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Ghost of Stuey Ungar

Just before sunrise, you can find the ghost of Stuey Ungar wandering the hallways of the convention center at the Rio Casino. Some days, he's cleaning out the trash. Other days he's bartending in front of the poker kitchen. Sometimes he's dealing a satellite or standing guard near the cage. Most of the time, he's standing on the rail checking out the action in the biggest cash game in the room.

Stuey Ungar is the greatest no-limit hold'em player of all time. The men who knew him and played with him are the ones responsible for bestowing that accolade. Ask Doyle Brunson or Mike Sexton. They'll sit you down and tell you some stories about Stuey that will blow your mind.

The legend of Stuey Ungar grows, thanks to plenty of colorful stories about the kid from New York City with a voracious appetite for action who took Las Vegas by storm. The gin rummy prodigy could not get a decent gin game and turned to poker instead. There are plenty of heroic gambling tales and even several sad and pathetic ones. Those somber stories are told with a semblance of disappointment as the storyteller usually paints a desperate picture of Stuey in the years leading up to his death. Did Stuey Ungar's self-destructive behavior kill him or was Las Vegas an accomplice?

It was bad enough that Stuey limped through life with a serious gambling problem, then add the affects of rampant drug abuse and it's a recipe for disaster. Before he knew it, Ungar was a raging cokehead in a 24-hour city that profits on every weakness. It's no wonder that several of his friends bet on whether or not he would survive his 40th birthday.

At the 1990 WSOP, Stuey amassed a monster chiplead and went back to his hotel room to party. His backer Billy Baxter frantically showed up the next day when Ungar was a no-show at Binion's Horseshoe. Ungar had suffered an overdose and could not make it to the rest of the tournament. He had a big enough lead that his idle stack advanced to the final table before he was blinded off in 9th place.

Sound familiar? Flash forward 17 years later to the Amazon Ballroom in the Rio. For second time in two weeks, Vinnie Vinh's stack sat at his table without him behind it. He failed to show up for another Day 2. When he disappeared the previous week, rumors swirled about his whereabouts. My gut told me he was strung out somewhere, probably close by, but millions of miles away from home.

Everyone showed up at 2:00 pm for the restart of Event No. 30, a $2,500 shorthanded no-limit tournament, except Vinh. Plenty of big names remained, like Erik Seidel, Erick Lindgren, Mimi Tran, Hoyt Corkins, and Vinnie Vinh. But Vinnie was noticeably absent. The floor supervisor walked over to his table and opened up his sealed bag of chips. He quickly stacked them up before he left the table. Ten minutes later, Vinh's chair was still empty and as my eyes focused on a figure standing at the rail. I saw the ghost of Stuey Ungar.

The dealers began the process of blinding Vinh's stack off. He still outlasted twenty players and finished in 22nd place out of the 42 players who advanced to Day 2. He won $12,468 and did not play a single hand that day.

My biggest fear about Vinh became a harsh reality. Vinh was not pulling off a Hellmuthian psyche-out by arriving a few minutes late. He never arrived. The last place Vinh was going to be found was at Table 72 in the Amazon Ballroom.

You might have better luck finding him passed out in the bathroom of the Oasis Motel. That's were Stuey Ungar's dead body was found in November of 1998 with $800 in his pockets. They say he died of a heart attack, but Stuey's friends would tell you that he had died years before.

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