Poker is one of the world’s most popular games, and there are plenty of reasons. It has a rich history dating back to a 10th-century Chinese domino game and the 16th-century Persian card game As Nas. It arrived in America in the 1800s and became well known in the wild west era as a game of gamblers and hustlers. It eventually transformed into the modern-day giant it is, thanks, in part, to the advent of online poker. Part of poker’s widespread appeal is its variety. There are countless ways to play poker, whether online or live, in tournaments or cash games, and in variants like Texas Hold’em, Omaha and many more. Not only does this keep the game fresh for experienced players, but it also ensures that everyone can find a form of poker they can enjoy.

One of the big reasons for poker’s popularity is its strategic depth. Unlike every other casino game, poker relies significantly more on skill than luck. In the long run, good players can make consistent profits since luck will even out. Players must adapt to the ever-changing nature of the game, and the players that do are rewarded. This strategic depth and history combine to make poker a richly competitive scene. Multi-million dollar tournaments, like the World Series of Poker, are broadcast worldwide, and the greatest poker players have etched their names into the game’s history. Today, we will look at the story of one of the legends who have left their indelible mark on the game: Stu Ungar, “The Comeback Kid”. 

Player Background

Stu Ungar is regarded as the greatest Texas Hold’em and gin rummy player of all time. With an eidetic memory and prodigy-level IQ, he was a master at counting cards, which led to him being unable to play blackjack in any casino in the country. His poker skills were legendary, with over $3.5 million in tournament earnings. He is also one of four people in history to win the World Series of Poker (WSOP) main event back-to-back and one of only two people to win the main event three times. His third win in 1997 came 16 years after his win in 1981, which earned him the nickname “The Comeback Kid.” Despite his successes, his story is marred with tragedy due to his struggle with drugs and a troubled personal life. Ultimately, he passed away penniless, yet what he accomplished left him intertwined with poker for all time. 

Early Life

Stu was born to Isidore and Faye Ungar in 1953. Isidore, his father, was a bar owner and loan shark. This exposed Stu to the world of gambling at a very young age. Despite his father’s attempts to keep him away from gambling, he won his first gin rummy tournament at ten years old and, a few years later, became well-known in the underground gin rummy scene. His father died in 1967 of a heart attack, and his mother suffered a stroke leaving Stu to fend for himself at a young age. Left on his own, Ungar became heavily involved in the New York gambling world, where, at age 18, he befriended a mobster named Victor Romano. Romano was a well-known card player who, similar to Ungar, enjoyed calculating the odds while gambling. They developed a close relationship, with Romano serving as both mentor and protector to Ungar. His reputation in organized crime helped defend Ungar from other gamblers who disliked his insensitive and arrogant personality. One of Ungar’s most famous quotes perfectly encapsulates his competitiveness, “I never want to be called a ‘good loser.’ Show me a good loser, and I’ll just show you a loser.”

The Gin Rummy G.O.A.T.

To help provide for his family after his father’s death and mother’s stroke, Ungar made a name for himself in the world of gin rummy. Regularly winning tournaments worth thousands of dollars, Ungar was regarded as one of the best gin rummy players in New York by 1976. He was eventually forced to move out of New York due to gambling debts and no one being willing to play Gin Rummy against him. He moved to Miami to find more action. In 1977 he left Miami and moved to Las Vegas, where he would reunite with, and eventually marry, Madeline Wheeler, a former girlfriend.

His unparalleled gin rummy skill would be the main reason he moved to poker, as nobody wanted to play against him because he was just that good. Harry “Yonkie” Stein, a pro gin rummy player who was regarded as the best player of the era, was utterly destroyed by Ungar. Stu beat Stein 86 games to 0, causing Stein to quit playing professional gin rummy entirely. Nobody dared challenge him, even when he offered handicaps to give his opponents a chance. Casinos would ask him not to join gin rummy tournaments because too many players wouldn’t even enter if he did. He believed he was better at gin rummy than poker, claiming, “Some day, I suppose it’s possible for someone to be a better No Limit Hold’em 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.”

Back-to-back WSOP wins

Looking for action after transitioning to Hold’em, Ungar joined the 1980 WSOP main event. Despite it being his second-ever poker tournament, he defeated Doyle Brunson and won $365,000. At the time, he was the youngest player to win the main event at 26 and earned the nickname “The Kid” for his youthful appearance. The following year, he defended his title at the 1981 WSOP main event, beating Perry Green for $375,000. He was almost prohibited from defending his title, as he had been banned from Binion’s Horseshoe, the venue, for spitting in the face of a dealer. Jack Binion, son of the casino’s owner, Benny Binion, convinced his father to allow Ungar to play because of the publicity Ungar would bring to the event.

Addiction: Ungar’s ultimate downfall

After Ungar’s mother died in 1979, he began using cocaine. While it started as a tool to stay awake and energetic for long poker sessions, it quickly became a severe addiction. Obsessed with poker, blackjack, and sports betting, Ungar’s addictions took a severe toll on his health, and many of his friends believed he would not live to see forty. 

The Comeback Kid

In 1990, Stu attempted a comeback and entered the WSOP main event. Unfortunately, he did not complete the tournament due to a cocaine overdose. He had accumulated enough chips to that point in the event, that although he was not able to compete, he still finished 9th. 

Ungar, at this point, was severely in debt but was trying to turn his life around. He was unable to come up with the entrance fee on his own for the 1997 WSOP main event, but thankfully his friend, Billy Baxter, gave him $10,000, which he used to sign up as the tournament began. Driven by thoughts of his daughter, Stefanie, Ungar made it to the final table, winning $1 million and a third WSOP main event title, 16 years after his back-to-back titles. Ungar’s battle with addiction in combination with this win made him become known as “The Comeback Kid.” To this day, his story remains one of the most extraordinary journeys of any pro player and he is still widely considered one of the greatest players of all time.

Note from the Editor:
The world as we know it has changed immensely compared to what the gamblers of the first half of the 20th century experienced. There were no cell phones, or internet. Automobiles were just starting to become common and affordable trans-Atlantic flights were still a bit into the future. Computers and space travel were as far removed from society as dragons and fairies. Information was not as accessible as it is today. Because of this, and a gambler’s penchant to miraculously forget anything and everything as part of an unwritten code, many of the stories and anecdotes that come from the time could be full of hyperbole and may not be entirely faithful or accurately represent what occurred. However, the oral histories we have, as told through the years, are now all that remains of this ancient time. If any of the tales are inaccurate or outright lies, it is important to be aware that this was neither intentional, nor was it the intent of the article.

-The Wordsmith