Stu Ungar once said, “It’s hard work, gambling… playing poker. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Think about what it’s like sitting at a poker table with people whose only goal is to cut your throat, take your money, and leave you out back talking to yourself about what went wrong inside. That probably sounds harsh, but that’s the way it is at the poker table. If you don’t believe me, then you’re the lamb that’s going off to the slaughter.”
Most people within the poker world are well versed on Stu Ungar’s legacy. The New York City gin rummy prodigy was so good that some of his opponents actually believed he was clairvoyant. His ability for total recall even won him a $100,000 prop bet after he was able to count down a six-deck blackjack shoe. ‘The Kid’ beat his opponents so bad that his action eventually dried up, forcing him to switch to poker.
Ungar quickly took to hold’em, and was ultimately considered by many of his peers to be among the best to ever play the game. He not only won the Super Bowl of Poker three times, but also won five World Series of Poker bracelets. In fact, he remains the only player to ever win the $10,000 buy-in main event three times, earning back-to-back titles in 1980 and 1981, and then returning to win again in 1997.
(Johnny Moss has three main event titles as well, but one was earned via player vote. Johnny Chan won the main event in 1987 and 1988, and fell just short in 1989, finishing runner-up to Phil Hellmuth.)
Unfortunately, he was also a man who battled with personal demons. Although he would have undoubtedly been one of the early stars of the poker boom, Stu never saw the game explode in popularity. He died unceremoniously in 1998 at the age of 45 in a Las Vegas hotel room, the official cause listed as cardiac arrest. He was just one year removed from his third main event title.
“Everybody felt terrible, but it wasn’t a surprise,” Doyle Brunson was quoted as saying.
As someone who found the gambling world at a young age myself, I’ve always been fascinated by Stu’s story. On a cold day in November, I pulled up a chair to a small table, coffee on the left and my phone set to record on the right. Seated across from me was Stefanie, Stu’s daughter, now 38. Although he didn’t get to see her grow into an adult, Stu would have been proud of Stefanie, who arrived elegantly dressed, more than happy to answer the seemingly endless list of questions I had put together, and also share a side of him that perhaps people didn’t know about.
Authors note: My conversation with Stefanie Ungar-Campbell lasted several hours and the stories were unending. As much as I would like to divulge everything I learned, more than two-thirds of the interview had to be left on the cutting room floor because of space considerations. If you’d like to hear more great stories about Stu Ungar, please follow her on Instagram (StefanieUngar) as she continues to share his legacy. Stefanie is currently working towards opening a restaurant near the Las Vegas Strip named after her father, and plans to earmark a portion of sales for addiction recovery efforts.
Stuey The Kid
Although his father Ido was a bookmaker who ran a bar and social club in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, it was his mother Faye that actually sparked his interest in gin rummy.
“He had an insatiable appetite for action,” Stefanie said. “The way he got into playing cards was by watching his mom play with her friends and make mistakes. She would be made fun of by the other players and he would watch as they openly laughed at her. That’s what started it off for him – his early quest for greatness within the game coupled with his desire for respect.”
Stu’s early gin prowess got the attention of the mafia, which frequented his father’s establishment. After his father died, the mafia reportedly accepted the 13-year-old with open arms. You may write off these stories as fiction, but Stefanie confirmed those early connections.
“At Stuey’s bar mitzvah there were so many mobsters in attendance that the FBI was outside of the event writing down the license plate of every car in the parking lot,” she recalled. “They couldn’t fathom who the kid was and why there were so many Italian mafiosos at a Jewish kid’s birthday party. In reality, he was just a 13-year-old whose father had the respect of the mafia, who was able to make them a ton of money. He later joked that if the FBI was smart, they would have confiscated the guest book.”
Stu grew streetwise beyond his years, but his official education fell by the wayside. The more involved he became in gin to support his mother and sister, the less it mattered to do his homework, or even show up to school. Although he had been smart enough to skip two grades early on in his academic career, by high school, he was often playing gin through the night. The double life as a card shark and a student ultimately proved to be too much to juggle, and he dropped out in tenth grade. By this point it didn’t matter, as he was too ingrained within the gambling world to consider any other avenue in life.
His wits were in cards and hustling, not in books and grades. Stuey was once playing a high-stakes gin match for the mafia, and the unlawfulness of the game became apparent the second the FBI kicked in the door and rushed the parlor. The sudden flood of law enforcement would catch most people off guard, but Stu quickly hopped up from the table and onto a barstool, grabbing a bartender’s rag in the process. In a flash, Stuey transformed from a high-stakes illegal gambler into an underweight kid who was just there to shine shoes for loose change. It wasn’t the last time that Stu’s quick thinking got him out of trouble.
The Hardest Of Gamblers
Upon arriving in Las Vegas, Stu quickly realized that it had everything he ever wanted: booze, women, fancy cars, nice dinners, and most importantly, an unending supply of action. At first, he plied his trade as a gin aficionado and paid off some former connections to ensure his safety, but his desire to prove himself didn’t stop there. It didn’t matter the game, Stu sought out a bet, gambling as high and fast as anyone would let him.
“Stu’s first-time playing golf, he left the course owing over $77,000. I don’t know what he was chasing, if it was an adrenaline rush or something more, but he was always pushing how far he could go,” Stefanie recalled. “At one point he lost the Mercedes that he had arrived to the golf course in. He was a horrible golfer and honestly a horrible sports bettor. If he had stuck to gin and poker his life would have been easier, but that wasn’t who he was.”
