The air in downtown Las Vegas is like the air that shoots out the back of the city's millions of air conditioners: thick, almost flannel, and hot as hell. By the time the finals begin, it's nearly 100 degrees in the few bleachers, and the fans are lethargic -- even those crowding the misters that let out a cool fog. Then a man in a suit and tie appears, trailed by two security guards with creaking gun belts. On a small air-conditioned stage, he overturns a cardboard box onto a green felt table. It's the prize money: $1 million, bound in packets of hundred-dollar bills. Suddenly, the fans scream, as if excited by the physical presence of so much cash and also perhaps by the thought that one of the two remaining players in this World Series of Poker will walk away with all of it.
One is John Strzemp. He's the player with an identity away from the card table. "It must be nice to have a job," one player had needled him. "And play without fear."
"Yeah, it is," said a sullen Strzemp, then president of Las Vegas's Treasure Island hotel and casino.
But the crowd pulls for the other finalist, the one who has never in his 40-plus years held a job. Tiny Stuey Ungar of the Lower East Side was born to a bookie; grew up with gangsters; and, in Manhattan's illicit gambling clubs, became "the Mozart of the card table."
As the final round starts, Stuey eyes what seem like bricks of cash through blue granny glasses -- he's settled them on the very tip of his damaged nose. Twice before, he's won this event. But the last time was sixteen years ago.
"I really forgot how great it is, with everybody shaking your hand," he tells the ESPN announcer. If he sometimes slurs the edges of words, no one seems to mind. They admire his pluck. "I pretty much don't think anyone could beat me two-handed," he says, meaning one-on-one.
The decisive hand comes early. Stuey folds the edge of a card off the green felt and stares as if posing a loyalty question. "He's clairvoyant," one player said of Stuey. If so, he makes clairvoyance an act. He looks eerily up at the sky for a full minute. Then he shoves $800,000 of chips into the center. Strzemp doesn't hesitate. He matches the $800,000, all the chips he has.
Stuey, it turns out, has lulled Strzemp into a slightly disadvantageous wager. The dealer turns over a deuce, which gives Stuey a straight, his best possible outcome.
It's 1997, and Stuey is only the second player to win the World Series of Poker's no-limit event, the premier event, three times. "The Comeback Kid," says the ESPN announcer inevitably. Stuey seems to feel it. His head windmills once, twice. "I'm going to tell you something for a fact," he tells ESPN. "Only one ever beat me was myself and my bad habits." He's emotional. He holds his teenage daughter's school photo up to the camera. He stutters. "But when I get to playing, like this tournament, I really believe that n-no one can p-play with me on a daily basis."
Within four months, Stuey's million dollars is gone. Soon, everything else will go, too.
Today, 118 Second Avenue is a patisserie-café, but when Stuey Ungar was a teenager, it was a bar called Fox's Corner and was frequented by gangsters and gamblers, Jews and Italians. This was the sixties -- before the lottery, OTB, Atlantic City, Foxwoods, before even pinball machines were legal -- and New York was a small-time gamblers' paradise. In the East Village, every bar seemed to have a resident bookie, every block a card game. Stuey lived several blocks from Fox's, on Lewis near Grand, in the East River Housing Development. In those high-rise co-ops -- which sold for $500 per room when Stuey was born -- Isadore Ungar seemed like all the other respectable Jewish dads. But at Fox's, as Stuey once explained, his father, the manager, was "a bookmaker, a Shylock, a big man."
Ido, as Isadore was known, would sometimes bring Stuey to the bar, show off his wiseacre kid. Privately, though, he nurtured respectable dreams: His only son would be a doctor. Stuey had the IQ points. He was a whiz with numbers; he'd skipped a grade. To nudge him along, perhaps, Ido tried to get Stuey away from Fox's. Each summer, he booked a room at the Raleigh, a Catskills resort. Stuey enjoyed the country, running around, an energetic little tummler, as one waiter recalled, but he also peered over Faye Ungar's shoulder as she played gin with her friends. "I could detect mistakes she made when I was 8 years old," he once said. Soon Stuey was playing busboys for their tips.