One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey the Kid Ungar, the World's Greatest Poker Playerby Nolan Dalla
Stuey Ungar, the son of a Lower East Side bookie, grew up in a New York of the 1950s and '60s that was straight out of Damon Runyon. By his early teens, he had dropped out of high school and was spending most of his time in the city's under- ground card rooms. So prodigious was his talent for playing gin rummy that he soon found himself bankrolled by members of the Genovese crime family. After thrashing every top gin player on the East Coast, he was forced to broaden his horizons--traveling around the country to find opponents and also learning other card games, including poker.
At twenty-one, he moved to Las Vegas for good and quickly found mentors in poker legends such as Jack "Treetop" Straus, "Amarillo Slim" Preston, Doyle Brunson, and Chip Reese, who embraced the skinny five-foot-five kid with the Rimbaud aura. Soon enough, Ungar was playing in the biggest games at the famous Dunes poker room, learning the finer points of the game at incredible speed.
In 1980, competing in his second tournament ever and playing a game--no-limit Texas Hold'em--he'd just learned, he shocked the poker universe by winning the World Series of Poker. He would go on to win the event a record three times. In One of a Kind, authors Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson tell the startling tale of a man who managed to win millions of dollars and live the highest of high-roller lives without ever quite understanding or respecting the value of money. Whether tossing away his winnings at the racetrack or on a single roll of the dice, Ungar was notorious for gambling every single dollar in his pocket on a daily basis. The risk that he embodied in his gambling carried over to his personal life. He had no concept of night or day. He didn't own a wristwatch, didn't have a bank account, and for years had no home address or personal possessions. For all his gambling successes, at the end of his life he bounced between hotel rooms, casinos, and crack houses, dependent upon the kindness of friends and strangers.
This intimate, authorized biography illuminates the dark genius of poker's most charismatic and mysterious star, who could ruthlessly peer into and read other men's souls but seemed baffled and powerless when confronted with his own.
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Read an Excerpt
No one noticed him at first.
It was May 1997, fifteen hours before the start of the $10,000 buy-in at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) championship event, and in the satellite area, a low-lit collection of baize-topped hold'em tables in the back of Binion's Horseshoe casino, most of the players were too caught up in the business at hand to pay attention right away.
When one player did at last recognize the diminutive man wandering around the periphery of the room, he muttered something to the fellows at his table, and a couple of them turned to look. Then a couple more looked.
Stu Ungar, the two-time world champion of poker, was not unaccustomed to drawing stares in a poker room. The man they called "the Kid" was the most feared tournament player in poker history. Yet here it was, the eve of the championship, and this was the first time he'd been sighted during the more than three weeks that poker's greatest stars had been gathered at the Horseshoe in Las Vegas for their annual shoot-out.
As Stuey continued to navigate his way through the room, the whispers grew louder. He tried to ignore the eyes that widened at the sight of him. It wasn't easy. He had once been dubbed in print the "Keith Richards of poker," both for his rock-star aura and for his spindly little-boy body and mop-topped boyish good looks, and he had always loved the attention. But this was different. This was not the kind of attention he was used to. Starstruck awe had been replaced by morbidfascination. Those who knew him were appalled by what they saw. Up close, the boyishness was gone. Stuey's face was sickly white, ravaged by years of hard, careless living and drug abuse. One side of his nose was collapsed from snorting too much cocaine. His skin was papery and looked as if it might rip at the slightest touch. More disturbing, in a way, was how he'd let himself go. He was unshaven. His fingernails were long and dirty. His clothes looked slept-in. And he smelled.
For a man who had won millions of dollars playing in the highest-stakes games in Las Vegas, it was humbling to have to walk into this room this way -- and worse still because the millions were gone, squandered on drugs and outrageous sports wagers. In a matter of hours, Jack McClelland, the tournament director, would utter his famous command "Shuffle up and deal," and the twenty-eighth annual championship would commence. Unless Stuey could persuade someone to back him, he'd be watching the action from the rail with the rest of the poker world's unwashed masses.
The night before the main event was a time of feverish desperation in the satellite area. Players who hadn't yet won an entry were taking last-gasp shots at scoring a seat in an event that happened only once a year. Most of the players who had already won seats, or who had the luxury of buying in for the full ten grand, were upstairs in their rooms, or across the street at the Golden Nugget. They were resting up, getting a good night's sleep, taking baths, getting massages. They knew that they were going to need every ounce of energy they could muster if they wanted to make it through the grueling four-day marathon.
Those still playing satellites were the luckless losers who hadn't been able to catch a break for three weeks but didn't want to admit defeat. They were stubbornly pursuing the dream -- a dream that, even if they achieved it, would put them at a huge disadvantage relative to the rest of the field. Imagine a runner needing to win a three-mile race in order to qualify for a thirty-mile race later the same day against opponents who had qualified weeks ago and were fully rested. That was the uphill task facing most of the men (and the few women) now in the room.
Better in than out, though, despite the disadvantage -- especially for a two-time world champion. Stuey saw Billy Baxter getting up from a table across the room and made a beeline for him. Baxter, a large, cheerful southerner, was a great lowball player who had won so many gold bracelets in deuce-to-seven lowball draw at the WSOP that one player jokingly began calling it the "Billy Baxter benefit tournament." Oddly enough, Baxter had never played in the $10,000 event, but after entering a $1,050 buy-in satellite (essentially, a one-table mini-tournament to get into the tournament) on a whim, he had managed just moments before to win it. He was now the proud owner of a slip of paper entitling him to a seat in the Big One; not surprisingly, he was in a good mood.