Poker pro Mark Gregorich battled with Ungar at the tables during his waning years, and confirmed that Stu not only lost the $77,000 playing nine holes of golf, but had managed to lose an additional $300,000 on the practice putting greens before he even got out on the course. Stop and think about that for a moment. He’d never even picked up a set of golf clubs before in his life, but he was willing to bet a fortune on it in his quest for action.
Always brash and overconfident about his abilities, Stu got into more than his fair share of confrontations. While it is recorded in the annals of poker history that he was almost banned from the 1981 WSOP main event after spitting on a dealer, Stefanie pointed out that he also had a gentle heart and would often try to make amends.
“At his funeral, my mom pointed out several dealers that were in attendance and told me how big of a deal that was, because he didn’t always treat them the best. When we talked with one of them afterwards, he said not everyone understood, but Stu tried to make it a point to come over after the game and apologize while leaving a sizeable tip. He would just get so frustrated when playing for giant sums that he couldn’t control himself. But when his anger subsided, he usually tried to make it right.”
Dealing With Tragedy
Stu married Stefanie’s mother Madeline in 1982, shortly before Stefanie was born. He wanted to ‘do the right thing’ and not have a child out of wedlock. Stefanie recalled the countless nights that they would spend together, cuddling on the couch, playing footsies while talking, or spending hours playing Monopoly. The marriage also came with a step child for Stu. Richie was a 12-year-old boy who idolized him as a father and a man. Stefanie stated that they would constantly be attached at the hip, always betting on silly things.
Ungar’s mother suffered a stroke and had to be placed in a nursing home before her death in 1979. The burden of guilt weighed heavily on Stu, and it was too much for some of his “friends” to witness. He was offered cocaine and told it would help him feel better. Stu never drank or smoke as his appetite was always geared for action, but this time he readily accepted any remedy to help with his overwhelming sadness. In the blink of an eye, he did feel better, refreshed, and ready to go. This one-time cocaine bump quickly turned in to the realization that the wonder drug could help him play longer at the tables. What had started as a desire to blunt his own pain had instead become a tool to induce pain at the tables.
Stu’s on-again, off-again drug habit caused strife within the Ungar household, and the couple divorced in 1986. Richie opted to live with Stu instead of his mother, but committed suicide shortly after his high school graduation in 1989.
“I had never seen my dad cry, but after Richie died, he was still crying himself to sleep at night ten years after his death.”
The tragedy, coupled with Madeline and Stefanie leaving Las Vegas for their family network in Florida, drove Stu over the edge. The drugs were no longer there for partying or all-night sessions at the table. They were once again used as a tool to dull the anguish.
When Stu played in the 1990 WSOP main event he infamously made day three as a monster chip leader but overdosed and couldn’t show up to play the final day. His unmanned stack still managed a final table appearance before it busted in ninth place for $25,050.
Remembering Her Father
Stu was an amazing gamesman, but he was so completely focused on gambling that he often lacked the basic ability to function as a human. For instance, he once ran a Mercedes dry of oil and returned it to the dealership complaining that no one had told him his car needed maintenance. He even paid a neighborhood boy $20 to take out his trash. He didn’t trust banks and paid everything in cash. But when it came to time with Stefanie, he was all in and focused.
“He had a Jaguar, that was his car, and he’d constantly trade in the older model for an updated version,” she said. “Whenever I flew in from Florida to visit for the summer, he would pick me up himself at the airport. He’d come right up to the gate, you were allowed to back in those days, and then we would jump in his car and drive off. When we would go out to dinners together it was an affair. We would be out for hours, just talking at the table. He always loved Chinese food and Italian food and it became our thing. I’ve heard it from the players before, that he was completely different around me.”
The world in which Stu inhabited on a daily basis was non-stop adrenaline, kill or be killed, and overwhelming machismo, and he wanted no part of that for his daughter. Not only did he not want Stefanie to learn poker, but he was also overprotective.
“I couldn’t go out of our cul-de-sac because he was scared that I would get kidnapped,” remembered Stefanie, who now has two kids of her own. “He wouldn’t let me wear makeup or nail polish, and I couldn’t shave my legs because he would tell me I wasn’t old enough. If I said something ‘sucked,’ he would chastise me and tell me it wasn’t ladylike. When we would go out to a movie together and I had to go to the bathroom, he would find the sweetest old lady he could and ask her to make sure I was okay.”
“He had seen another world that fortunately most people never see, and [it affected him]. I wasn’t completely blind to the world he lived in, though. I knew he always had women around, but when I would come to town for three months during the summer, I never saw one. Not one lady. Imagine that, changing your life so much for your daughter. It was out of love.”
It is often said that Stu Ungar died alone in a hotel room without a dime in his pocket, not leaving a single thing to his family. The reality of that is much further from the truth. He left his daughter with many joyous memories, he taught her to be loyal, to be respectful, and to act with class. He showed how to love and how to operate in a world that would chew you up and spit you out. It’s the same love that Stefanie passes on to her children as she tells them of the man her father was and how proud of them he would be. ♠
Nathan Gamble is a native of Texas where he learned to play hold’em from his father. He is a two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, having won the 2017 WSOP $1,500 pot-limit Omaha eight-or-better event, and 2020 WSOP Online $600 PLO eight-or-better event. He is a fixture of the mix game community and can often be found playing $80-$160 mix games at the Wynn. Gamble is active on Twitter under the username ‘Surfbum4life.’ He is also lead commentator for the Galfond Challenge which he streams along with mixed-game content on his Twitch channel. You can listen to his poker origin story on Card Player’s Poker Stories Podcast.