Monday, Nov. 23, 1998 | 11 a.m.
Stu Ungar, whose astronomical wagers and fearless play at high-stakes poker tables became the stuff of which gambling legends are made, was found dead Sunday in a Las Vegas motel room. He was 45.
The owner of the Oasis Motel, 1731 S. Las Vegas Blvd., said Ungar, a former three-time world poker champion and world-class gin rummy player, checked in Friday night and was found dead in his room about 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
The cause of death was not immediately known. Ungar had for many years battled a cocaine addiction, which he discussed in a recent national magazine article. Police are investigating his death.
Ungar, a hard-luck gambler who won and lost as much as $10 million during his career that began at age 10, won no-limit Texas hold 'em titles in 1980, '81 and '97 at Binion's World Series of Poker. The 1997 purse for the $10,000 buy-in event was $1 million, but Ungar was broke two months later.
Services are pending for the man who 18 years ago was nicknamed Stu "The Kid" for a youthful appearance that would be destroyed by years of hard living.
In the October issue of Icon magazine, published in Ungar's native New York, he discussed his drug addiction: "I did coke to keep up. You use it as an excuse to stay up and play poker. But then you take it home with you.
"When you have access to it and the money don't mean nothing ... it's a sickness. I guarantee you it's taken 10, 15 years off my life."
Ungar had been living in hotel and motel rooms or flopping at friends' homes for the last 10 years. So it was not unusual that he died in a local motel.
"I checked him in Friday night -- he seemed like a nice fellow," John Napoli, owner of the Oasis for the last 11 years, said Sunday. "When my employee went to wake him Saturday morning to tell him it was time to check out, he was lying face down on the bed and shaking.
"He asked to see the manager and paid me to stay one more night. When my employee went to his room this morning to tell him it was time to check out, he was lying face up in bed and was dead."
Napoli then called the authorities and paramedics.
"It's wasted genius," said Las Vegas gaming analyst and radio talk-show host Larry Grossman, a longtime follower of Ungar's career. "Stu had his faults but was an extraordinary person.
"When he was on his game, there was no one who could beat him. He ran over players at poker tables like Jim Brown ran over players on football fields."
Born in 1953 in New York, Ungar was the son of a bookmaker who managed a bar on the fabled Lower East Side.
A gifted student when it came to mathematics, Ungar was allowed to skip two grades of elementary school.
At age 10, while vacationing in the Catskills with his family, Ungar learned to play gin rummy. Initially, he hustled waiters out of their wages and tips.
Ungar's father died of heart failure in 1966 and his mother suffered a stroke the following year. At age 14, Ungar dropped out of school to hustle some of New York's top gin rummy players.
In one marathon gin rummy game, Ungar won $10,000. But in just a few days he lost it all at the Belmont and Aqueduct horse tracks. It foreshadowed what would be a roller-coaster gambling career.
As an example of that, Ungar, on one Thanksgiving weekend several years ago, won $1 million playing poker. That same weekend, he lost $1.8 million betting football games. Ungar once lost $1 million in a single craps session. He also once shared a $1.8 million Pick Six horse bet win with a team of gamblers.
It was Ungar's gambling losses in New York that sent him fleeing to Las Vegas in the late 1970s -- one step ahead of a bookmaker to whom he owed a five-figure debt.
Ungar scraped together $1,500 and entered a downtown Las Vegas gin rummy tournament. He won the $50,000 first prize to pay off his bookie debt.
But Ungar soon had developed such a sterling reputation at the local gin rummy tables that he could find no one foolhardy enough to take him on.
Ungar's card-counting skills also quickly got him banned from every blackjack table in town. That's when Ungar decided to learn no-limit Texas hold 'em, a game that would bring him his greatest fame as a gambler.
As a poker rookie in 1980, Ungar entered the $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold 'em World Series championship game at the Horseshoe. At 27, he was the youngest player to capture that title, a record that has since been broken. Ungar repeated as champion the next year.
In 1982, after his daughter, Stephanie, was born, Ungar was on top of the world.
But the next 16 years would be turbulent for Ungar. His youthful looks gave way to a harder edge. Ungar's nostrils collapsed from excessive cocaine use and his mop of black hair became streaked with gray. His face became gaunt.
Ungar's slight stature -- about 5 feet, 6 inches with a weight that fluctuated between 95 and 130 pounds -- also contributed to his sickly appearance.
On the poker circuit, however, Ungar won the Amarillo Slim Super Bowl of Poker main event in 1983, '88 and '89; the Bob Stupak America's Cup no-limit title in 1987; and the inaugural Four Queens Poker Classic finale in 1991. In all, he won 10 major no-limit poker titles.
Ungar often won events while in great agony from illnesses that included stomach ailments and colitis. At the '91 Queens Classic, Ungar played with an abscessed tooth and 102-degree fever.
By 1997, Ungar had hit rock bottom as a gambler. Still, he managed to find a backer to put him into the World Series title game and went on to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in the annals of gambling lore.
Ungar, occasionally glancing through his blue-lensed granny glasses at a wallet-sized photo of his teenage daughter for inspiration, won the event that was televised by ESPN.
"That was by far my greatest performance ever," Ungar said after the game. "I just played so perfect -- so perfect. It's so tough to come back."
By July 1997, after paying off a number of gambling debts and making a string of large, unsuccessful sports and horse-racing wagers, Ungar again was broke.
In all, Ungar won $2,081,478 in World Series tournament appearances from 1980 to 1997 -- second on the all-time money list.
This past May, though he had backers ready to put him into big games, Ungar sat alone in a 12th-story room at the Horseshoe while the World Series of Poker was held in that downtown hotel-casino.
Moments before the four-day championship game began, tournament officials announced that Ungar was too ill to defend his title and would not play.
It recently was announced that Ungar was beginning a business venture with friend and fellow gambler Stupak, a former Las Vegas casino owner.
Why Ungar checked into the Oasis Motel on Friday and what he did in the hours leading up to that remains a mystery.
"He didn't say much," Napoli said. "Before I left his room Saturday he asked if I would close the window because he was cold. But the window wasn't open."