There are names in poker and then there are BIG names in poker. If you don’t know who Stu Ungar is in the world of poker, then you don’t know poker. I bring Ungar up not because he is making news, but because he made so much news when he was alive. He’s a great example of the ultimate rising star, burning bright and brilliant, and of the penultimate falling star, cutting through the atmosphere and burning and crashing into one big ball of fire.
That was Stuart Errol Ungar. Ungar died in 1998 at the age of 45 after proving to be one of the greatest poker players ever and the greatest Texas Hold’em and gin rummy player to ever walk the Earth. He had an amazing poker mind, a huge ego and a mammoth drug and alcohol problem. What were some of his accomplishments?
Ungar is the only person to win the WSOP Main Event three times in tournament play (Johnny Moss also did it BUT his first title was not attained by winning a tournament; it was the result of a vote by players). He’s the only person to win Amarillo Slim’s Super Bowl of Poker three times; in its time, it was the second-most prestigious poker event in the world.
He won the WSOP Main Event in 1980 and 1981. He then became addicted to betting, drugs and alcohol; he lost all of his money and his marriage. In 1990, he was found unconscious on the third day of the WSOP Main Event, in a bathroom suffering from a drug overdose. In 1997, he earned the title “The Comeback Kid”, as he won his third WSOP Main Event. It looked like Ungar might really be back. But he could not keep it together.
He continued to abuse drugs, make wild bets on sports and other things and eventually died one night in a $48 per night Vegas hotel room. What killed him was a heart condition related to years of drug abuse. He was deeply in debt having had lost millions.
There appears to be no one at the WSOP quite as amazingly brilliant, colorful or crazed as Ungar. But he serves as a constant reminder of what the world of a professional poker player is like—amazing highs and lows. Here’s my take on a few of the rising and let’s say shifting and certainly not falling stars as the 2011 WSOP goes through week three.
Daniel Negreanu, Kid Poker
Daniel Negreanu, the Canadian who I feel is a great player and personality, has been having a rough run at this year’s WSOP. Negreanu, whose nickname is Kid Poker, has won four WSOP bracelets. But thus far at this WSOP he has very little to show for his efforts except a lot of aggravation. Things came to a head the other day when Negreanu got extremely frustrated in Event #27: $10,000 Limit Hold’em Championship.
He had started the day with full stacks and seemed to be cruising until he hit a few bumps and then tilted big time. With 27 players left in the event, he lost a major hand to Steve Landfish and found himself down to 27K. When he lost that hand, as both he and Landfish drew flushes, he jumped up, knocked his chair over and smashed and broke his headphones on the floor. A few hand later, it was all over.
It will be interesting to see if he can get it together in some of the remaining events and how he does in the Main Event. (I certainly hope he has more of those headphones!)
Phil Hellmuth, The Poker Brat
Phil Hellmuth, who holds 11 bracelets, seems to be doing a bit better than Negreanu. Hellmuth, who is known as the Poker Brat, looked to have the bead on his 12th WSOP bracelet, as he was 8th amongst the remaining 18 players in the $10,000 7-Card Stud Event. But it was not to be. He just missed his 12th bracelet after losing heads-up in the $10,000 Seven-Card Stud Hi-Lo event. He was beaten by US pro Eric Radowig.
This is the second time in the 2011 WSOP that he has been close to capturing that 12th gold bracelet. He lost to John Juanda heads up in Event #16: $10,000 2-7 Draw Lowball Championship.
I still think he’s going to make it a dozen first place finishes in this year’s WSOP. He’s playing well. He needs a bit of luck and perhaps would be helped if he could relax and forget about the bracelet entirely. We’ll see. There’s plenty left to go.
Sam Stein started playing five years ago at the age of 18. Now it looks as though he may be this year’s WSOP Player of the Year. He arrived at the tournament with $1,052,098 in winnings for the year. He won his first bracelet the other day in Event #31 Pot Limit Omaha.
He’s also grabbed third place in the $10,000 Pot Limit Holdem Championship. He now has $2,881,097 in live tournament winnings and $1,218,481 in online play. Sam Stein is a major player in this year’s WSOP and for the season.
One person to not discount at all in this year’s tournament is John Juanda. He is second in line for the Player of the Year Award and has one bracelet in this year’s tournament. J.J. Luckbox, as he is known, is a steady player who’s having a solid WSOP and has had a very good year.
None of these players are of the crazed or great caliber of Stu Ungar. Ungar was a one of a kind poker player and person. He had the most amazing mind for cards and was one of the most self-destructive players to ever sit at the green felt.
Negreanu, Hellmuth, Stein and Juanda will see plenty of ups and down in the remaining weeks. As far as how high or low they might go, each has a much better chance of reaching the highest heights in this year’s WSOP than the lowest lows. No matter what it’s a great ride at the world’s most prestigious green felt event.