How to Play Poker Like Stu Ungar

Stu Ungar

Before the game was graced with phenoms like “Kid Poker,” a tiny twenty-something from the Big Apple known simply as “The Kid” played poker like a prodigy.

At just five feet, five inches tall, and barely 100 pounds sopping wet, Stu Ungar didn’t quite fit in with the poker pros of his era. Champions of the day like Doyle Brunson, Sailor Roberts, and Hans “Tuna” Lund were all hearty fellows who threw their weight around at the tables.

But “The Kid” was aptly named, and the scrawny Ungar was never viewed as a threat the first time he sat down to play. When that second time came around, however, everybody in the room knew exactly who Ungar was – the guy who took everybody’s money the night before.

Ungar’s aptitude for gambling games was legendary, both back home in the boroughs of New York City and along the Las Vegas Strip. Playing gin rummy in underground games as a teenager adrift on the streets, Ungar displayed an uncanny natural ability to play cards. Soon enough, after dominating the best gin players in the city through and through, Ungar couldn’t even get a game going in his hometown.

When he arrived in Sin City a short time later, the 24-year-old Ungar discovered that the game of choice for gamblers in the desert was not gin, but No Limit Texas Hold’em. It involved a 52-card deck, though, and that was all Ungar needed to make ends meet – even as a 24-year-old entering the world of high-stakes poker for the first time.

On his first trip to Vegas, Ungar cleaned out high-stakes pro Billy Baxter in heads-up Hold’em, leaving the game up $40,000. At that point, rather than view Ungar as an upstart enemy, Baxter took “The Kid” under his wing, staking him in the biggest cash games and tournaments in town.

By 1980, a 26-year-old Ungar entered the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, ponying up $10,000 to compete against the very best tournament players on the planet. After the field of 73 was winnowed down to the final two, Ungar faced off against none other than Brunson, the “Godfather of Poker” and a two-time WSOP Main Event champion.

None of those bona fides mattered a bit, and Ungar wound up turning the “wheel” straight with 4-5 of spades on an A-7-2-3 board. Brunson held the A-7 for top two pair, but his hand was second-best, and “Texas Dolly” was forced to settle for second place.

You can check out a rare glimpse of footage from their epic heads-up battle above, but it’s best to let Ungar himself describe his heroics on the felt:

“I was a freak. I was like Bobby Fischer, it was freaky what I did.
People would show me a card game that I never played, and two days later I would be better than them. At a card game they’ve been playing for 30 years.
I was a freak of nature.”

If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what will. I’ve been gambling for most of my life, and while my experience doesn’t date back to the age of 10 like Ungar, I’ve always admired “The Kid” for taking on all comers.

Poker is more of a hobby for me at this point, but like most casino players during the last decade, I once harbored notions of going pro. And during that period of my life, learning to play the game like Ungar became a bit of an obsession.

That might just be due to Ungar’s tragic fate, as the poker world lost one of its true greats far too early. After winning poker’s World Championship in 1980, Ungar returned to the Binion’s Horseshoe one year later and successfully defended the title – becoming one of the only two-time WSOP Main Event winners ever alongside Brunson.

What followed over the next 15 years was the dark side to every gambling winner’s story. Ungar regressed into a world of addiction, whether to alcohol, cocaine, sports betting, or the pit games. Flush with cash, and living in Sin City of all places, Ungar embraced the hedonism and debauchery of Las Vegas like few gamblers ever could.

By 1997, Ungar’s habits had left him a shell of his former self, and his friends privately feared they’d lose “The Kid” before he ever reached the age of 40. At the behest of his longtime friend and backer Baxter, Ungar hopped in that year’s WSOP Main Event on a whim, and what followed became the stuff of legend.

Now dubbed the “Comeback Kid” by commentators, Ungar put on a show for the ages, absolutely dominating the biggest tournament in the world. Playing with his typical style – punctuated by pure aggression and an eerie ability to read an opponent’s weakness – Ungar bullied his way to an unprecedented third* WSOP Main Event championship.


Johnny Moss also won three Main Events, but the first edition in 1970 was awarded via vote from fellow players.

With a million bucks in prize money, enough to do right by his beloved daughter and adopted son, Ungar should’ve been on top of the world. But just before the 1998 WSOP Main Event began, Ungar bowed out, his friends later discovering him holed up in his hotel room on a drug-fueled bender.

Within a few short months, Ungar was dead, his demons finally having caught up to him.

Stories like that always seem to stick with me, much more than the typical tales of a “life-changing win” do, anyway. Ungar managed to reveal the reality of professional gambling for what it is, a zero-sum game where even the winners wind up in the red more often than not.

Despite the sad conclusion to his life, Ungar left a legacy that can never be matched within the world of poker. Of his 34 recorded live tournament cashes, Ungar wound up in the winner’s circle an astounding 16 times. Throw in three runner-up finishes, and Ungar found a way to get heads-up in more than half the tournaments he cashed.

Simply put, there will never be another player like Stu “The Kid” Ungar.

Even so, we can all aspire to something greater than ourselves. And while I’m no fan of the drugs and action-chasing that led to his early demise, I can certainly admire how Ungar approached the game of poker on the felt.

