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In his short life, Stu Ungar went from the top of the gambling world to rock bottom, which set the stage for the 1997 World Series of Poker and one of the greatest poker comebacks ever.
Now, almost two decades after Ungar won his historic third world championship, PokerListings.com spoke to Ungar's friends and peers in a new short poker documentary.
Featuring Mike Sexton, Billy Baxter, Phil Hellmuth, Nolan Dalla, TJ Cloutier, Andy Black and Scotty Nguyen, Last Chance Gone Wrong tells the story of Ungar's biggest and final score.
When the WSOP began in 1970 Ungar was already considered the best gin player in the world but it wasn't until ten years later he would cement his legendary status as a poker player. In 1980 and '81 Ungar won back-to-back WSOP Main Events and continued to rack up big poker wins throughout the 1980s.
But as Ungar reached the end of the 80s his life went downhill. He was rocked by personal tragedy and his drug abuse became more and more destructive.
Ungar entered the 1990 WSOP Main Event and made the final day but overdosed the night before the final table. He was found in his hotel room unconscious and was blinded out in 9th place.
Ungar continued to struggle during the 1990s but remained friends with Mike Sexton, Billy Baxter and other key players in the high-stakes gambling community.
When Ungar won the 1997 WSOP Main Event and the $1 million first-place prize, his friends and family hoped it would give him an opportunity to turn his life around.
In the end Ungar provided a powerful cautionary tale. His death marked the end of the old-school poker world and just a few years later Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event and sparked the poker boom.
Watch the full short poker documentary to explore this story in more depth with interviews from the people who knew Stu Ungar best.
Narrator: The old-school poker world is gone.
The Binions sign that used to hang over the entrance to the World Series of Poker now rests here, in the Neon Graveyard.
The old-school poker world is gone, and it died with Stu Ungar.
This is the story of the greatest card player that ever lived.
Narrator: In Stu Ungar's short life he went from the very top of the gambling world to rock bottom which set the stage for one of the biggest comebacks in poker history.
Now, almost 20 years after Ungar's historic third world championship win, we went to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and talked to the people who knew Ungar best.
His friends, the people he played against and even the person who backed him in the 1997 Main Event.
Billy Baxter: I always felt like he could almost see through the cards. He was a savant.
Nolan Dalla: He was never betting half his stack. He was always all-in and that's the way he lived his life and that's what really made him so fun to be around.
Mike Sexton: I always rate him as the number one player because from what I saw, I've never seen anyone play better than this guy.
Andy Black: He was head and shoulders above everyone else.
Scotty Nguyen: When I started playing poker all I ever heard was Stu Ungar, Stu Ungar, Stu Ungar.
Narrator: Phil Hellmuth won the Main Event in 1989 and he's won 13 more WSOP bracelets since.
When Hellmuth was coming up in the poker world, Stu Ungar was at the top of the game.
Over the next decade Hellmuth watched Ungar slide deeper and deeper into his addiction.
Phil Hellmuth: He never had a chance. He never had a chance. I mean, here's a kid that was 14 years old, who was so good at gin at that age that he played high-stakes gin matches on the East Coast.
Mobsters put him into these games and he kept winning all the money.
You're 14 years old. You're in a bar. You're winning all the money playing gin. No one in the world can beat you. What kind of life is that? Where do you go from there?
Narrator: When the World Series of Poker was held for the first time at Binion's Horseshoe in Las Vegas in 1970, Ungar, a teenager on the east coast, had already established himself as the best gin player in the world. 10 years later, Ungar walked into the Horseshoe Casino on Fremont Street and made history.
Nolan Dalla: Maybe the most important person in Stu Ungar's life was his mother. When his mother was playing seven-card stud, in just a very casual nickel and dime game, he was all of six, seven, eight, nine years old, and she was a very bad player and he would watch the other people snicker at her and make fun of her.
He never forgot that. He never forgot people humiliating and laughing at his mother. And he couldn't take that. He always said that he used that drive and that anger later in his life to, you know, destroy other people.
Narrator: Nolan Dalla is the World Series of Poker media director and he wrote the book on Stu Ungar.
Dalla was a reporter at the 1997 main event and got to know Ungar personally interviewing him in Las Vegas in the year leading up to his death.
Nolan Dalla: When his mother died, he went over to a friend's house. His friend's name was Bernie, a gambling buddy of his. And he had never tried drugs, and he said, “Try this, it'll make you feel better.”
Stu had no idea what that would do for his life and he snorted cocaine for the first time.
Subsequently when he was bored, or took big losses, he went back to that fix. I think that's ultimately what destroyed him.
Billy Baxter: He was a great No-Limit Hold'em player but he was a bad gambler.
Mike Sexton: He probably lost $4 million playing golf but he bet horses as high as they'd let him bet in the sports books. He'd bet the games as high as they'd let him bet in the sports books.
He was just a big-time gambler. Phil Ivey is the only one I've seen who's like Stu Ungar in terms of the biggest bettor at everything with no fear about money.
Billy Baxter: Every time he had money he'd bet it off on sports.
Nolan Dalla: Really, Stu Ungar was the king of action.
Mike Sexton: Big action. I mean, he was the biggest bettor there was back in the day so he could never stay in money, didn't matter how much he won.
TJ Cloutier: He had about $2 million in cash and he was broke in three months. Just a stone gambler.
Phil Hellmuth: Probably slept five hours a night. Probably just needed action, action, action. You know, I think a lot of people find relief in drugs when they have fast minds.
Mike Sexton: He had gotten married and she had a son and Stuey was very close to him. And when the kid was 17 years I think it was, he hung himself in the garage and committed suicide and Stuey just went bonkers with the drugs.
