Stu Ungar: Poker’s First Disruptive Innovator

Posted by: on Aug 1, 2016 | No Comments

When Forbes magazine compiled a list of the most disruptive trends in business, they defined “disruption” as something that “…displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creative.” While the Davids of the business world shake up the Goliaths with disruption, I want to bring attention to the first disruptor of the gaming world, Stu Ungar (or The Kid as he was known).

Since his death in 1998, there has been a lot that has been said about Stu Ungar, the man who got so good at the game that most people wouldn’t let him sit at a table. While there has been a lot that has been said about the rock and roll lifestyle of The Kid, the fact remains that his brilliance was unprecedented. His incredible ability to play card games was from another set of dimensions that threatened those around him and grew into a legend. However, it is the same brilliance that brought with it the shadow of redundancy that led to Ungar being banned from casino tables for card counting.

The Kid Who Killed Competition

Born in New York in 1953, Ungar grew up learning to play cards and keeping books for his father who was a loan shark and ran a bar. Dropping out of school soon after winning his first gin tournament at the age of 10, Ungar was regarded among the best gin players in New York by 1976. When he wiped the floor with the best gin player of the time, Harry "Yonkie" Stein, in 86 games, nobody dared share a table with this formidable ace. Moving to Las Vegas in 1977, the same reputation for being a shark among minnows followed him. In a 2005 article in The New York Times, when asked about the current crop of 6,000 poker players at the annual World Series of Poker (WSOP) championship, veteran player Bobby Baldwin is quoted as saying, “He’d [Ungar] kill these guys. It won’t even be close.” His co-biographer Peter Alson calls him ‘the Jim Morrison of poker.’

Ungar deserved his reputation for being a killer. Winning 10 of the 30 professional tournaments he entered, Ungar would simply tell his opponents how bad they were, offer them handicaps to overcome how bad they were, enjoy their desperation when they knew they were going to lose and even laugh in their faces. The fact was that Ungar had genius-level IQ and could count cards so well that he won $100,000 off a casino owner in a bet that he could not predict the last card in a six-deck shoe.

The Kid moved on to blackjack and poker when no one wanted to play him at gin. Casinos asked him not to play because other patrons would back out. In 1980, he entered and won his first WSOP tournament to become the youngest champion ever at 27 years of age. He successfully defended his title in 1981. In 1982, he was taken to court by the New Jersey Gaming Commission for allegedly cheating while playing blackjack. The establishment was out to get him by now. His memory and card counting ability were natural, but they insisted that he was using unfair means like capping bets at blackjack. These days, card counting is strictly controlled with most casinos employing automatic shuffling machines that continuously shuffle cards while they are in play.

The Comeback Kid with a Heart of Gold

By this time, the cocaine that he took to stay alert for marathon games caught up with him. Interestingly, for someone who has won millions, Unger never had a bank account or bothered with a social security number. Famous for his generosity, he would give money to anyone known or unknown who needed some, tip casino staff royally regardless of his winning or losing and paid for everything in cash.

He never ‘hustled’ other players. He was simply too arrogant to do so, nor would he lose a game to sucker an opponent out of their money. He was too proud to do so. Yet the casinos insisted that he play with a limit on how high or low he could bet in 1997. This did not stop him from accumulating $300,000 in six months. In the same year, in a comeback that rivals some of the greatest in sporting history, The Kid sat down as the World Series of Poker game. He won the WSOP title for the third time and earned the title ‘The Comeback Kid’ 16 years after he first won in 1980.

His story reminds me of Norman Mailer’s description of Mohamed Ali’s boxing in his book ‘The Fight,’ which describes Ali’s comeback boxing match against George Foreman after being sidelined for refusing to be drafted in the army. He said, “Other fighters might box, but Ali was on his way to the moon.” Just the same with Ungar, whose abilities seemed from another dimension to his flummoxed spectators. His was a disruptive influence at the unlikeliest of places, the poker table!

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