade and began playing underground gin tournaments. He relied on gin and rummy to provide for his family after his father passed away. Ungar’s reputation grew exponentially as a gin player, destroying competition wherever he went. Casinos ultimately requested him not to play in tournaments as opponents greatly feared encountering the prodigious player.


The fast-talking gin superstar quickly settled in Las Vegas in the late 1970s and was soon a regular in the high-stakes poker cash games. Despite having little experience, Ungar took to poker with rapidly. Poker legend Doyle Brunson revealed he’d never seen someone take to poker as quickly as Stu did. In 1980 he became the youngest ever WSOP Main Event winner and was nicknamed, “The Kid”, a reference to his age and scrawny demeanor. He successfully defended his championship title the year that followed.


Year Tournament Prize
1980 $10,000 No Limit Hold’em World Championship $365,000
1981 $10,000 Deuce to Seven Draw $95,000
1981 $10,000 No Limit Hold’em World Championship $375,000
1983 $5,000 Seven Card Stud $110,000
1997 $10,000 No Limit Hold’em World Championship $1,000,000



Though Ungar was a vastly talented poker player, his capability for self-annihilation was equally ravenous. Money won from cards was usually squandered on sports bets. In the 1980s, he turned to cocaine to help deal with long hours playing poker; a recreational hobby that would plague him for the remainder of his life. He consistently went from millionaire to bust and would often acquire loans through illegal means under the pretence of replenishing his poker bankroll. At the age of 45, Ungar, one day, checked into Oasis Motel in downtown Las Vegas.  He was found dead, wrapped in sheets on his bed two days later by a maid. At East Las Vegas’ Palm Valley View Memorial Park Ungar was laid to rest. “A great person, but a greater loss” is engraved on his tombstone.

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