Friday, June 10, 2005
Stu Ungar: Bio of 'The Kid' rocks
When no one will play him at gin anymore, he lights out for a new frontier: Las Vegas. Poker. "The Kid" stuns the gambling world by winning consecutive poker championships at Binion's Horseshoe in 1980 and 1981, but blows his winnings by betting recklessly on sports and horses, and snorts the rest up his nostrils.
Then, 16 years later, no longer a kid, sporting oversized granny glasses to hide his caved-in nose, he makes a glorious comeback by beating 311 competitors to win the 1997 World Series of Poker.
In their new book, "One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey 'The Kid' Ungar, the World's Greatest Poker Player" (Atria, $25), Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson recount Ungar's harrowing yet fascinating tale with masterful precision.
Alas, it ends bleakly. A year and a half after his '97 world championship, Stu Ungar was dead at age 45, ultimately unable to bluff out his demons. The authors' rigorous research in recreating Ungar's life is evident throughout "One of a Kind."
Alson, best known for his superb 1998 memoir, "Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie," and Dalla rely on extensive conversations with prominent gambling figures and old friends of Ungar such as Doyle Brunson, Mike Sexton, Billy Baxter and others who were known to boogie with Stu. Most illuminating, though, are the passages in Ungar's own words taken verbatim from interviews conducted shortly before his death. It turns out Ungar, in the final months of his life, had begun collaborating with Dalla on a book originally planned as an autobiography.
The two would meet in various hotel rooms around Las Vegas. In some of those sessions, Ungar was virtually incoherent, in the late rounds of his fight against drug addiction, according to Dalla. In other meetings, Ungar's mind was characteristically sharp as he reminisced about growing up in New York and recalled highlights from his colorful gambling career.
The best of those passages showcase Ungar's streetwise sense of humor and generous nature:
On receiving savings bonds for his bar mitzvah: "I was already seriously into gambling by then. What good was a (expletive) Treasury bond to me? Was I gonna be able to take that to a dice game? Give me the cash."
On the trappings of newfound fame: "After I won (the World Series of Poker) in '81, I received all sorts of mail. I even got a letter from a guy who was locked up in prison. He sent a letter to Stu Ungar, and just wrote 'The Horseshoe' on the envelope. It got to me anyway. The guy wrote: 'I'm a relative, a long-lost cousin of yours.' The letter asked me for money. So I sent him $200. Of course, I never heard from him again after that. Some family, huh?"
Ungar also takes the prize for the most devastating "bad beat" story in the annals of sports betting. In 1990, Ungar bet about $70,000, nearly his entire bankroll at the time, that the Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor fight at the Las Vegas Hilton would "go the distance" -- that is, last the full 12 scheduled rounds. When referee Richard Steele stopped the bout at 2:58 of the 12th round -- two seconds before the final bell -- he made Ungar a loser. "Richard Steele. That's a name I won't forget," Ungar tells Dalla.
The climax of Ungar's story comes with his 1997 triumph, his third World Series of Poker championship at a final table assembled outdoors on sweltering Fremont Street. Like a Roy Hobbs of the green baize, Ungar had seemingly disproved the maxim that there are no second acts in American lives. Except that Fitzgerald also said, "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."
I never met Stu Ungar, but I was playing cards in the poker room at Binion's on that spring day in 1998 when the chilling word came down: Yes, "The Kid" was in the hotel. No, he would not be defending his title. Ungar was ensconced in his suite at Binion's in the throes of a crack binge, Dalla and Alson report: "The truth was predictable and sad. Stuey was getting high, using drugs provided by a runner from the poker room."
"A few months later, Ungar, all but broke, was found dead at the Oasis Motel, a low-rent establishment on Las Vegas Boulevard that news reporters, by federal statute, are required to describe as 'seedy.'" The book's description of Ungar's final days is riveting, and Dalla and Alson overplay their hand just once: In a hokey scene that would get the authors arrested by the mawkishness police, we see Ungar, near the end, wandering out of the Bellagio, probably on the way to the mean streets of Naked City.
Before disappearing into oblivion, he stops to watch the hotel's fountain show -- scored, as it happens, by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli singing "Time to Say Good-Bye." Sheesh. It's the lone misstep in a splendid book that presents a portrait of a singular Las Vegas character, a fearsome gambler and great poker player, a brilliant and creative but deeply flawed human being.
And "One of a Kind" should benefit from the timing of its release. The 2005 World Series of Poker got under way last week and will conclude next month with its signature event, the no-limit Texas hold 'em championship tournament. For the first time, almost all of the World Series will take place at the Rio rather than downtown at Binion's.
In a subtle way but with considerable skill, Dalla and Alson invite readers to wonder what Stu Ungar would think of the drastic changes poker and Las Vegas have undergone in recent years. They paint Ungar as a soul who was born too late, who wore "old man clothes" and felt increasingly out of place in his adopted hometown as it grew up and entered the megaresort age -- a pure gambler who had little use for gourmet meals or high-roller villas.
What would The Kid make of a World Series of Poker held at a tony resort rather than down-and-dirty Fremont Street? Or of a championship tournament with 6,000 players, as July's might have? Perhaps the final World Series of Poker in Ungar's lifetime was the end of something. Poker had yet to experience the celebrated national craze of the past couple of years. At Binion's in '98, the game was still dominated by the "hats" (Texans) and the "dese and dose guys" (New York sharpies, such as Ungar).
On the cover of the program from that 1998 World Series, there's an image of the cobalt blue Lennon sunglasses that Ungar favored, resting on stacks of poker chips. In one lens there's a picture of graybeard Johnny Moss, the "Grand Old Man," representing poker's past. In the other, a picture of Stu, looking cocky, as if toward a bright future.
It's a clever design, and unintentionally poignant, given what has transpired since.
Las Vegas Sun, June 10, 2005