If you’re looking to add a few Ungarian moves to your own tournament game, take a look below for my guide to playing poker like “The Kid” himself.

1- Play to Win, or Don’t Play at All

Humility is surely an admirable trait amongst any group of competitors, and I’m always happy to shake hands with whoever claimed my last stack of chips.

But ask Ungar about that approach, and he’d probably just call me a loser.

Here’s how Ungar described his competitive drive in one his most enduring quotes:

“I never want to be called a ‘good loser.’
Show me a good loser and I’ll just show you a loser.”

What separated Ungar from his peers, many of whom had more experience, was his insatiable drive to win. While many players took to the tables for fun or viewed poker tournaments as just one part of their income, Ungar had been gambling for a living since the age of 10.

That’s right; at 10 years old, Ungar roamed the streets of the Lower East side alongside his mentor and father figure, a notorious mobster who ran the city’s card scene. When he came up, Ungar simply couldn’t afford to lose, and thus, he rarely did.

But in 1990, after two days of stellar play at the WSOP Main Event, Ungar wasn’t the winner – but he didn’t quite lose, either. With a huge stack already accumulated, Ungar enjoyed a little too much cocaine the night before the final was contested. He never emerged from his room, forfeiting a chance at yet another World Championship.

His stack remained in play, however, and it was eventually blinded and anted out in 9th place – good for a $25,000 score.

Humiliated and angry at himself, Ungar proceeded to challenge that year’s champion, Mansour Matloubi, to a $50,000 heads-up freezeout. He wanted to prove to the world that Matloubi never stood a chance at that final table, provided Ungar was healthy and in the game.

Ungar played relentlessly in the heads-up challenge, leading to a climactic hand that has since gone down in poker lore. Holding 10-9, Ungar played his way to the river with the board reading 3-7-7-K-Q. Matloubi suddenly sprang into action with an all-in shove, and Ungar wasted no time at all tanking:

“You’ve got either 4-5 or 5-6, so I’m going to call you with this.”

Ungar tabled his 10-high hand like the nuts, knowing without a doubt that his read was correct. Sure enough, Matloubi was forced to showdown the exact gut shot straight draw Ungar had put him on. With that, onlookers were given an idea of how Ungar might have played that 1990 final table.

Here’s what Matloubi told fellow high-stakes pro and WSOP World Champion Phil Hellmuth shortly after the incredible hand took place:

“I feel so crushed, it’s almost like a bulldozer just ran over me. I still love Stuey, but what the heck is going on!
When a guy makes a call like that against you, you just give up. It’s like he’s taken all the steam out your sails.
I decided that I couldn’t play him anymore heads up no-limit Hold’em, at least on that day, if not forever.”

If you’re looking to pattern your game after Ungar, don’t put too much stock in winning huge hands with 10-high. That example demonstrates Ungar’s uncanny reading abilities, and how his small stature belied the heart of a lion.

We’re all can’t be savants at the poker table, but we can take Ungar’s advice about winners and losers to heart. If you’re prepared to put your hard-earned money at risk in a game of poker, you should always be prepared to play your best game. No shortcuts, no sleeping in, no drugs or alcohol…nothing but poker played to the best of your ability.

Just imagine how many more wins Ungar might have racked up during his career if he followed the same approach.

2- Don’t Let Distractions Dictate Your Play

You don’t have to take my word for it when it comes to Ungar’s battle with external issues.

Here’s how he described the effort to reign in his impulses away from the table:

“I’m going to tell you something for a fact. Only one ever beat me was myself and my bad habits.
But when I get to playing, like this tournament, I really believe that no one can play with me on a daily basis.”

You can almost hear the twinge of regret in Ungar’s voice as he said those words, which were uttered just after he completed his comeback to win the 1997 WSOP Main Event. He knew full well that his talents and abilities made him the best poker player in the world. But Ungar also knew that his struggles with addiction led to a decade or more where those talents went to waste.

Whether it’s hard drugs and sports betting, as was the case for Ungar, or more innocuous distractions like headphones, tablets, and table talk, every poker player has something else pulling at their attention. Maybe your wife is texting about dinner plans, or your boss has an extra assignment looming come Monday. Your favorite team might be on the TV overhead, or perhaps you’re just worn out from the weekend workout.

In any event, distractions can lead even the best players to leave a little off their fastball. When you’re focused on these external issues and not the task at hand, less skilled opponents can easily level the playing field.

Ungar may have let his own distractions cause the 1990 World Championship – and countless more tournaments, for that matter – slip out of his grasp, but you can learn from his mistakes.

If you consider yourself a serious poker play, always play the game seriously.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, though, so by all means, soak it in when your gin card arrives. But during those in-between moments, when you’re folding like clockwork and watching other players run up big stacks, do everything in your power to remain focused on the game.

3- Bombs Away for the Bully

If you ask any of Ungar’s peers among the pro ranks what made “The Kid” so damned good, they’ll all tell you the same thing: aggression.

