Stu Ungar

In 1997, a full 16 years after his previous Main Event triumph, Stu Ungar’s personal redemption story saw him make an awe-inspiring return the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event. In winning, ‘Stuey’ secured his place among the greatest poker players of all time before tragically losing his life just one year after his epic comeback.

A Legacy of Greatness

No-one has won more WSOP Main Event titles, or World Championships, than Stuey, or ‘The Kid’ as he was frequently known. Johnny Moss was world champion three times too, but one of those victories came after a vote in 1970, and as such as was not ‘won’ at all. Ungar took his trio of titles in the open era, beating all challengers to the bracelet they all wanted at the poker felt.

To fully appreciate Ungar’s monumental victory in 1997, one must first delve into his earlier triumphs in the 1980s. Ungar burst onto the poker scene in the 1980 WSOP Main Event, winning his first title at the age of just 26. That sort of prodigious talent simply wasn’t around back then, and Stu broke the mould. His opponent heads-up was the late, great Doyle Brunson, who had already won the Main Event in 1976 and 1977, becoming known as ‘Texas Dolly’. Even Doyle couldn’t stop Stu.

Johnny Moss made the final four too, but Stu won and repeated the trick 12 months on, beating Perry Green to the top prize of $375,000. Suddenly, the name of Stu Ungar had been broadcast around the world. Even in a pre-internet age, Stuey went viral. His uncanny ability to read his opponents and make audacious plays had defied conventional wisdom and overcome all the odds.

Stu Ungar was officially a poker hero.

The Wheels Come Off the Bandwagon

The Kid couldn’t leave poker behind. In 1997, it was to be his personal redemption.

If Stu Ungar’s star had never been higher, he was about to prove that whatever goes up, must surely come down. Stu’s personal demons soon threatened to derail his incredible career and drug dependency crept into his life.

Embroiled in a destructive cycle of drug addiction, which led to a series of setbacks both in his personal life and at the poker table – Stu was banned from almost every casino in Las Vegas – he fell into a downward spiral, and the poker community watched in dismay as he squandered his immense potential.

Stu went quiet in poker terms, and frequently either forgot to play or wasn’t in a physically fit state to play in the WSOP Main Event. As poker progressed in the 1990s, the name of Stu Ungar was attached to a period of the past. He was supposed to be a relic, unable to compete for another title. The game had moved on from Stuey.

But The Kid couldn’t leave poker behind. In 1997, it was to be his personal redemption.

Redemption Outside Binions in 1997

It was not until 1997 that Ungar emerged from the darkness, determined to redeem himself and reclaim his place at the top of the poker world. The WSOP Main Event that year provided the perfect stage for his comeback. The anticipation was palpable as Ungar entered the tournament, physically a shadow of his former self but armed with a burning desire to prove his doubters wrong.

The final table that year was held outside at Binion’s, and on a blowy day, it all went Stu’s way. Outlasting 311 opponents in the busiest WSOP Main Event yet, Stu made the final day, and the final table of six players. Mel Judah featured, falling in third place, but when Stu got heads up with John Strzemp, no-one really expected any other result than the comeback story of the decade. Sure enough, Stu took it down and received the plaudits.

What transpired over the course of the WSOP Main Event of 1997 was nothing short of miraculous. Ungar displayed flashes of brilliance, reminding everyone why he was once hailed as a poker prodigy. With each hand at the final table, he maneuvered through the complexities of the game as if it was child’s play, leaving everyone in awe of his prowess. It was as if Ungar had tapped into an otherworldly source of inspiration, his every decision guided by an invisible hand.

His muse was Earthly bound, however, and her name was Stephanie, his 14-year-old daughter, a small picture of whom he produced upon his victory.

Tragedy One Year Later

“Nobody has ever beat me playing cards.”

Ungar’s triumph in 1997 was more than just a poker victory; it was a testament to the power of redemption and the human spirit. He had battled his demons and conquered them, rising from the depths of despair to once again stand tall among his peers. The poker world rejoiced in his triumph, applauding his resilience and celebrating his industry in making it through not only the tournament but the labyrinthine corridors of his own mind.

After the event, Gabe Kaplan, then just starting out in his role as poker commentator and presenter, asked Stu whether he could start living right after getting it so wrong for so long. There was enough of a pause to foresee the tragedy to come. On cards, however, Stu was candid.

“Nobody has ever beat me playing cards,” Stu replied. “The only one who ever beat me was myself.

“Stu ‘The Kid’ Ungar is back – look out next year.” Said Kaplan in what is a heartbreaking interview to watch with the knowledge of what was to transpire.

A year on, Stu Ungar was found dead, virtually penniless, in a Vegas motel room. The poker world was stunned. A father, a poker hero, a fragile and gifted man, The Kid was just 45 when he died. An entire generation of poker fans mourned, as did his fellow players.

In the years since, many conspiracy theories of Stu Ungar’s triumph surfaced. Some speculated that his cobalt blue sunglasses helped him cheat to win. This reporter debunked that theory a few years ago.

In reality, Stu Ungar was simply a prodigious talent whose life tragically ended far too soon as he became a victim to drugs. The loss of his life, as revealed in this PokerGO documentary was one that hit his family hard. It has impacted on poker fans too. Many felt protective of The Kid, hoping that he would be able to right himself before the wheels came off.

He wasn’t, and The Kid crashed. But until that awful moment in 1998, boy, what a ride.

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Paul seaton

Author
Paul Seaton, a poker luminary with over a decade of experience, has reported live from iconic poker events, including the World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour, and World Poker Tour. He's not just a spectator; he's been the Editor of BLUFF Europe Magazine and Head of Media for partypoker. Paul's poker insights have graced publications like PokerNews, 888poker, and PokerStake, where he's interviewed poker legends such as Daniel Negreanu, Erik Seidel, Phil Hellmuth, and The Hendon Mob’s, entire lineup. His exceptional work even earned him a Global Poker Award nomination for Best Written Content. In the poker world, Paul Seaton's expertise is a force to be reckoned with, captivating enthusiasts worldwide.
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