To live and die in Vegas

There was nothing Stu Ungar didn't know about playing no-limit poker. Unfortunately he knew nothing about anything else.

Stu Ungar knew all about making money; he just had no idea how to keep it. In a fast and furious career, he hustled his way from New York's Lower East Side to Las Vegas, making and losing millions so fast that, in his own words, money lost all meaning for him. He could play poker like nobody else on the planet, but he also burned his way through several fortunes, threw away a 10-year-long marriage, drugged himself up to the eyeballs and, by the end, could barely stand up, or speak in more than an incoherent babble.

Ungar was known as the sharpest card-player in the business, a legend in his own lifetime. But, like all Las Vegas legends, he was destined to finish badly. He went out sordidly, stupidly, wastefully. Exhausted by years of drug abuse and the batterings of a town that loves to reward a winner all the better to rob him blind, he checked into a cheap hotel on the lower end of Sunset Strip and never checked out again.

His pale, emaciated body was found face up on the bed where he had lain, miserable and alone, for two days and two nights of delirium and despair - the ultimate Lost Weekend. He had no possessions with him apart from $800 in cash. It was all that he owned in the world.

Las Vegas is the sort of place that chews up people like Stu Ungar and spits them out again with no more than a twinge of conscience. For 20 years Ungar negotiated the rapids of the most tantalising and most dangerous city in America, with more naivety than cunning. Pushed out of most card games because he kept winning, he was forced into the highest-stakes contests, particularly a poker variant called Texas Hold 'em, where winnings, and losses, are reckoned in the millions.

In his drive to win tournament after tournament, Ungar also became hooked on drugs, on the shady money-men who kept him solvent, on the game for the game's sake. Even when he was not playing cards he could not restrain his impulse to gamble, throwing away his fabulous winnings almost as soon as he had earned them on horses, or football games, or any other book in town.

His was a life of dependency - dependency on the hotels and flophouses that were the closest thing to home he ever knew, dependency on the cocaine that kept him on the sort of highs that even Las Vegas could not provide, dependency on the friends and associates who pushed him in the direction best served by their own interests, not his.

He lived as long as he did - he died at 45 - perhaps because he did not fully understand the implications of what was going on around him.

"He did not understand much about anything except poker," said the former hotel casino owner Bob Stupak. "Stu wouldn't know how to pay an electricity bill. I don't even know if he had a driver's licence."

The stories about Ungar are as touching as they are crazy. In 1980 he was invited to play at an international tournament in Ireland, but he did not have a passport. When he went to the passport office he was told he might have to pay a little extra to get his application processed in time for his departure. Without flinching, Ungar pulled out a roll of 100-dollar bills. "That's what Stu thought the guy meant by a few extra dollars," Stupak recounted.

On another occasion, Ungar decided it was time to buy a car. So he went to the fanciest car dealership in Las Vegas and bought a top-of-the- range Mercedes - in cash. For a year he gunned around town beaming with pride, until one day he ground to a halt on the highway. A mechanic later told him he had burnt the whole thing out because the oil sump was empty. "Why the hell didn't they tell me you had to put oil in the car?" he demanded.

His daughter Stefanie, now 16, remembers visiting him and seeing a discarded letter from President Bush inviting him to the White House. "I asked Dad if he was going to go and he said No. I said, `Dad, you know how rare it is to get an invite to the White House?' He said: `What would I talk to the President about? We have nothing in common'."

For all the Vegas glitz that Ungar became part of, he never strayed far from his roots as the son of a bar-owning bookie on New York's Lower East Side, traditionally the roughest neighbourhood in Manhattan. When he was 10, Ungar gained his card apprenticeship on holiday in the Catskill mountains, learning gin rummy from the waiters at the hotel where his family was staying, then beating them at their own game. When he was 13 his father died and a year later his mother was paralysed by a stroke, forcing him to drop out of school to live on his wits.

Ungar gravitated towards the only world where he could use his skills, learning how to win thousands of dollars in poker clubs frequented by mob members. In one gin rummy session he won $10,000, only to blow it at the races a few days later.

Fabulous winnings and even more fabulous debts succeeded one another with ever more demonic speed until, in 1978, Ungar hot-footed it to Las Vegas to escape the wrath of a bookmaker to whom he owed tens of thousands of dollars. Almost immediately, he won the $50,000 first prize in a gin rummy competition, enabling him to clean his slate and start afresh - although Las Vegas's first act was to ban him from the game he played so well.

Nevada brought Ungar face to face with the twin demons in his life: Texas Hold 'em and cocaine. The former turned him into an overnight sensation when he won the World Series of Poker on his first attempt in 1980 and then held on to his title the following year. He was nicknamed The Kid, partly because he was so young - 27 at the time - and partly because of his diminutive height (just 5ft 5in) and boyish looks.

The cocaine started out as an emblem of his success, but was to prove his undoing. Ungar had married a waitress he had met in a New York club and the couple produced a daughter in 1982. But their happiness was short- lived. His cocaine consumption was so excessive that it destroyed his nostrils, forcing him to wear blue-tinted granny glasses to conceal spaced- out eyes and ravaged nose. "I did coke to keep up," Ungar explained in an interview with the New York magazine Icon a few weeks before he died. "You use it as an excuse to stay up and play poker. But then you take it home with you..." The drug habit also brought him dangerously close to Mafia enforcers, who both sold him the drugs and lent him money to tide him through his barren patches.

His contacts included the legendarily violent Tony Spilotro, another notoriously short man, nicknamed "The Ant", whose lightly fictionalised counterpart was played by Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese's movie Casino. It wasn't a comfortable relationship, but Ungar kept winning just enough to avoid retribution.

As the years passed and his highs and lows became ever more volatile, Ungar won no fewer than 10 major no-limit poker titles. He also found himself with stomach ulcers and colitis. At one competition in 1991, he played with a tooth abscess and a high fever. By the mid-Nineties, he seemed to have dropped out of the sport altogether - a sad genius whose talents had gone to seed.

But there were still a few people who believed in Ungar, and in 1997 they backed him to victory in his third World Series championship. "That was by far my greatest performance ever," a stunned Ungar said after he had beaten off the challenges of 300 rivals to win $1.1m.

In May 1998, Ungar was all set to defend his title, but he was so ill that he never left the 12th-floor hotel room in Binion's casino, venue of the competition. He had blown his million in two months and was back to binge drug-taking, mostly smoking crack cocaine through a pipe now that his nose was long gone.

Bob Stupak was the last in a long list of sponsors who believed Ungar could still be turned around. Two days before his death, the two of them did a deal whereby Stupak assumed his debts and agreed to act as his manager. He also gave Ungar $2,000 in "walking around money" to tide him over.

On the fatal weekend, Ungar was supposed to be with a minder provided by Stupak, but he gave him the slip, saying he was taking his daughter out for a birthday treat. After his first night at the Oasis Motel, a bellhop found him shaking furiously on his bed. After his second night, the same bellhop found him dead.

"He was the best," Stupak said after the discovery of Ungar's body. "You can't expand on that." The best, however, in an unforgiving world that never sought to understand Stu Ungar, eventually sucked the talent out of him, and let him die the most frightening and lonely of deaths in a Las Vegas dive.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?