Arguably the greatest Hold ‘em player of all time. His record speaks for itself, 5 WSOP Bracelets, 3 WSOP Main Event titles, 15 Career Cashes, yet the man was taken from the game before his time. He was born to Jewish parents and raised on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His father, Isadore Ungar, was a loan shark who ran a bar/social club called Foxes Corner that doubled as a gambling establishment, exposing Stu to gambling at a young age. Despite his father’s attempts to keep his son from gambling, Stu began playing underground gin and quickly made a name for himself.
Ungar was infamous for his arrogance and for routinely criticizing aloud the play of opponents he felt were beneath him—which included just about anyone. One of Ungar's most famous quotes sums up his competitiveness: "I never want to be called a 'good loser.' Show me a good loser and I'll just show you a loser." One man reportedly tried to hit him in the head with a chair in a bar after Ungar soundly defeated him. Others who were around at the time say it was Ungar who threatened the man with a chair. Ungar won a local gin tournament at age 10. He dropped out of school to play gin rummy in the 1960s full time to help support his mother and sister after his father died, and began regularly winning tournaments which earned him $10,000 or more. By 1976, he was regarded as one of the best Gin Rummy players in New York.
It was during this time that he found his passion for gambling was not totally satisfied with cards and eventually had to leave New York due to gambling debts at local race tracks. He later moved to Miami, Florida to find more action. In 1977, he left for Las Vegas, Nevada, where he reunited with Madeline, a former girlfriend who would become his wife in 1982. Ungar was creating quite a reputation as the best, the Gin Rummy action had dried up as no one would play him, this is one of the reasons Ungar eventually took up poker exclusively. Ungar destroyed anyone who challenged him in a gin match including a professional widely regarded as the best gin player of Ungar's generation, Harry "Yonkie" Stein. Ungar beat Stein 86 games to none in a high stakes game of Hollywood Gin, after the defeat Stein dropped out of sight in gin circles and eventually stopped playing professionally. Such was Ungar talent.
At the time Ungar first visited Las Vegas in 1977, gin was still popular in a tournament format, much like heads up poker tournaments. Ungar won or finished high in so many gin tournaments that it is rumored that several casinos asked him to not play because many players said they would not enter if they knew Ungar was playing. Ungar later said in his biography that he loved seeing his opponent slowly break down over the course of a match, realizing he could not win and eventually get a look of desperation on his face. Though he is nowadays more well known for his poker accomplishments, Ungar regarded himself as a better gin rummy player, once stating, "Someday, I suppose it's possible for someone to be a better no limit hold 'em player than me. I doubt it, but it could happen. But, I swear to you, I don't see how anyone could ever play gin better than me."
In 1980 Ungar entered the World Series of Poker (WSOP) looking for more high-stakes action. Poker legend Doyle Brunson remarked that it was the first time he had seen a player improve as the tournament went on. Ungar won the main event that year, defeating Doyle Brunson to become the youngest champion in its history, this has nowbeen surpassed by others. Ungar looked even younger than he was, and was thus dubbed "The Kid." The next year, Ungar would defend his title successfully at the 1981 WSOP by defeating Perry Green. Ungar nearly wasn't allowed to defend his title. Several days before the main event, he was banned from the Binion's Horseshoe by Benny Binion because he spat in the face of a dealer after losing a sizeable pot in a high stakes game. It wasn't until Binion's son, Jack, stepped in and convinced his father to let Ungar play, citing the media attention that the defending champion would attract.
Ungar's mother had died in 1979. It was also around this time that he began using cocaine. He noted in his biography that at first he used it on the advice of fellow poker players because of the drug's ability to keep someone up and energized for a long period of time, something that would come in handy during marathon poker sessions. However, recreational use soon led to addiction. His drug problem escalated to extremes that at a point during the WSOP main event in 1990, Ungar was found on the third day of the tournament unconscious on the floor of his hotel room from a drug overdose. However, he had such a chip lead that even when the dealers kept taking his blinds out every time around the table he still finished 9th and pocketed $20,500.
In 1997, Ungar was deeply in debt and clearly showed physical damage from his years of addiction. But he received the $10,000 buy-in to the WSOP main event from fellow poker pro and friend Billy Baxter moments before the tournament started and was the last person added to the roster, mere seconds before the signup closed. Ungar was exhausted on the tournament's first day as he had been up for over 24 hours straight trying to raise or borrow enough money to play in the event. At one point midway through the first day of play, Ungar began to fall asleep at his table and told Mike Sexton (who was also playing) he didn't think he could make it. After encouragement from Sexton and a tongue lashing from Baxter, Ungar settled in and made it through the day. During the second and third days he would go on to amass a large chip lead and carry the lead into the final table. He went on to win the main event for the record-setting third time. After his victory, which was taped for broadcast by ESPN, Ungar was interviewed by Gabe Kaplan, and he showed a picture of his daughter to the camera, and dedicated his win to her. He and Baxter split the $1,000,000 first prize evenly. Ungar was dubbed "The Comeback Kid" by the Las Vegas media because of the span (sixteen years) between his main event wins. Ungar spent all of his 1997 WSOP prize money over the course of the next few months, mainly on drugs and sports betting. He attempted to give up drugs several times but stayed clean for only weeks at a time before reverting.
Stu soon vanished from the public eye. He lived in and out of various Las Vegas hotels, rarely leaving his room. Occasionally he was also spotted walking around various Las Vegas poker rooms begging for money. He often said the money was to get him back on the poker tables, but would instead use it to purchase crack, which he now had to use instead of cocaine because his nasal membranes were so damaged he could no longer snort the drug. Not long after, many pros, some Ungar's former friends, refused to stake him or give him any money until he cleaned himself up. Ungar was also arrested for possession of crack cocaine during this time.
On Friday, November 20, 1998, Stu Ungar checked into room No. 6 at the Oasis Motel, a cheap motel located at the end of the Strip. Ungar paid $48 per night for two nights and was found lying deceased on November 22, 1998, fully clothed with the television off and $800 of the remnants of a $25,000 advance from Bob Stupak. An autopsy showed traces of drugs in his system, but not enough to have directly caused his death. The medical examiner concluded that he had passed of a heart condition brought on by his years of drug abuse. Despite having won an estimated $30 million during his poker career, Ungar died with no assets to his name. Friend and fellow poker player Bob Stupak took up a collection at Ungar's funeral to raise funds to pay for the services.