Stu Ungar was originally a champion gin player. When he was 10 years old in 1963, he won a local tournament. By 1967, he was regarded as one of the best players in New York. He dropped out of school in 1968 to play gin rummy full time and began winning tournaments earning him $10,000 or more. He later moved to Miami, Florida to find more action, and in 1976, he left for Las Vegas, Nevada.
Though he is more well known for his poker accomplishments, Stu Ungar regarded himself as a better gin rummy player, once stating, “Some day, I suppose it's possible for someone to be a better No Limit Hold'em poker player than me. I doubt it, but it could happen. But, I swear to you, I don't see how anyone could ever play gin better than me.”In 1980 he entered the World Series of Poker looking for more high-stakes poker action. He won the main event becoming the youngest champion in its history (he would later be surpassed by Phil Hellmuth). Ungar looked even younger than he was, and was dubbed “The Kid”. He would defend his title successfully the next year.
One of Ungar's most famous quotes sums up his competitiveness- “I never want to be called a ‘good loser'. Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser.” He was also notorious for dealer abuse.A movie about Ungar, High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (Also released as Stuey), was made in 2003
Stu Ungar had an eidetic memory who could keep track of every card in a six-deck shoe. In 1977 he was bet $100,000 by Bob Stupak, an owner and designer of casinos, that he could not count down the last three decks in a six-deck shoe. Ungar won the bet. His skill and reputation were so good that he was frequently barred from playing in casinos. He was virtually unable to play blackjack in Las Vegas.
His drug problem escalated to such a point that during one WSOP tournament in 1990, to which close friend and poker pro Billy Baxter had staked him, Ungar was found on the third day of the tournament unconscious on the floor of his hotel room. However, he had such a chip lead that even when the dealers kept taking his blinds out every time around the table Ungar still finished 9th and pocketed $20,500.
After early success Stu Ungar squandered virtually all of his winnings on cocaine and other forms of gambling (chiefly sports betting and horse racing, sounds fun). He went from broke to a millionaire four times. His addiction took such a physical toll on him that in an ESPN piece on Stu Ungar, many of his friends and fellow competitors said that they thought that he would not live to see his 40th birthday. In the same piece, one friend said that the only thing that kept him alive was his determination to see his daughter Stefanie grow up.
In 1997, Ungar was deeply in debt, but he once again received the $10,000 buy-in to the WSOP main event from Baxter. Ungar clearly showed physical damage from his years of addiction, most notably to his nasal membranes. However, he showed that his mental capacities were unimpaired. During the tournament, he kept a picture of his daughter Stefanie in his wallet, and regularly called her with updates on his progress. After his win, which was taped for broadcast by ESPN, he showed the picture of his daughter to the camera, and dedicated his win to her. He and Baxter split the $1 million first prize evenly.
During the 1997 WSOP, Ungar wore a pair of round, blue-tinted sunglasses to, according to co-biographer Peter Alson, “hide the fact that his nostrils had collapsed from cocaine abuse.” As legend has it, Ungar had undergone a rhinoplasty to fix the nasal damage that cocaine had caused. Following the surgery, he snorted cocaine again, causing his nostrils to collapse.By the following year, he was broke yet again. Baxter again offered to pay his entry fee to the main event, but 10 minutes before play started, Ungar told Baxter he was tired and didn't feel like playing.
Seven months after the 1998 WSOP, Ungar was found dead in a Las Vegas motel room with $800 to his name. An autopsy showed traces of drugs in his system, but not enough to have directly caused his death. The medical examiner concluded that he had died of a heart condition brought on by his years of drug abuse.
Ungar is still regarded by many poker insiders as the greatest pure talent ever to play the game; in his life, he is estimated to have won over $30 million at the poker table. Along with Johnny Moss, Ungar is the only three-time WSOP main event champion, winning it in 1980, 1981, and 1997. His win in 1997 is considered particularly remarkable as a comeback after 16 years of drug abuse. During his WSOP career, Ungar won 5 WSOP bracelets and more than $2 million in tournament pay.
Ungar also won the main event at the now-defunct Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker in 1983, 1988, and 1989, when it was considered the world's second most prestigious poker title. He won a total of 10 major no limit Texas hold 'em events (events in which the buy-ins were $5,000 or higher), still the most by anyone.