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Poker Prodigies Series – Stu Ungar

by Craig Edwards
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The third installment of the Digital Wager Wire Poker Player Prodigy Series investigates the maverick, Stu Ungar, known by those who played against him as the most natural, aggressive and best no-limit holdem player ever.

Embark on a swift exploration of his life and uncover inspiration for your plays in the dynamic world of online poker rooms.

Stu the Prodigy!

Born to Jewish parents, Ungar was brought up in the lower-east side of Manhattan.

His father was a loan shark and a bookmaker who ran a gaming house called Foxes Corner, exposing Ungar to the industry at a young age. His father was not keen on Ungar playing at his club, which forced him underground.

Stu Ungar

Ungar quickly made a name for himself at the card game of Gin Rummy. Then Ungar forged what was to be a pivotal relationship in his life with mobster Victor Romano, with whom he shared a love of odds and beating the bookmaker.

Stu Ungar the Genius, the Maverick

There are many old sayings or cliches when talking about genius in life that can easily be applied to Stu Ungar and his prodigious ability on the card table.

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit! Genius hits a target no one else can see!”

Indeed, that was the case with Stu Ungar, as he hit the ground running at the WSOP in 1980 when at the precocious age of twenty-six he won the blue-ribbon Main Event for $365,000 with a youthful fearlessness and brash uber-aggressive style of play.

That style of play accounted for his nickname within the poker fraternity who called him “the kid” but he also made the odd enemy, as his assassin-like approach unhinged and upset many opponents. This would be the point when his mentor, Romano, would step in to offer his protege protection.

That youthful nerve and ability to play No-limit holdem in the brashest style ever seen saw him defend his illustrious title the following year and “Stuey’s” place in poker history was cemented.

Stu Ungar Poker Achievements

World Series of Poker Bracelets

  • 1980 No-limit Holdem Main Event
  • 1981 No-limit Holdem Main Event
  • 1981 Deuce to seven draw
  • 1983 Seven-card Stud
  • 1997 No-limit Holdem Main Event

They also say about the genius that

“There is no great genius without some touch of madness.”

And that was the case in the years that followed. His cocaine use, which had originally enabled him to stay energized and ebullient during those long sessions of tournament poker, grew into an addiction that would undermine the rest of his life and career.

Success at the poker table became a rarity, as the New Yorker spiraled further into addiction.

Some of the stories of his drug-fuelled days can be harrowing and legendary in differing measures. Indeed, at the 1990 WSOP Main Event, Ungar held the second-day chip lead but when he did not return for day 3, he was found overdosed on his hotel room floor. Despite never being able to take his place back in the tournament, Ungar’s chip lead was so big he ended up blinding out to finish in 9th at the final table for over $20,000.


With his drug addiction growing his fortune evaporated quickly, and many feared Ungar would not see his fortieth birthday.

Great Champions Return One Last Time!

As all great champions do, Stu Ungar found a way to return to his brilliant best when in 1997, completely down on his luck, his old mate Billy Baxter paid his entry into the Main Event with only seconds to spare.

During the tournament, Ungar kept a picture of his daughter, Stefanie, in his pocket for good luck.

Day 1 was hard with Ungar tired, but he survived.

Day 2 saw Ungar at his brilliant best, taking a large chip-lead that he would eventually carry into the final table that was broadcast on ESPN. He proceeded to win the first prize of $1,000,000 for a record-equalling third win in the blue-ribbon event. In his interview afterward with Gabe Kaplan, he dedicated the victory to Stefanie.

The legacy of Stu Ungar

Yes, you can probably guess the story of Stu Ungar was never going to have a happy ending, as he was found deceased in the hotel room of the budget Oasis Hotel in Las Vegas just over a year later at the age of forty-five.

For many, his instinctive natural card-playing ability has never been equaled. Those huge chip leads when considering the unique demands of the WSOP Main Event for wire-to-wire wins have never been seen before or after.

There is no doubt, Stu Ungar was a poker prodigy and genius who lived fast and played faster!

author avatar
Craig Edwards
Craig Edwards, an online tipster in golf and snooker for over four years, boasts a track record of 7800 bets with a 28% return on investment. A snooker professional from 1988 to 1996, he was once a single-figure handicap golfer. Achieving the 282nd position in the WSOP MAIN EVENT in 2007, Craig possesses a unique insight into the psychological shifts of professional sportsmen, anticipating their mindset week by week.

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