Nolan Dalla: So how do you go from the 1980s where he's the king of the universe and then for the next six years you have no money at all and gradually people forget about you. They lose respect for you and I think that's what happened in Stuey's case.
Phil Hellmuth: I remember him coming up to me at the Bellagio, just a skeleton of a guy looking to borrow $300 or whatever.
Andy Black: He was the closest I've ever seen to someone who was alive that didn't look alive.
TJ Cloutier: You know he blew half of his nose off with that cocaine before he died.
Mike Sexton: So many people tried to help him. Chip and Doyle and just numerous times. And Chip said, “Stuey, if you just go to rehab for a month, when you get out I'll stake you in every poker game you want to play.”
Narrator: After years of drug abuse Stu Ungar was a longshot to even enter the 1997 WSOP Main Event.
He eventually got the $10,000 buy-in from his long-time backer Billy Baxter.
If Ungar ended up winning, he and Baxter would split the $1 million prize 50/50.
Billy Baxter: The way it come up, I went down to the Horseshoe and was playing in a side game, a No-Limit 2-7 game, and he just kept pestering me about putting him in.
And I know he's great player but I know he also does drugs and this, that and the other. And he finally caught me when I was doing good and I softened up and said, “Okay, I'm putting you in.”
Nolan Dalla: That's what happened in Stuey's case in '97 on Day 1. He remembers what it was like ten years ago to be on top. And now all of a sudden you're playing in the Horseshoe and thinking, “Man, this is my element.”
He actually was still a bit hungover, was not in the best of shape, had not slept, wrinkled clothes, he did not look good.
Mike Sexton: I'm telling you he was in horrible shape that day. He looked horrible. And on the first break, I can remember clearly on the first break I went up to him and he was like, “Mike, I can't make it. I won't make it through the day” or something.
And I actually grabbed him by the shirt and I said, “Stuey you're broke, you've got to get ahold of yourself. This is the Main Event. Just get through the day and get some rest and you'll be fine tomorrow.”
Well he not only got through the day. He got through in like second or third chip position. The next day he was a completely new man. He was shaven, he was fresh. He got a good night's sleep and from there he just dominated the tournament.
TV Announcer: Gabe spoke with Stuey last night after he won a seat at the final table.
Gabe Kaplan: But I don't think there's any bigger story than the re-emergence of Stuey “The Kid” Ungar, a gentleman who won back-to-back world championships in 1980 and '81. He's not a kid anymore but Stuey, congratulations.
Stu Ungar: Thanks Gabe I appreciate it.
Nolan: By the end of Day 3, it was Wednesday night and I was in the Horseshoe walking around the cash games, talking to a lot of high-limit players there, and here comes Stuey. And I'm not so sure this is a good thing because he has to play for the Main Event the following day in front of the ESPN cameras out on Fremont Street.
And one of the fears was that he could have gone out and gone on a binge.
Matt Showell: And never show up.
Nolan Dalla: Right. Which he had done by the way in 1990.
Narrator: In 1990 Billy Baxter also bought Stu Ungar into the Main Event.
Ungar made it all the way to the final day but didn't even make it to his seat when the final table played out. His friends found him on the floor of his hotel room, unconscious from a drug overdose. He was blinded out in ninth place.
Nolan Dalla: And I remember Chip Reese there just giving him a bit of a pep talk, saying, “Tomorrow's your day.”
Stuey needed that reaffirmation so much. Mike Sexton gave him that pep talk. It was Billy Baxter. It was Chip Reese. It was all the people that knew him and loved him that pushed him across the finish line.
Gabe Kaplan: Leading the tournament at this point is Stu Ungar. Stuey would have to come through 312 players just in the final event to win his third title. Good luck everyone. This is it, the finals, 1997.
Billy Baxter: He told me long, early in the tournament, “It's over with. I'm gone. Nobody's got a chance.”
Mike Sexton: Billy I remember told me to go out and bet more on Stuey, everything I could bet. He wanted me to lay $1.40 against he field and believe it or not I could only get $4,000 worth of action.
TV Announcer: Stuey needs a deuce or a four. Stuey's in a little bit of trouble here. A trey won't do it. Yes.
Gabe Kaplan: Deuce. Stuey wins the tournament. Stu Ungar has won three World Series of Poker.
Gabe Kaplan: Stuey let me ask you a personal question. I think I know you well enough to ask you this question. Do you think you're going to do things differently now?
Stu Ungar: I hope so Gabe. There's nobody that ever beat me playing cards. The only person that ever beat me was myself and my bad habits. But when I get to playing when I'm on stroke like I was in the tournament, I really believe that nobody can play with me on a daily basis.
Matt Showell: What happened following the win?
Billy Baxter: Well, he was broke in three or four days after the tournament. He got half the money and he lost $500,000 betting on sports that week.
Narrator: Ungar went into a complete nosedive and when the World Series of Poker returned a year later and Billy Baxter offered him another backing deal, Ungar couldn't even bring himself to play.
That November he passed away alone in a cheap motel in North Las Vegas.
In his career Stu Ungar won an estimated $30 million gambling but died with only $800 to his name. His friends were forced to take up a collection to pay for his funeral.
Mike Sexton: You know, I really thought if he won that tournament he'd come back. We all just thought he might. I not only believe he'd be the biggest star on the World Poker Tour and in the poker world, he'd be up here and whoever was in second would be down here.
Phil Hellmuth: If Stu Ungar could have gone to rehab, you just never know how great he could have become.
Nolan Dalla: It is okay to dream. It is okay to hope. Just because you say he probably won't change doesn't mean that he's not that one in a million. He was one of a kind and if anyone maybe would have had that ability, if anyone could have overcome the odds, maybe it was Stu Ungar.