"Hey, Billy," Stuey said, drawing near. "Lyle turned me loose. I'm giving you the first shot at backing me tomorrow." Stuey's voice was pure Lower East Side New York -- a guttural, rapid-fire, wiseguy mumble that recalled Mugsy from the old Bowery Boys shorts. Stuey was referring to Lyle Berman, a multimillionaire businessman, who would be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2002 and would become a driving force behind the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour. Berman had backed Stuey selectively in the past, but his timing had always been lousy, even when the Kid was on top of his game. Berman had wanted no part of Stuey in his current condition and had already told him so.
Baxter's luck with Stuey had been a bit better through the years, though on at least one occasion, in 1990, he experienced the downside of backing a drug abuser when Stuey failed to show up for the final two days of the WSOP. A sharp businessman and professional sports bettor, Baxter considered himself Stuey's friend. Their friendship complicated matters. "I liked Stuey," Baxter said. "I always wanted to help him out when I could."
In this case, however, even flushed with victory, Baxter did not feel comfortable. Stuey looked horrible. It was hard to imagine him finishing the four-day event, much less winning it. Baxter wasn't the type to throw away ten grand on a gesture.
"Stuey, I haven't been going all that great in sports lately," he said. "Try to get it from someone else. I mean, I'm sure you can get a hundred people in this room to back you."
At one point that had certainly been true, but no longer. A quick look around the room forced Stuey to face the truth: he was no more than an object of pity here, maybe even a butt of jokes. He turned and slunk out of the casino. No one knows exactly where he went, but somehow he managed to scrape together a few bucks and buy a vial of crack. Midnight found him in a den in the worst part of town, sucking on a crack pipe, trying to forget about the depths to which he had sunk and all that he had lost.
It seemed almost impossible to believe that four days later he would be back at the Horseshoe, a phoenix risen from the ashes, celebrating one of the greatest comebacks of all time.
Copyright ©2006 by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson
Meet the Author
Nolan Dalla is the lead sports handicapper for Casino Player and has written for Gambling Times, Card Player, Poker Digest, Poker Pages, Poker Player, and The Intelligent Gambler. He was the head of public relations for Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas and is now media director for the World Series of Poker. A native Texan, he currently resides in Las Vegas.
Peter Alson is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie and coauthor of One of a Kind, a biography of the poker champion Stuey Ungar, and Atlas: From the Street to the Ring: A Son's Struggle to Become a Man. Alson's articles have appeared in many national magazines, including Esquire, Playboy, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Alice, and their daughter Eden.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Well, what can I say about this book? Breathtaking, is the first thing that comes to mind. As a regular player and somewhat of a student of the game I¿ve read pretty much everything out there relating to poker. I have to say that this is without a doubt the best anecdotal book describing the high- rolling poker scene that I¿ve come across. With the recent boom in popularity poker has been enjoying, everyone and his dog has put pen to paper feeding the insatiable appetite of the poker neophyte. This book, in my opinion, is by far one of the few that genuinely offers value for money and a read that will leave you breathless. If you have heard of Stu Ungar, seen the movie, read the magazine articles or remember the WSOP back in Stu¿s day then you have to read this book. It blows the movie out of the water and delivers drama like you¿re reading a work of fiction. The reality of Stu¿s remarkable life is presented here with detail previously untapped, leaving you feeling an unmistakable sense of loss for the best poker player to have ever lived. Ian White (President of the Cornell Poker Club)
I thought that this book was great. It really showed the struggles through life in the gambaling world. This book shows the complications that gambaling can do not only to you but the people that love you as well. It also showed how drugs can take such a tole on ones life and how it can effect the way they are in society. It also shows you that no matter how much trouble you are in, there is always someone there to help you out.
This book could be as valuable as any medical book or doctor for anyone who has an addiction whatever that addiction might be. It portrays a person who is addicted to not only poker but illigal drugs and where those problems lead . In its own way the book is a little depressing but on the other hand it is reality. I couldn't put it down once I started to read it. There is much to be learned from this book and I highly recommend it to anyone.
I just got an advance copy of this book and I've been waiting to read it for a year now. Let me just say that these authors really do Stuey Ungar justice. I was so disappointed by the film 'High Roller' as it didn't capture Ungar at all. This book is such a tight read, it's definately the best Poker book I've read in years. Trust me--it's one of those biographies that reads like fiction. It's about time the Ungar story was told right.
What a fascinating character. Ungar fits right in with many renowned poker players and this book presents it quite well.
BEFORE READING THE BOOK I CAN SAY STUEY WAS A MASTER !!!!!! SIMPLY THE BEST GIN RUMMY AND POKER PLAYER AND ONE OF THE GREATEST MINDS EVER. TOO BAD HIS DEMONS KILLED HIM OR HE WOULD SWAT THESE POKER PLAYERS OF TODAY AWAY LIKE FLIES !!!!!! ONE BY ONE SWAT, SWAT, SWAT. ESPECIALLY CRYBABIES LIKE PHIL HEL(mutt)MUTH !!
How the life of someone like Ungar can be made to sound so boring is not easy to do, but book does it. Story seems slapped together, as if done in a rush. I was very disapointed