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Stu Ungar is a legend of poker and many players regard him as one of the most skilled and talented of all time. Through sheer hard work and determination, he took the gambling industry by storm.
Ungar began his gambling career by playing gin rummy, quickly becoming one of the best players in the world. Indeed Ungar was arguably too good a player of the game, he found it difficult to find action in his native New York after demolishing opposition, and had to fly to Florida and Las Vegas to find competition. After defeating all challengers, it soon became impossible for Ungar to find competition here either, with casinos refusing him entry to tournaments because other players would drop out or refuse to sign-up; and Ungar had to offer opponents handicaps if he was to attract competition. Eventually, due to the difficulty in making money at this reduced action, Ungar transitioned to another high-limit gambling game: poker.
It did not take long for Ungar to make an impact in the poker world, as he took to the game immediately, taking down the World Series of Poker Main Event in 1980, defeating Doyle Brunson heads-up. Upon winning the championship, Ungar was nicknamed ‘The Kid’ due to his youth, and the fact that he looked even younger than he was. Ungar went on to defend his Main Event title the following year, joining the exclusive club of just four players who have won consecutive Main Event championships. Ungar continued his success as he won Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker three times: 1984, 1988, and 1989 becoming the only person to win both the WSOP Main Event and the Super Bowl of Poker. Ungar was known not just as a poker player, but an all-round gambler who was always looking for any kind of action. In addition to playing cards, Ungar was known to bet heavily on sports, horses, blackjack and many other props.
However, Ungar’s main vice eventually became cocaine. Initially introduced to the drug as a way to keep awake and stay energised during marathon poker sessions, Ungar soon became addicted and began to heavily abuse the drug. One example of such abuse was found at the 1990 WSOP Main Event, where Ungar had accumulated a huge chip lead before the third day of the tournament, when he was found unconscious on the floor of his hotel room, and was deemed unfit to play the rest of the event. Despite this, Ungar’s chip lead was so large that he still managed to take ninth place before being blinded out. Because of these vices, despite how much money Ungar could win playing poker, it never lasted long, and he was known for building up large bankrolls, before inevitably going broke.
In 1997, Ungar was broke and was showing physical signs of his drug abuse with his nose beginning to collapse from prolonged cocaine use. Ungar was in debt and did not have the $10,000 buy-in to the World Series of Poker Main Event, but was staked at the last minute by friend and poker pro Billy Baxter. During the first day of the event, Ungar was clearly exhausted and nearly fell asleep the table, but he managed to survive, showing up to the second day well rested and focused. He soon gathered a chip lead, which he held to the final table, and he went on to win his third Main Event bracelet. Ungar dedicated his win to his daughter, and split the $1,000,000 prize down the middle with Baxter. Because of the span between his last Main Event win and his drug use, Ungar was dubbed the ‘Comeback Kid’ in the poker world. Unfortunately, just a year after his fifth World Series of Poker bracelet, Ungar was found dead in the Oasis Motel, a cheap motel at the end of the Las Vegas strip. While there were traces of drugs found in his system, there was not enough to have caused his death, and it is thought that years of prolonged drug use had aggravated an underlying heart condition. Despite having accumulated huge winnings over the years of his gambling career, Ungar was found with just $800 in his pocket.
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