Whilst researching for an article about poker hall of fame Mike Sexton, I stumbled upon this book called, “One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey “The Kid” Ungar, The World’s Greatest Poker Player” and felt compelled to review it, something which you might not be used to seeing on this website.
I was born into this current era of televised, highly polished, professional poker, made famous by the likes of Sexton, Phil Helmuth, and Daniel Negreanu. But after reading this fascinating and gripping book, I’ve realized what a privileged world these players live and play in.
Ungar was born in Manhattan in 1953, to a Jewish loan shark and illegal bookie of a father and a poorly educated mother who introduced him to a game called gin rummy. From a very early age, Ungar realized he had a great aptitude for cards, being able to work out odds and memorizing cards very easily and quickly. Before the age of 18, Ungar had already made a name for himself in casinos around New York and was a big player in the underground gambling scene.
In a storyline that would befit any Hollywood movie, it wasn’t long before the New York mob took Ungar under their wing. They utilized his talent and personality, bankrolling his entry into high stakes tournaments around America. He transferred his gin rummy talents to the game of stud poker and was soon one of the best and notorious players around, winning three World Series of Poker (WSOP) tournaments in the early 1980’s.
However, a life lived in this kind of environment is bound to take its toll, both mentally and financially. It wasn’t long before Ungar was up to his neck in debt, divorce, and drugs. He attempted to get clean several times in the 1990’s, re-entering the mainstream poker circuit he had fallen away from, but sadly, he wasn’t the same animal anymore and couldn’t summon the same talents he displayed so consistently during the high point of his career.
His swansong was a fifth and final WSOP bracelet in 1997. He went on to squander his one million dollar prize on drugs and sports betting, drifting deeper and deeper into trouble, away from poker and out of the public eye.
Stu Ungar, the most talented card player the world had ever seen, was found dead in a cheap motel room in December 1998, less than a year after winning his final bracelet.
This really was a wonderfully written book. Informative yet very nostalgic, tragic and entertaining. Co-authors Dalla Nolan and Peter Alson do a fantastic job of giving the reader a real sense of place and time, depicting Ungar’s lifestyle extremely well. Whether you are a poker fan or not, there a plenty of reasons for any reader to enjoy this poignant and enthralling biopic.