Friday, May 16, 1997 | 11:59 a.m.
Often, the life of a gambler takes him thousands of miles from those he loves.
A hard-luck gambler also finds it difficult at times to provide his children with the nicer things. But other times, when the streaks run good, the rewards are really special.
Before the final round of the World Series of Poker's $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas hold 'em game Thursday under the Fremont Street Experience at Binion's Horseshoe, veteran gambler Stu Ungar gazed at a small photo of an attractive brunette.
He then put the photo of his 14-year-old daughter, Stephanie, in his shirt pocket next to his heart. Together -- he in fine playing form and she in indelible spirit -- they wrote what is sure to become a memorable chapter in Las Vegas gambling folklore.
Ungar, who in 1980 and '81 won back-to-back world poker titles and was nicknamed "The Kid" because he was in his mid-20s, became only the second player in history to win three world titles.
It equaled the feat of Poker Hall of Fame member Johnny "The Grand Old Man" Moss, who won the no-limit crown in 1970, '71 and '74. He died last year.
Ungar collected $1 million for his efforts, about half of which will go to repay his backers who through some very lean years stuck with the man who now can be called "The Comeback Kid."
Those years have not been kind to Ungar -- his dark hair graying at 43, his slight body punished from past ailments, his face gaunt well beyond that of many his age.
Nevertheless, as more than one observer commented, Ungar's poker playing in the four-day finale to the 28th annual granddaddy of all gaming tournaments was never better.
Perhaps the words of his daughter, who was born two years after Ungar gained his initial fame, gave him the confidence to emerge triumphant from a record field of 312 of the world's top gamblers.
"Before the tournament, she told me, 'Daddy, don't let them knock you out,' and I told her not to worry because that was not going to happen this time," Ungar said after catching a straight on the last card of the final hand to defeat Treasure Island hotel-casino President John Strzemp.
"I just played so perfect -- so perfect."
Gabe Kaplan, an actor and longtime high-stakes poker player who was doing hand-by-hand commentary for ESPN, which taped the World Series finale for airing in August, couldn't agree more.
"When he came on the scene, many people felt Stu would be the best ever," said Kaplan, who starred in the 1970s sitcom "Welcome Back Kotter." "He went through some rough times the last 15 years but now is playing better than ever."
Shortly before the tournament, Ungar went to visit his daughter in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. That little vacation, he said, put him in the proper frame of mind for the event that 17 years ago launched him on the path to becoming a legendary gambler.
That path actually began a few decades ago on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Ungar was raised. His father owned and operated a bar on Seventh Street and Second Avenue, and Ungar grew up to become one of the world's top gin rummy players.
When Ungar moved to Las Vegas in the late 1970s, he learned to play poker and burst onto the scene with the back-to-back world titles. Before long, he had won more than $1 million in World Series events.
Ungar now has $2,081,478 in career World Series earnings, second on the all-time money list to two-time world champion Johnny Chan, the reigning deuce-to-7 draw world champ, with $2,313,694 in all-time WSOP earnings.
But a million dollars does not go far when you gamble at the level Ungar did for nearly two decades.
He purportedly lost $1 million in a single craps session, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in no-limit poker side games.
But there were good times as well. He purportedly was part of a small team of gamblers that shared in a $1.8 million Pick Six horse bet at a Strip resort.
On the poker circuit, Ungar won the Amarillo Slim Super Bowl of Poker main event in 1983, '88 and '89, sending the trophies home to his little girl. Asked what he would get his daughter with Thursday's winnings, Ungar replied: "Anything she wants."
Ungar also won Bob Stupak America's Cup no-limit title in 1987 and the inaugural Queens Poker Classic finale in 1991.
Often, he won events while in great agony from illnesses that included stomach ailments and colitis. At the Queens Classic, his ninth and last major title until Thursday, Ungar played with an abscessed tooth and a 102-degree fever.
In that head-to-head showdown, Ungar fought back the pain and defeated Huck Seed, then a 22-year-old rookie gambler, who would go on to win the world title last year.
Staying out of the spotlight early in this week's event helped Ungar a lot.
"Because I was one of the last to enter, I was put at a table in the (satellite) room, away from all of the cameras and excitement," Ungar said. "It didn't feel like the World Series at all -- more like a side game."
Ungar was among the top 10 chip leaders after day one, was second after day two and was a huge chip leader with $1,066,000 going into Thursday's final round. At one point, with four other players left, Ungar had 60 percent of the chips on the table.
Strzemp, 45, managed to stay in the hunt with a little bit of luck, catching flushes on the river (fifth and final community card) and other draw hands that made for an exciting afternoon for the several hundred spectators on hand.
Strzemp, who collected $583,000 for finishing second, acknowledged that his first day back at work today will be "kind of a downer" after the tension-packed four days of the championship event.
"I was hoping to play Stu a little bit longer," he said. "But I knew I had to make a stand quickly. I didn't want to send him a message that he could run over me, so when I saw that ace-eight, I decided to play it strong."
Strzemp was a slight favorite with his ace-8 to Ungar's ace-four, but Ungar had an out -- a deuce for a straight -- which he caught as though it came from a movie script.
"If I couldn't win, I'm glad I played the hand I did rather than get caught with something marginal," Strzemp said. "It would have been embarrassing to go out on a bluff."
Mel Judah, 49, of London, who last week won the world 7-card stud title, placed third and collected $371,000 to bring his lifetime WSOP earnings to $924,391.
Ron Stanley, 44, of Las Vegas placed fourth and collected $212,000 to bring his career WSOP earnings to $538,408.
Bob Walker, 57, of Las Vegas, placed fifth and won $161,120 -- his first time in the money at the World Series.
Peter Bao, 26, who is a student majoring in computer science at UNLV, won $127,200 for finishing sixth. It was his first time in the money.
Gary Thompson contributed to this report.