Stu Ungar- 3 Time World Champion
I was the first one to point out Phil Hellmuth to Stuey. We were playing in a $400-800 game at the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens in early 1989 when this tall lanky kid walked down the stairs to the casino floor. I had just met Phil on a poker cruise a few weeks earlier. We were all assigned to the same dinner table. This cruise is a story in itself but since this is a story about Stuey, I’ll cut to the chase. Here was a very young totally unknown brash kid that claimed he would win a tournament at the upcoming WSOP. And he was willing to bet even money! Tommy Fischer and Robert Turner fell into his trap and they bet him $3000 each.
Cut back to the Bike: as Phil sauntered in, I asked Stuey if he knew that kid. Stuey turned his head and said no who’s that? I said, “His name is Phil Hellmuth, and he has a bigger ego than you.” Stuey quickly whipped his head back around and gave me a dirty glare as if to say, “Don’t you think mine is well-deserved? How can you compare anyone to me?” I just smiled.
Most of Stuey’s problems with drug addiction and his skills at gin and poker are reasonably documented. He could destroy money just as fast as he could win it. This short story is my testament to his talent.
Despite Stuey’s erratic behavior, we had a standing agreement that we would loan each other 3 grand whenever one of us would need it. In those days, the games would usually go through the night but if it did break one had to be back by 11 am or get shut out for most of the day. The action was tremendous but this one rare night it was very slow. Our game had broken about 11 pm and the casino looked dead. As I was racking up my chips Stuey came up very chipper and said let me get that 3. We were back against the far wall and I pointed to the empty tables and said there’s no game. “Yes, there is,” and he point to a table toward the rail. “What’s that?” I asked. 75 stud was the reply. “Oh,” and as I handed him 3k, I said, “if you win can you put it in my account?” I didn’t expect it to happen but you never know.
The next morning as I’m rushing in around 11, I see Stuey briskly coming up the steps and heading away from me toward the cage. “Stuey,” I called. He turned around and said, “Oh I was just going to deposit this,” as he handed me 3 1k chips. “How did you do?” “Great!” said Stuey. “I won 115,000.” “What?” I said incredulously. “How is that possible? There wasn’t that much money in the whole casino.” He explained that he was up 15 thousand in the 75 stud when 3 players came in the middle of the night looking to play bigger. They started a 300-600 game and he proceeded to beat them out of 100k. “The game just broke,” he said.
If that isn’t incredible enough, he did the same thing a month or two later. The only difference is a high limit game was going this time. Once again, he borrowed 3k, ran it up in the 75-150 stud and then torched the white chip game (referring to the color of the $100 chips used in the game) for over 100k.
Drug addiction is a horrific master.
Romance- I was at the bar in the Commerce and he comes up to me. “Look at these earrings. I just bought them for $3,000.” They were very large and sparkling although I had no sense of their value. “Who are they for?”, I asked. He said, “You never know who I might meet tonight.”
Attention- In Vegas, in the 80’s before cell phones, he called me at my house. “Hey, let’s go out.” I said, “It’s Monday. There’s nothing open.” In the late 80’s there were a couple of nightclubs off the strip and none of the casinos had one. “I know one. Come pick me up,” he said.
I picked him up and he directed me to Botany’s. This was the only spot in the whole town. On weekends the limos were lined up and it was impossible to get in. It was a Monday and only one customer was at the bar. “See it’s dead. Let’s go,” I said. “No, let’s have a drink.”
We got a table and he ordered a bottle of Dom. As we were drinking various cocktail waitresses came up to chat with Stuey. The place was almost empty except there were a few guys at the bar now so there wasn’t much else for them to do. I wondered if he knew them or if they recognized him. I don’t remember if we ordered a second bottle but I do seem to recall a bottle was $150. After several hours, Stuey paid the check and we left. As I was driving I offered to pay for half the check. He said he left $1500. “What! The Dom was only $150,” I exclaimed. “Yeah but didn’t you love the attention?”
Advantage player- There was a player who called himself the “Big Dumb Ox”. It is true in poker but most poker players are knowledgeable about poker but not much else. We were all in a game together and Stuey nodded his head toward the Ox. He leaned over and whispered about how he would take a hundred on his hand every time he had the lead. (It was an accepted convention for a player to take a rooting interest in another player in a stud pot. The rooting player would get a return based on the number of opposing players in the pot. For $100, the rooting player would get back his $100 and $300 more in a 4-way pot.) When the Ox was in trouble, he would ask Stuey to take $100 on the hand and Stuey would say no not this time. “Really?” said Ox, “you’re lucky for me.” Stuey chuckled after he told me this story.
Tilt- In the late 80’s during the WSOP, we were playing $300-600 stud and hold-em. All these crazy draw games were not around in those days. Doyle was staking Stuey and he had built up his chips to $60,000. Doyle said I guess it’s safe to go eat downstairs and Stuey nodded acknowledgement. I don’t recall exactly what triggered it but Stuey would take the lead in every hand and at the end of the hand he inevitably would get called and he would say you got it. He did this until the entire $60k was gone and there were only a few small chips left. He sat there totally subdued for a few minutes until Doyle returned from lunch. “What the f…!” Doyle exclaimed. “You can’t believe what happened,” Stuey replied. “Yeah, I know,” Doyle replied sarcastically. No one dared to crack a smile. We were all probably in shock as well.