Looking for Stuey. Lonesome Search for a Poker God

There’s a little place off Lexington where I read the paper over my morning slice of pound cake. One day, there I was, deep in the obituaries. Sweeping crumbs aside, I saw a photo many New Yorkers were undoubtedly looking at that very moment. Stuey Ungar.

He was so strange-looking, gaunt, almost simian. A kind of man-monkey. Stuey Ungar was a poker genius who had thrice won the Binion’s Horseshoe $10,000, no-limit Texas hold-‘em tournament. He took the first prize of $1 million in cash.

But nothing lasts. They found him sprawled dead atop the covers in his room at the Oasis Motel, a fleabag joint in Las Vegas. He was 45, victim of a heart attack brought on, the coroner said, by years of drug abuse.

He died with $800 in his pocket. The obit mentioned that Ungar had figured in A. Alvarez’s The Biggest Game in Town , a chronicle of the Binion’s tournament of 1980.

That afternoon, I hunkered down in a carrel at the New York Society Library. There he was, in the Alvarez book. Stuey, at 25, came out of nowhere to win the million, beating legends Doyle (Tex Dolly) Brunson, Puggy Pearson and Chip Reese, and formidable amateurs like Gabe Kaplan (better known as TV’s Mr. Kotter).

Some months later, I checked Las Vegas information for Ungars and got Stuey’s wife, Madeline. I asked if I could meet with her sometime. She was suspicious, but said O.K.

I booked a flight from La Guardia to Las Vegas.

The Union Plaza is an old joint at the head of Fremont Street, the strip of the original Vegas places, with names like the Golden Gate, the Lady Luck, Fitzgerald’s, the El Cortez, the Girls of Glitter Gulch and, of course, Benny Binion’s Horseshoe.

My room overlooked an arch of light bulbs stretched over the street. The look was of a covered wagon gone mad.

The view was spectacular, but the sliding door to the little terrace wouldn’t open. On and off for a few hours, I had been doing battle with the handleless steel bracket, like a seal pounding the underside of an ice floe, desperate for air.

I called down to the front desk.

“Uh, could you send someone up? My sliding door won’t open and I need some air.”

“I’m sorry, sir, they’re not supposed to open. We’ve had problems with jumpers.”

Pause.

“Are you kidding?”

“I wouldn’t kid about something like that, sir.” Possibly realizing this wasn’t the best P.R. for the hotel, he backtracked a bit. “We’ve also had problems with bachelor parties, you know, kids getting drunk and throwing things over the rail.”

Eventually, you go to sleep.

And then I was up at 3:30 A.M., my throat raw from a lingering East Coast cold. I went downstairs and was hit with a blast of cigarette smoke. Las Vegas is the land of three things: the wheelchair-bound who can simultaneously eat and tug on a slot machine, the smoker and the retired.

At the craps table, a red-faced man called for a hard eight. A tuft of stuffing from his parka floated to the green felt. A withered lady smoked a thin, dark cigarette under a floppy hat. Jaws was playing mute on the bar TV.

Eight hours a day for years, Stuey Ungar sat down in the poker rooms of Vegas-the Mirage, for one, which is now Steve Wynn’s Bellagio. He was older than the new guard of boy poker geniuses-Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Huck Seed-but he was always “The Kid,” with the Ratso Rizzo accent and the little gold pinky ring.

I got a cab for Caesar’s Palace, to see Stuey’s wife. She worked in the fancy boutique. She was tan and coiffed. We talked a little bit and she said we could meet later on to talk more in depth about Stuey … but it never panned out. She was skittish. She was thinking of maybe trying to get a movie made out of his life.

In recent years, you could tell when Stuey was playing high. He would wear green mirrored John Lennon shades at the table and would chatter through his cottonmouth. Puggy Pearson and Doyle Brunson and the rest refused to loan him any more, because they knew he’d spend it on dope. Puggy and Doyle were his friends, not just guys he played cards with.

Stuey was a bookmaker’s son who by 17 had cleaned out the top gin rummy players on the East Coast and once lost $98,000 on a single golf shot.

Stuey could read people or, more importantly in this line of work, he could smell a bluff. In his self-published poker bible, Super/System , Doyle Brunson lists some classic “tells,” a visible pulse in the neck being most common. At the Binion’s tournament, you’ll see some players sitting at the table wearing bandannas and ball caps, like train robbers: disguising the tell.

The pros sit hours on end, year after year, sopping up tells: how a man twirls a chip or pulls on a cigarette. And even a coked-up Stuey Ungar, months before they’d find him in his Oasis motel room, could smell the tell.

Mr. Brunson, in his book, says: “You will be playing mostly against unskilled gamblers. Their minds are not particularly sharp and often they haven’t lived life very successfully. They’re financially troubled or psychologically battered … you might as well know the truth, sad as it is-they’ve come to escape the pain.”

Not much glamour on the pro circuit. I flew from Vegas to Los Angeles to catch a bit of the L.A. Poker Classic last month. The tournament is played yearly at the Commerce Casino, 15 minutes from downtown, in the Commerce neighborhood. For the professional card player, it’s the U.S. Open played over acres of card tables. It lasts a month. By the end, more than $250,000 is shared among the winners.

No one really lives in Commerce, Los Angeles. There are no sidewalks. It’s a concrete town of furniture warehouses, steel gate manufacturers and an adult book depot. Inside the casino, small men in aprons wheel around carts laden with deli food for the players-aaah, crinkle-cut fries and hot dogs.

Stuey played the L.A. tournament. This was Stuey’s world.

At some point during my trip West, I sat in the library at the University of Las Vegas. I put on a pair of giant deejay headphones and watched a tape of the 1992 Binion’s tournament. The camera panned to Stuey Ungar. Man, he looked frail. His fingers were slender and delicate, as if made to handle playing cards.

I pulled off the puffy headphones and returned the tape. Through the window, the sun had set. I wandered the UNLV campus, looking for a way back to the Strip. A woman came up to me. She said she was a kindergarten teacher. She tried to get me to join a cult. There was about to be a big meeting, she said, in the auditorium over there. I said No. I was lost but not that lost.

Evening was falling and it was getting cool. I zipped up. It was good to be outside.