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Poker Player Profile: Stu Ungar
If you only read about one poker player in your lifetime, you should make sure it’s about Stu Ungar. His colourful yet tragic life was pinnacled by his extraordinary talent where cards were concerned.
Stu was born in New York City and by the tender age of ten had already won his first Gin Rummy tournament. By the age of fourteen he was regularly beating the best players in New York City and had decided to become a professional gambler. In the next year, Stu began to make history. He dropped out of school and entered a $500 buy-in Gin Rummy Tournament which he won without ever loosing a hand, still a record today in New York card rooms! At this point the tables started to turn for Stu and of the $10,000 prize money he ended up with nothing having lost it all at the horses.
Stu decided to recoup his losses at the Gin Rummy tables of Miami and was quick to move there where he continued his success playing tournaments. Unfortunately he now also had an insatiable thirst for the horses and his winnings were being lost at the tracks as quickly as they were being won.
In 1976 Stu arrived in Las Vegas, still on top of his game but without a penny in his pocket. He somehow found the money to enter a $50,000 Gin Rummy Tournament where he yet again excelled, walking away with the prize money. This rose was not without its thorns as after watching Stu play the game with such startling skill, the other Gin Rummy players in Vegas began to fear playing him and Stu was lucky to find a game anywhere.

Stu eventually gave up trying to challenge his peers at Gin Rummy and switched his talents to Blackjack, where yet again he excelled. One evening in particular, Stu was asked to leave Caesars Casino after winning $83,000 at the Blackjack table. In retaliation, Stu correctly forecast the last 18 cards left in the single deck shoe, prompting the immediate move to three deck shoes in Casinos across the country. This act of defiance left Stu with a life ban from a dozen Casinos in Vegas.

Broke and desperate, Stu made a bet with the former owner of Las Vegas world that he could count down the last 3 decks in a six deck shoe, a seemingly impossible task which if he lost, would put Stu in debt for $10,000. Stu astounded everyone present and didn’t miss a single call from a total of 156 cards! He walked away from this encounter with $10,000.
In 1980, at the age of twenty four, Stu won the World Championship for poker in two consecutive years. Having reached these dizzying heights, Stu crashed to rock bottom with an uncontrollable addiction to drugs and by the time the 1997 WSOP came round, Stu had been out of the gambling circuit for seven years. Broke again, Stu reappeared in time for an anonymous benefactor to pay the $10,000 entry fee in order for Stu to compete. Stu Ungar then went on to break WSOP records by winning the championship for a third time.

Broke yet again, 2 months after his record breaking win, Stu was given $2,000 by an old friend who offered to commission him in card playing. Two days later Stu was found dead in a motel room, killed by a mixture of narcotics and painkillers. He was 45 years old.

Stu once said that although he could conceive of a better poker player than himself, not in the next 50 years would there be a better Gin player in the world!

Best Selling Movie: Stuey
Film About Stu Ungar, Greatest Poker Player of All Times.

Screened at the 2003 Cinevegas Film Festival.
Stuey (Michael Imperioli), as he was affectionately known by his friends, had a talent for the cards since he was young, hustling the locals out of money while his father, a bookie in the local mob, approved of sticking up for himself but frowned on the extra curriculars. Dad’s boss, Vincent (Michael Nouri), took a shine to the kid and would eventually look over him after his father’s death. (Similar to A Bronx Tale, the mother all but disappears.)

As Stuey grew up, his talents with the 52-shuffle increased, but only along with his taste of the odds he couldn’t control; namely horses. After getting in too far with the competing crews, Stuey is forced to head out to Las Vegas with a chance to repay his debt by winning a gin rummy tournament. The lure of Sin City was wide open to a magician like Stuey and soon he’ll find himself winning the World Series of Poker two years in a row and the youngest player ever at that.

Up-and-down goes the life of the gambler though and, unfortunately in the movie, usually pretty black-and-white. Writer/director A.W. Vidmer tries to get away from the cards and focus on his familial relationships. It’s nice to see a daughter express her love for such a character amidst the usual spousal scrapes. If there’s an original angle to take it would be the one to go with. But like a deadbeat dad, spending more time with her in the story would have enriched what that picture at the poker table meant to him in the final scenes.

We’ve seen the woman in a gambler’s life either not understanding their gift/addiction and during the scenes with Renee Faia’s Angela, like Stuey, we’d rather be hitting the tables. In fact, the more one knows about Stuey’s life, especially in the post-Vegas days, the further disappointment sets-in at how 101 the screenplay approaches the material. Dramatic liberties will always be enforced, details will be condensed and names changed to protect and avoid getting permission, but why tell the same ol’ story when the tiniest of elements can freshen it up?

Reading people, counting cards, however it was done, there’s only a little of it on display in Stuey. Here’s a man whose cockiness for showing off his talents got him locked out of underground games and eventually the big rooms in Vegas. Stu’s relationship with Bob Stupak (designer of Vegas’ Stratosphere) began when he counted down the final 156 cards of a six-deck shuffle without missing a beat. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship where Stupak would later bankroll Stuey. An anonymous benefactor who produced ten grand for Stu to re-enter the World Series at the 11th hour after nearly a decade out of the game is hinted at, but this interesting foray into his life is whittled down in scope to encounters with Mr. Leo (nicely played by Pat Morita) and a local player named DJ (Joe LaDue, also doing an admirable job.)

