Navigate to News section

Remembering Stu Ungar, the Greatest Poker Player of All Time

As another Jew sweeps the game’s world series this year, a look back at a forgotten and troubled champion

Liel Leibovitz
July 26, 2017
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

This weekend, a 25-year-old Jewish accountant from New Jersey named Scott Blumstein won the World Series of Poker, the sport’s main event, taking in $8.1 million in winnings.

Big deal: over the course of his short and thunderous life, Stu Ungar, the greatest poker player in history and one of only two people to win the World Series three times, made more than $30 million, and blew it all on drugs, cars he rarely drove, and meals he consumed quickly and furiously. As we celebrate one Jewish poker champ, it’s only right to pay tribute to the other, largely forgotten hero of the sport, a Jewish athlete every bit as iconic as Koufax.

He was born in 1953 to Isidore, nicknamed Ido, and Faye Ungar, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Ido was a loan shark who ran a bar, Foxes Corner, that was an underground gambling joint. He knew his boy was gifted, and did his best to keep him out of the seamy world of card sharks and small time crooks. But Stu couldn’t stay away. School bored him—he was smart enough to skip the seventh grade—and he spent every free minute watching his father’s inebriated patrons win and lose money they didn’t really have and never truly deserved.

Ido died in 1967, and Faye suffered a stroke that left her incapacitated. Stu dropped out of school and played gin rummy. He had a photographic memory, a mind that worked double-time, and an ego that delighted in trash-talk. Before too long, he was making hundreds of dollars, then thousands. Addicted to the rush, he blew much of it playing the ponies, and his debtors forced him to flee New York in 1976. Vegas was a natural destination: there, he set up to play against another famed master, the Canadian gin genius Harry “Yonkie” Stein.

From the very beginning of their match, it was obvious to anyone watching that Ungar was, by far, the better player. A more calculating man would’ve taken some effort to conceal this, as decisive victories deterred opponents from demanding a rematch and were therefore just bad for business. Ungar wasn’t as calculating: he humiliated Stein 86-to-nul, winning $10,000 and sending the Canadian back home empty handed and fuming. Soon, anyone who might’ve challenged Ungar’s title as the world ‘s undisputed gin champion bowed out, leaving Ungar frustrated and unopposed.

It didn’t take him long to turn to poker. When he entered the room in a Vegas casino, ready to play the professional gambler Billy Baxter, the pro laughed—Ungar looked like a kid. An hour or two later, Baxter was $40,000 poorer and not chortling anymore. In 1980, Ungar won his first Poker world championship, the youngest person ever to do so, earning the nickname “The Kid.” He repeated the feat the following year. He seemed unbeatable.

As the cliché goes, however, Ungar’s only real nemesis was Ungar himself. Cocaine, which he had used casually to stay alert during long poker tournaments, turned to addiction. He was reckless with his money, which he kept in a series of safe deposit boxes in hotels all over Vegas, never trusting in banks. If a friend was in a tight spot, Ungar would pull out $10,000 in cash and hand it over, never expecting it back. He treated large groups of acquaintances to meals at fancy restaurants, but, being impatient, he’d call in advance and order for the entire party so that the food would be waiting on the table when he arrived, allowing him to show up, gobble up his entrée, and leave. His personal hygiene was questionable. His understanding of monogamy even more so. Before too long, he was divorced, addicted, and strung up on blow.

But the bit about there being no second acts in American lives was lost on Ungar. With a small girl to support, he was determined to have one more shot at greatness. In 1997, his body now ravaged by drugs, he vowed to make it back to the Poker world series no matter what. He stayed up all night trying to raise the money needed to buy into the game. Finally, with mere seconds to go before registration closed, Billy Baxter, his old opponent, gave him $10,000 to sign up. He kept a photograph of his child in his wallet for luck and motivation, but the lack of sleep got to him, and he was dozing off at his table. His friends got him through that difficult first day, and when he showed up the next morning, it was obvious that the years and the narcotics had done little to dim his talent. He won the tournament for the third time, an unprecedented achievement at that point, and split the grand prize, $1 million, with Baxter. Vegas had a new nickname for Stu Ungar; he was now “The Comeback Kid.”

His return to glory, sadly, was short-lived. It took him just a few short months to blow throw his winnings, and he was soon broke again, roaming the poker rooms of Vegas begging for cash and using it to buy crack, which he smoked now because his nostrils had collapsed from too much snorting. His friends were stern, demanding he clean himself up before giving him any more money. On November 20, 1998, he checked into room number 6 at the Oasis Motel, a cheap joint at the end of the Strip, paying $48 in cash for two nights. He was found dead on the bed two days later. Despite having won so many millions of dollars throughout his career, his friends had to collect funds to pay for his funeral.

And so, as we applaud this year’s deserving Jewish champion, let us not forget Stu Ungar, the Comeback Kid from the Lower East Side, an all-time great, a mensch, a flawed human being who played his hand as best as he could.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.