While most people consider the late Stu Ungar to be one of the greatest poker players of all time, period, few will dispute he was absolutely, hands-down, the greatest Gin Rummy player ever.
Even to this day.
A virtually unstoppable force in his early days in the poker world, Ungar collected five World Series of Poker bracelets, was a three-time World Champion and won 10 major $5,000 or higher buy-in No-Limit Hold'em championship events back when they were few and far between.
He was the only man to ever win both the WSOP and Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker, the second biggest poker tournament on the pro circuit at the time of Ungar's reign. He won a record 3 (!) titles in each tournament.
Gin Rummy Kid Dazzles in Vegas
In 1978, when Stu Ungar was just 22 years old, he arrived in Las Vegas to play high-stakes gin rummy. Battle tested from his years in New York City playing gin rummy against the best, Ungar would play against anybody for any amount.
His success was phenomenal. For all his later fame as a No-Limit Hold'em champion, his record in gin rummy was unsurpassed; he once told an interviewer, "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."
Ungar started playing poker in Las Vegas in 1980. Though he had little experience with No-Limit Hold'em, he entered the $10,000 buy-in World Championship event at Binion's Horseshoe, and won.
His youth and success earned him the nickname Stu "the Kid" Ungar. He played in the No-Limit Hold'em championship for the second time in his life the following year and defended his title.
The last time he ever played in the event, in 1997, after struggling for years with addiction, he won again. To most around the poker world in those days, it was the greatest victory the WSOP had ever seen.
Relentless, Fearless, Intense
Stu was famous for his quick and nimble intelligence. His No-Limit Hold'em play displayed a relentless determination, fearlessness, grace and intense focus, and his card counting skills were so legendary, no casino would allow him to play blackjack on its premises.
"The Kid" was also known as a big spender and a high roller. He went totally broke at least four times, and won millions of dollars countless times. Those who knew him say he was hyper-energetic, constantly on the move, looking for more gambling action.
He was infamous for his abusive treatment of dealers in the days when dealer abuse was expected and went unpunished. Stu did not express remorse for this defect; indeed, he once said: "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser."
A legend in his own time, Stu struggled with and ultimately died of drug addiction in 1998 at the young age of 45. His memory lives on, however; Stu's huge talent and infectious energy are recalled with reverence and awe by all who witnessed his unprecedented ability and style.
Stu Ungar passed away on November 22, 1998.
Watch our short documentary below for more on his life both on and off the felt from those who knew him most.
More on Stu Ungar from Barry Greenstein:
"Stuey was a relentless force. He played in and won more than twice as many hands as anyone else in any game in which he played. At the end of each session he was invariably either the big winner or he was broke. If he detected weakness in an opponent, he would take the pot away."
"He was a hard player to bluff, since he was an expert at figuring out when his opponent was on a draw that didn’t get there. There are stories about great calls Stuey made, but I haven’t heard any about great laydowns."
"He wasn’t much of a poker player when he won the first of his three WSOP final event bracelets. As Doyle Brunson commented, 'If Stuey ever got top pair beat, he would have been knocked out.' Actually, Stuey picked up enough pots along the way that he could withstand occasional losses incurred against his short-stacked opponents."
"Stuey was a hopeless steamer. Over his playing career he may not have been an overall winner in the side games and he often needed to be staked when he played. Towards the end, he was so messed up as a result of drug use that he was scared to play his own money."
"Stuey was generally regarded as the best in the world at gin rummy and he may have had the best record in No-Limit Hold’em tournaments. He supposedly won 10 of the 30 No-Limit tournaments he entered that had a buy-in of $5,000 or more."
"There is no doubting the talent Stuey possessed, but the big question is how good he would have become if he hadn’t been ravaged by drugs."
"Stuey’s compulsive gambling is legendary. The first time he stepped on a golf course, Jack Strauss gave him a putting lesson. An hour later, they were still on the practice putting green and Stuey had lost $80,000."
"In the ‘80s, sportsbooks often had a $5,000 limit. If you wanted to bet more, they would move the line a half point and allow you to make a second bet. If you liked the side opposite to Stuey, it was wise to get behind him at the sportsbook because the line might move five points to accommodate Stuey’s $50,000 bet that was made $5,000 at a time."