Stu Ungar: a cautionary tale

Stu Ungar was a former World Champ with a mysterious and legendary gift of card sense, a small part of which was a photographic memory. He was a child prodigy at Gin Rummy and won many tournaments and the World Series, but he would get broke. To be profitable at gambling though, you have to master the art of money management and self-control.


It was very moving the last time Stuey won the World Series of Poker. He was the “Comeback Kid“. He kept a small picture of his daughter behind his constantly growing pile of chips to remind himself that the money is real, very real.

When he had chips in front of him, Stuey bet more often than anyone, firing away, dominating the table, appearing to make things mighty risky for everyone. That genius brain allowed him to master the reading of the board against all the potential hands of the opponents and to use great poker aggression.

He could read weakness in others at the table and pounce right on it. Too bad he couldn’t do something about his own weakness and leaks.

A few months after he won the World Series, they found Stu Ungar dead of a drug overdose in a seedy rundown scary flophouse on East Fremont Street. The story says he only had $58 left.  Leaks keep some folks from achieving their true potential. It is all one long poker game. There are four other former World Champions whose early demise could partially be attributed to drugs and/or alcohol.

Gambling is all about getting the best of it. Many of you fancy yourselves as professional poker players now or in the future. It is great to walk into a casino and realize that very few of the people at the tables have any chance to get the best of it. You cannot get the best of it at the bar. You cannot get the best of it at the Sports book.

You cannot get the best of it at the casino games. You cannot get the best of it high. You might, just might, get the best of it at the poker table. Those who read and study and improve can really get the best of it.

For you all poker players, young and old, new and experienced, Stu Ungar’s story is a cautionary tale.

It is all one long poker game. Money and bankroll are ammunition. You have to build and maintain a bankroll. Stu Ungar had the true gifts that enable him to dominate almost any card game based on skill. But money and discipline and skill and self-control are all part of the long run way we judge successful poker players.

The wonderful poker books are tools of the trade. Skill, emotional control, and a bankroll are tools of the trade. A carpenter has saws, hammers, and a level as the tools of his trade. He takes care of them and the level is a control device to make sure everything is squared up. Stu Ungar did not maintain the tools of his profession. He destroyed his own bankroll and himself. He didn’t have any level. Maybe it is the same genius type brain that made him so uncannily tortured and tormented and led to his fatal destruction.

Poker has come out of the back rooms and grown out of the bad reputation that never was fair or accurate in the first place. This article is a cautionary tale for all players, many of whom will find themselves suddenly with lots of cash. It can go bad.

Poker and online poker is populated by bright, humorous people, that are generally fun to be around. You will make some of the best and longest lasting friendships of your life at the poker table and in the card rooms. There are fascinating people and biographies in poker. When you learn more about the players, you find their life and success comes as a pleasant surprise.

Stu Ungar’s story is very sad. He cannot be a role model, as he had a drug and a gambling problem. When we read of the great plays he made calling with Jack high, we also need to remember the crazy plays that he made when he was rolling fast downhill and throwing off his score. Stu Ungar was a wizard at the things he could do. That is only one part of poker.

The moral of this story is that poker can be a dangerous game, even for the most gifted players. So remember Stu Ungar’s story, and try to always keep your head on your shoulders.