“One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar” Review

[LL] “What’s the best hand in poker?” Leroy the Lion asked, seemingly rhetorically.

[RR] “A royal flush”, Roderick the Rock answered automatically. “Wait…, unless there are wild cards, then five-of-a-kind.”

[LL] “Sure, but four-of-a-kind is good enough to win most of the time.”

[RR] “In Hold ‘Em, three-of-a-kind is good enough to win most of the time.”

[LL] “Whereas two-of-a-kind is already only about an average hand on the flop. But you know who probably won a very high percentage of hands with even less than that?”

[RR] “Doyle Brunson before he published Super System?”

[LL] “Close. I’m thinking of Stu Ungar, who was truly One of a Kind.”

[RR} “I see what you did there.”

[LL] “His biography, sadly not the intended autobiography, is titled in full One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar. He was tremendous at detecting weakness in his opponents and relentless in attacking it when he spotted it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t bluff his way to good health with his bad hygiene,1 terrible eating habits, and unrestrained drug abuse.

Like Check-Raising the Devil,
Ungar’s book serves as a cautionary tale about the evils of drugs.2 He flew much higher than Mike Matusow, winning the Main Events of three World Series of Poker and three Super Bowls of Poker, and crashed much harder, landing in the hospital a couple of times before eventually succumbing at age 45.

Nolan Dalla interviewed Stu Ungar many times in 1998 when the former prodigy was beginning to feel his mortality. Quotes from the native New Yorker appear throughout the book, providing excellent insight into what he was thinking on numerous occasions where a saner person would have chosen a different path.

Ungar was already able to handle his father’s gambling bookmaking records at age 8. He made his first mark in the world by defeating many of the best gin players in New York City at age 16. When he was banned from gin tournaments in Las Vegas (because his amazing skill scared too many players from entering) and from blackjack (because his memory let him go far beyond card-counting to tracking of all of cards), he turned to poker.

Bankrolled and, equally importantly, protected by the Genovese crime family, Stuey took on all comers in gin and could have lived comfortably from the income if he didn’t like to bet on horses and sports, two gambling arenas in which he had absolutely no edge and thus couldn’t overcome the vig. He never stopped wagering significant portions of his bankroll because that was how he got his thrills.

If Ungar was precocious as a child, in many ways he remained a man-child mentally as he grew older. He never had a bank account, only obtained a driver’s license through bribery, dodged the draft similarly,3 finally obtained a Social Security number because the Horseshoe wouldn’t pay his tournament winnings without one, didn’t know how to cook or even boil water, didn’t take care of his teeth, couldn’t wash his own hair, rarely showered, and only changed his clothes occasionally (like when his wife told him to).

But he reached the top of the world in gin and poker with unmatched talent. And after wasting away over a decade to drugs, he rebounded in 1997 to become ‘The Comeback Kid’ before the final downfall of his poetic and riveting Shakespearean tragedy.”

Title One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey “The Kid” Ungar
Author Nolan Dalla & Peter Alson
Year 2005
Skill Level any
Pros An incredible story of an amazing, tender-hearted card genius who beat the best players in the world at gin and poker.
Cons An incredible story of an arrogant, uncouth, gambling degenerate who lost to the vig and drugs. Very little poker.
Rating 3.0

Footnotes:

  1. He refused to go to the dentist until his teeth got too painful. Eventually, all his back teeth were capped or replaced.
  2. His daughter, Stefanie Ungar, provides the final words of the acknowledgments and the entire book, “I only hope that everyone who reads this book will not only learn about my dad’s life and all of his accomplishments, but also learn from his mistakes as well.”
  3. This was unnecessary, as Ungar would have failed the physical (for starters, he never weighed over 100 pounds).
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