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The Ultimate Card Playing Legend

Mises Daily: Monday, June 02, 2008 by

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The dealing has started at this year's World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas. It seems America has gone poker crazy. The game is now televised and shown at all hours of the day and night, watched by millions all over the world who no doubt fanaticize about playing at the final table of the WSOP and winning it all. And, why shouldn't they? Amateurs have dominated the tournament the past few years, making instant stars and changing the lives of guys who entered the tournament as patent attorneys or accountants, and leaving with millions of dollars and new careers. The 2007 WSOP attracted 6,358 entrants to its final event: The No Limit Texas Hold 'em World Championship that paid a first prize of $8.5 million to winner Jerry Yang, a psychologist from the heart of California suburbia, Temecula.

But these amateur winners are likely flashes in the pan; they caught lightning in a bottle for a few days but will never be heard from again. Yang is a good example, his best finish in a tournament since last year's WSOP is only 14th place.

People, who play poker day in and day out, grinding out a living in Las Vegas poker rooms, are a rare and curious breed. The number of real poker superstars can find seats at a single Texas Hold 'em table. One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, The World's Greatest Poker Player chronicles the compelling story of the man who won the WSOP three times.

Authors Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson's well-written book is hard to put down. Stuey Ungar was a superstar poker player like no other, who burned brightly and then flamed out, dying in the seedy, downtown Oasis Motel. His death, according to the coroner, "was brought on by his lifestyle."

Ungar's photographic memory and innate ability to read opponents made him a great poker player, but he was probably the greatest gin rummy player of all time. He was virtually impossible to beat at the game one-on-one. Within two discards he would know what his opponent was holding. He destroyed the best gin players in the world and eventually no one would play him.

In the late 1970s, Ungar entered five gin tournaments and won three. He placed in the top four in one of the tournaments that he didn't win, and in the other he didn't show up on the tournament's second day. In 1979, tournament officials at the Riviera wouldn't let him play, because other players wouldn't enter knowing they didn't have a chance to win against him.

Ungar grew up in New York, the son of a Lower East Side bookie. Hanging around his father's bar that fronted the bookmaking operation, Ungar developed an addiction for betting on horses and sporting events that he would never conquer. Despite winning millions at card tables, he was constantly broke, wagering away any winnings he had on the next day's slate of ball games or at the track. He was the ultimate high time-preference individual.

After his father died in the arms of a paramour, Stuey quit high school and spent his days and nights in the Big Apple's underground card rooms. He had learned to play cards watching his mother play in the Catskills during family vacations. His mother was a terrible player, but Ungar learned the basics of poker and gin and learned how to determine what cards his opponents held. The Kid was so good that members of the Genovese crime family bankrolled him as he demolished the top gin players on the east coast.

But as good as he was at cards, the rest of his life was a disaster. Stuey demanded instant gratification at all times. He often gambled every dollar he had and would be constantly borrowing money from others. He didn't own a watch and didn't have a bank account. The Kid was in his 40s before anyone taught him table manners or other common courtesies. In contrast, 2007 winner Yang recently told the Las Vegas Review Journal, "I'm not a big player. I'm still learning the game. There's as old Chinese saying: money is good in the pocket, so why risk it?"

Ungar came out of nowhere to win the 1980 WSOP, playing in only his second poker tournament ever. After winning, the 26-year-old Stuey had to be chauffeured to the Federal Building to be issued a Social Security number in order to collect the first prize. He defended his title the next year, but soon drugs took over Ungar's life.

Stuey made the unlikeliest of comebacks to win the 1997 WSOP, but only 18 months later was laid to rest. At the service, poker player and casino owner Bob Stupak took up a collection to pay for the funeral. The Kid had won approximately $30 million in his lifetime, but died with only $800 in his pocket and the clothes on his back.

Mr. Yang reportedly has saved much of the $8.5 million he won last year and has made sure his kids' college education is paid for. He is a prudent guy who got lucky. Stuey Ungar was the ultimate card-playing legend.