Dalla Nolan and Peter Alson
1st June 2006
While on a recent vacation, I had the pleasure of reading One of a Kind, which outlines the dramatic rise and fall of Stuey ‘The Kid’ Ungar, one of the world’s most successful professional gamblers. The book was a real ‘tour de force’ in terms of one of the greats of our time rising and falling in spectacular fashion, just like so many other stars from other disciplines have done too.
The book itself is a biography written by Dalla Nolan and includes a delightful forward from fellow poker player Mike Sexton, who knew Ungar well. Indeed, Sexton has shared many intriguing and popular stories about Ungar over the years, including this YouTube video below about how Ungar was able to count cards as easily as the rest of us can count to ten.
Now before you dismiss this book based on the fact you have little interest in poker or blackjack, the story of Stuey Ungar far exceeds that of a professional card player. This is the story of a man with a genius level IQ and eidetic memory, who had ties with the infamous mob. A man who was simply born to be a card player, much like you would imagine stars like Tom Brady being born to be a quarterback or LeBron James born to play basketball. He was simply that talented at his chosen field.
The son of a bookie, Ungar grew up in New York surrounded by the world of gambling, so it was little wonder that card games became second nature to him. Here he met and befriended numerous members of the mob, dangerous men who would terrify any normal person. Yet to Ungar they were just old buddies.
Known as a total thrill seeker, who needed high stakes to satisfy these thrills, Ungar could learn any card game in a matter of hours and be better than anyone else in the room. This talent led him to be banned from playing many card games – especially blackjack – in Las Vegas where he had moved in the 70s. Yet this addictive behaviour, a trait seen in his family as both his mother and sister were addicts, led Ungar to drugs. As he became more and more dependent on his need for cocaine and other drugs, this promising young man lost his family, friends and reputation as one of the ultimate greats.
The book itself deals with the negative aspects of Ungar’s life in an honest and caring way – this is never an attack on his character, but rather a tale of celebration and caution for an incredible man. As remember, sure Ungar did fall, but before that he was considered the greatest gin rummy player on the planet and he won the World Series Poker (WSOP) an astonishing three times in his lifetime, more than any other poker player.
Although originally meant to be ghost-written biography from Ungar’s own memories of his lifetime, he sadly passed away in 1998 from his addiction before it could be completed. Nolan actually shelved the project after Ungar’s death for a few years, but went on to complete the biography by collating interviews with friends and family to piece together the life of The Kid.
The result was a book that, on its surface is about a gambler and his extraordinary skills, but scratch that surface and you have an incredibly interesting and compelling read about a tragic figure who was ruled by his addiction and ultimately it was that addiction which killed him.