Stu Ungar, the Legend

Stu Ungar is considered by many in the poker world to have been the best poker player who ever lived.

Unfortunately Stu Ungar‘s life was very short and he left us already more than ten years ago. Meanwhile poker has changed a lot, with the rise of online poker, the increasing popularity of the game everywhere, the accompanying millions of new players embracing poker every year and the ascent of poker superstars, one of whom may one day contend with Stu for the title of best poker player ever.

We will never know for sure how good a poker player Stu Ungar would have been in the modern world of poker online. But there is no reason to believe that he would not have been one of the greatest players there as well, given his extraordinary skills, including his phenomenal photographic memory.

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Certainly the game was less competitive in the 80s and 90s, and the best player of that time may not be as good as future new players. This is always so in all sorts of sports and we leave to posterity the making of this decision. However, Ungar was feared at most poker rooms for his outstanding reading abilities, thus making it impossible to take much away from his name.

But there are a few elements in the life of Stu Ungar that clearly make him an extraordinary player.

Before playing poker, Stu Ungar was the best gin rummy player in the world. He was exposed from a very young age to card games as his father used to run a gambling joint. He won his first gin tournament at age ten, and dropped of high school in his teens to play gin full time in order to support his family after the death of his father.

He seems to have been an exceptional player, nearly impossible to defeat at gin.

First he had to leave his hometown of New York City because no one would bet money in a game of gin rummy against him, due to his notoriety. He went first to Miami, Florida and then to Las Vegas, Nevada looking for greener pastures, but soon he was so feared at gin that some casinos would not even let him participate in some of their tournaments.

Gin rummy is totally different from poker obviously, as bluffing does not take place. Gin depends mostly on memory and strategy and opponent’s reading. So are these skills transferable to poker? Yes they are. Indeed Stu was believed to have an extremely high IQ and he had an extraordinary memory, especially of cards.

He could count cards in blackjack and made money playing blackjack. He was so good at it that he was not allowed to play blackjack at most casinos. He even won a $100,000 prop bet in 1977 against a casino owner who said that he could not count down a six-deck shoe and tell the last card. But he did.

Stu Ungar had already demonstrated with gin rummy and blackjack that he was an outstanding card player. Once he started to play poker and No-Limit Texas Hold’em poker in particular, he shone once more and reached the top.

Stu is the only player to have ever won the WSOP main event three times in 1980, 1981 and 1997. Three other players won this most prestigious poker event twice, Johnny Moss (1971,1974), Doyle Brunson (1976,1977) and Johnny Chan (1987,1988).

Stu won a total of ten high buy-in (>$5,000) poker tournaments, including the Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker three times (1983,1988,1989). He collected five WSOP bracelets and won $2 million in tournaments. But he won much more in cash games, the total being estimated at $30 million.

Stu Ungar was the best pure card talent of all times, but sadly his personal life was in disarray, with a serious drug addiction that led to his death at the age of 45. Dominating the game of poker so tremendously might have had a nasty side effect.