No magician wants to give away their tricks. Stuey’s initial encounter with Leo comes close and feeds into the legend, but like gamblers ourselves we want more; the big score. Films about card players always want to bluff us into buying the pot without ever seeing the full hand. Imperioli is giving us everything in his performance, finding a middle ground between the hothead he plays on The Sopranos and the bottomed-out addict he portrayed in Sweet Nothing. Like the best work that actors can accomplish, he garners our attention and draws us in to see the life through his eyes up to the telling shots of him trying to peer over the shaded glasses of the screenplay.

Vidmer tells a clean story from beginning-to-end. The usual hackneyed flashback retelling of a story works here as both a soulful reckoning (a testament to Imperioli’s performance) as well as a mystery to his eventual demise for those who don’t already know the circumstances. A respect for the man and his life is clear from Vidmer who avoids exploiting moments of drug abuse and hostility. As the poster tells us four things about Stuey (“Gambler. Addict. Loser. Legend”) it’s disappointing that the final film can only fulfill on three of the four. Not a bad percentage, but for the story of a man who continually bucked the odds of the card racket, 4-for-4 would have suited him best.
Decks, Lies & Videotape
With cameras peeking at players' cards — and some bizarre contestants — poker is a hot spectator sport.
The beautiful thing about the World Series of Poker on ESPN is absolutely nothing. The event originates from Binion's Horseshoe Casino, a low-ceilinged dump in the vagrant's paradise that is downtown Las Vegas. The featured players have the unkempt eyebrows, gothic stares and cadaverous skin tones of Scooby-Doo villains. They are the least attractive people on TV not named Larry King.

Yet in an era when television is dominated by made-up competitions pitting brainless pretty people against other brainless pretty people — Fear Factor, Survivor, etc.--it is the brilliant uglies of the World Series who have provided some of the best human drama of the summer. On every episode, intelligence is rewarded, hubris is punished, millions of dollars change hands, and luck makes a cameo. Perhaps most shocking of all, people are watching. According to Nielsen ratings, World Series (ESPN, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) has averaged 1,248,000 viewers during its eight-week run, which ends with a grand finale at 8 p.m. Aug. 26 (watch for repeats in the fall). A year ago, the same time slot averaged 408,000 viewers. Series' two-hour rival, World Poker Tour, pulled in 844,000 viewers through July on the Travel Channel, nearly triple what the channel drew last year. Imagine how many people might have tuned in if they knew there was a Travel Channel.

Poker was first broadcast on television in 1993, but it wasn't until 2002 that the game became watchable. In No Limit Texas Hold 'Em (the preferred game of the poker cognoscenti), players are dealt two cards that only they can see, called "hole cards," and then five more community cards are placed in the middle of the table. According to Lon McEachern, the play-by-play guy on World Series, watching Hold 'Em without seeing the hole cards "was like having McEnroe and Boris Becker playing Wimbledon in the dark, then turning on the lights after the point was over to see who won. You never knew what skills they possessed."

Steven Lipscomb, creator of the World Poker Tour, changed all that by embedding a lipstick camera in each player's table position. Suddenly, when the players tilted their cards up for a surreptitious glance, they also flashed the TV audience, who then got to watch them lie to the other stone-faced liars at the table. "We made this into a spectator sport," says Lipscomb. "Now when you watch a World Poker Tour show, you feel like you're in the seat making a million-dollar decision on every hand."

Both TV shows help you see how analytical and brassy the best players are by displaying the odds of victory as the cards are dealt. And whether or not you've played poker (and more than 50 million Americans have), it's thrilling to see a guy with zip bluff $300,000 out of someone with a pair of kings. The difference between the shows is that ESPN has the superior event. World Poker Tour is made-for-TV entertainment, whereas the World Series has been an annual event at Binion's since 1970. Anyone who posts the $10,000 entry fee can play, and this year's winner's take was $2.5 million. That kind of money brings out all the poker wolves, from leather-faced former champs like Amarillo Slim to rank amateurs like Nashville accountant Chris Moneymaker. (Even better, that's his real name.)

ESPN taped the one-month event at Binion's last May, piping the view of the hole cards into tape machines secured by armed guards to prevent cheating. Then they added play-by-play in postproduction. "You don't see everything they play," says McEachern. "You see a representative number of hands, exciting hands, to be TV friendly." In between the action, there are refreshingly cheese-free player profiles introducing the likes of Annie Duke, the top poker-playing woman, who came in 10th in 2000 while eight months' pregnant; Dutch Boyd, a math genius who went to college at age 12; and Chris (Jesus) Ferguson, a graduate student at UCLA who can slice a banana with a thrown playing card from 50 ft. away.

The two best characters, though, are Moneymaker and "Houston Sammy" Farha, a pro whose cultivated look of disreputability is an artistic achievement. In World Series' last episode, Moneymaker and Farha square off with $2.5 million stacked between them. They play quietly. They stare at each other. They lie. And the bigger liar wins.