One Of A Kind: The Rise And Fall Of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, The World's Greatest Poker Player
By Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson
Foreward by Mike Sexton
Atria Books, 2005
Gambling lore is filled with tales of colorful characters. Whether it's a Wild West card sharp cheating his way to the business end of a slug or a dot com millionaire finding his latest adrenaline rush playing poker against the world's top players, there are as many varied and engaging tales from the tables as there are black chips on the felt at the Bellagio.
But I'd give you ten to one there was never anyone like Stuey Ungar.
Stuey was the son of a small-time hustler, a bar owner booking sports action for local gamblers from a back room. Whether predestination or simply a preternatural affinity towards gambling, Stuey began to show an aptitude at an early age for sports betting. While over/unders, point spreads, and money lines took hold and became a lifelong passion, it was also as a child that he found he had a skill - even a sense - for playing cards.
One of the strengths of this enjoyable book is that Nolan Dalla had originally intended to assist Stuey in writing his autobiography. So while it is indeed obvious that Nolan has a great deal of sympathy for Stuey due to their friendship, it is in Nolan bringing Stuey's own words to the tome in which this sympathy is often tempered with harsher doses of reality. Like most gamblers, Stuey lived in a world where critical self-analysis was absolutely key to understanding where he stood before and after the next card hit the felt. From his earliest days, Stuey knew that gambling for him was not about the money - it was about the competition and the action:
"I used to sit behind my mother and watch her play seven-card stud. She was terrible... I watched my mother lose, saw the faces of the other players, how smug they were, the way they'd laugh at her behind her back and make wisecracks... The only reason that they won her money is that she played even worse than they did. I didn't like to see that. I guess it affected me. It made me want to beat them. It made me want to get back at them for the way they treated my mother." (pg 16)
"I was an action freak. Winning got boring if it was too easy. I needed the constant challenge." (pg 45)
Stuey adopted poker, along with horse racing, sports betting, numbers, and craps in his early teens. While most kids his age were fawning over box scores in the paper to see where their heroes stood in the home run race, Stuey's only concern was if the Indians covered to complete his parlay. But while these games gave Stuey the action he desired, his main love in his early days was Gin Rummy. From the time he was sixteen, Stuey began to form the reputation as quite possibly the greatest Gin player who ever lived:
"Gin is a lot different from any other card game. It's not like poker. You can't bluff or put moves on people. Gin is a game of control. I used to break my opponents down. They'd crumble right in front of my eyes. I got a lot of satisfaction from that - seeing the smirk disappear from their faces and turn into fear. They'd come in wearing ties, with their hair neat, and after five hours with me their tie would be undone and their hair would be all over the place. They'd have this look in their eyes like they realized they couldn't win. It was... beautiful." (pg 78)
Stuey could easily have become a latter-day Fast Eddie Felson, using his mob connections for financial backing and a feint-and-counter style to lure the big fish into the Gin Rummy pond. He could have been an under-the-radar millionaire, jetting from big game to big game, robbing Gin's old guard at every step along the way. But Stuey didn't have that kind of mentality. Dalla writes, "Stuey wasn't a con man or a hustler; he was an assassin. That was just who he was, and he couldn't control it." (pg 76) On his first day in Vegas, Stuey annihilated the man recognized as the best Gin player in the world, and his action in Gin took a severe hit after that. Other players, deep pockets or big egos be damned, didn't want to fight a losing battle.
It was here Stuey discovered tournament Gin, and soon enough, tournament poker.
Nolan and Peter paint a spectacularly entertaining picture of Stuey Ungar's ascent to the top of the tournament poker world, and just as rapid descent into drug dependency and death. Interweaving Stuey's own words with first hand accounts of Stuey's early brilliance by Mike Sexton and others, Dalla and Alston give us a peek into the world of high stakes poker through the eyes of one of its most degenerate souls. The tales spun in these pages are the stuff of legend, from Stuey recounting his tournament action to some of the more intriguing minutiae which will leave most readers astonished at the world in which these high stakes gamblers operate. For example, while most of us take for granted the arrival of our bi-weekly paychecks, Stuey Ungar received one "paycheck" in his entire life - for his appearance on "The Merv Griffin Show." It is in these surreal moments - trying to bribe a Government official to get his Social Security number set up to collect on a big tournament win, betting over $50,000 on the golf course despite never having picked up a club before, losing a large sum to Doyle Brunson on the golf course and nearly losing the paper bag containing the cash by leaving it for hours in an unlocked locker - that the reader is able for a moment to orbit Stuey's world and understand how and why some of these big time gamblers can have such a casual relationship with sums of money we'll not likely see in our lifetimes.
Stuey's story is riddled with the highest highs and the most ignominious lows a life can provide. The best fiction writers would hope to find a character arc as broad and varied as Stuey's, and Dalla, Alston, and Stuey himself spin the yarn with a journalistic eye for detail and an obviously reverential tone of sympathy towards the flawed hero. While the story told here is engaging and entertaining, the approach and prose is breezy at best. Where I was left wanting more was in the exploration of Stuey's psyche. A dive into degeneracy is never complete without a frank look at the motivations behind the fatal flaws of the protagonist, and Stuey's various foibles - drugs, gambling, mismanagement of money - were a volatile mix that eventually caused his too-early passing. I believe that had Dalla been graced with more time with Stuey before his passing, it's conceivable that he could have broken further into Stuey's issues, and shined a brighter light into a troubled life.
This criticism aside, "One of a Kind" is a well-paced and engaging read, and is a title I will certainly revisit again down the road.
"One Of A Kind: The Rise And Fall Of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, The World's Greatest Poker Player" is due to be released on June 28, 2005 as per Amazon.com. Pre-orders can be made using the link above.
DISCLAIMER: Nolan Dalla is a frequent contributor to Poker Player Newspaper, but this reviewer has never met or corresponded with Nolan previously. The opinions stated in this review are independent of the opinions of the editors of Poker Player Newspaper. All quotes from "One of a Kind" were made from the advance copy provided by the publisher. Page numbers and actual quotes may differ slightly from the final edition for publication. Thanks to Atria Books, New York for providing advance copies for review.