Competing well before Texas Hold’em had been “cracked” by computer algorithms and statistical simulations, Ungar astutely realized what No-Limit really meant. Rather than play a passive game of wait and see, Ungar put his opponents to the test whenever possible.

If they checked, he bet. When they bet, he raised. And if they had the courage to re-raise all-in, Ungar had no hesitation in calling down light, as he proved in that epic heads-up hand against Matloubi.

For a peek into the mindset of a pure poker killer, here’s how Ungar described his style of play:

“When the cards are dealt, I just want to destroy people.
They’d crumble right in front of my eyes.
They’d have this look in their eyes like they realized they couldn’t win. It was… beautiful.”

Of course, the 1980s are long gone, and with them, the endless sea of fish waiting to be filleted. Players of the modern era have dissected Texas Hold’em through and through, and playing a style similar to Ungar’s in today’s game would be deemed “exploitable.”

Nonetheless, we can all learn a thing or two about effective aggression from studying a few of Ungar’s hand histories.

Thanks to this cool archive from Poker Listings you can scroll through many of the most memorable hands from previous WSOP Main Events. Just use a CTRL+F search for “Ungar,” and you’ll go straight to the key hands in question.

In a pivotal hand from his last tournament ever, the 1997 WSOP Main Event, Ungar stole a pot from Ron Stanley holding nothing but queen-high. With the board reading A-6-9-8-K by the river, Stanley had the best of it with 9-7 for one pair. Ungar had just tried to bluff Stanley off the turn, but got a crying call instead, making his odds of running a successful river bluff a bit lower.

That didn’t matter a lick to Ungar, who proceeded to play the river as follows:

“The King of diamonds hit on the river, not helping either player but it was a scare card for Stanley since there were now two overcards on the board to his pair.
There was about $200,000 in the pot after Stanley’s call. Stanley checked and Ungar bet $220,000 into the pot. Stanley thought for a while and then reluctantly folded.
Ungar decided to show his bluff as he was collecting the pot. This made Stanley lose his confidence along with the chips lost in the pot.”

Not content with simply dragging the pot, Ungar casually flipped his queen-high face up on the felt, rubbing salt right in Stanley’s open wound. Predictably, the bold bluff and subsequent showing off put Stanley on tilt, a condition Ungar knew how to exploit perfectly to his advantage en route to winning his unprecedented third World Championship.

Another hand from the 1997 “Big One” also showed off Ungar’s aggressive style, but this time he was picking off bluffs rather than betting on air.

Facing off against elite pro Mel Judah, Ungar called an open out of the small blind holding Q-J offsuit, while Judah held 10-9 off. The flop fell J-10-3, hitting both players with one pair, and here’s what happened next:

“Ungar checked and Judah checked behind him. On the turn the 2 of clubs hit and Ungar bet $80,000 at the pot. Judah called the $80,000 and raised it another $162,000, putting himself all-in.
Ungar thought for a while but called the $162,000 raise. When the hands were turned over everyone could see that Judah was drawing to 5 outs with only one more card to come.”

Despite facing a big bet that could very well decide his tournament, Ungar didn’t hesitate to make the big call with just one pair. A draw-heavy flop may have influenced his decision, but in any event, Ungar won the pot when a king fell on the river. Judah definitely gave it the old college try, but against a fearless player like Ungar, bluffing without a backup draw probably isn’t the most profitable play.

Finally, in a throwback to the 1980 WSOP Main Event, we can see how Ungar approached the age-old dilemma of how to play made hands out of position.

Heads-up against Brunson with a World Championship on the line, Ungar called an open with 4-5 of spades. Brunson held A-7 and the flop arrived A-7-2, giving Brunson the far better end of things with top two pair. Dolly bet out for the pot, and Ungar made a curious call on just a gut shot draw to the wheel straight.

But when the perfect three arrived on the turn, giving Ungar a well-disguised wheel, let’s see how he proceeded to play the nuts:

“The turn brought the 3 of hearts, giving Ungar a 5-high straight and the nut hand.
At this point, Ungar bet out about $30,000 and Brunson decided to move all-in. The river brought the 2 of diamonds, and thus, proved useless to Brunson.
Ungar won his first Main Event title, along with $375,000 in prize money.”

Leading out with the nuts is a move that has become common in today’s age, but back in 1980, this was a decidedly novel play. Most players back then would go for the slow-play trap, checking and hoping to induce their opponents to bet second-best hands of bluff air.

Stuey was always ahead of the game though, and he read Brunson as strong, so he bet out to get all of the chips into the middle right then and there. Had he gone for the check-raise line, Brunson may have sniffed things out, or slowed the betting down to give himself a fighting chance at the comeback.

Ungar wouldn’t have it, though, and his turn lead-out worked perfectly, ending the tournament in a flourish when Brunson bit.


None of us will ever be able to play poker like Stu Ungar. Natural genius is just that, and unless you’re a true poker prodigy, playing like “The Kid” isn’t really in the cards. We can, however, use Ungar’s life – even his trials and tribulations – as an example to guide our own path in poker. By playing to win at all times, avoiding distractions, and harnessing aggression, you can pattern your game after Ungar, quite possibly the very best to ever play the game.

Petko Stoyanov
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About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.