Ido continued to push respectability -- after a fashion. On September 8, 1966, he managed to get Stuey bar mitzvahed, though the guest list seems to have included Fox's clientele -- among them Genovese-crime-family member Victor Romano. The guests handed over gifts of cash, which Stuey, breaking with tradition, quickly gambled away. Soon Stuey was skipping out of Seward Park High School to gamble. Alan Dell, who'd later own Katz's deli, played poker with Stuey every Friday. Stuey was probably 13, and wore a goofy cowboy hat. But, says Dell, "If I played with him 50 times, he won 49." A few months later, Stuey's father had a heart attack and died -- in his mistress's bed -- and with him expired the quaint notion that Stuey would someday tend the sick. Instead, the following year, Stuey quit tenth grade.
"Stuey always was a freak," one gambler would later say. There was, for one thing, his appearance. Most of his life, Stuey looked as if he'd stopped maturing the day he left Seward Park High. He'd never weigh much more than 100 pounds and never stand taller than about five-five. What's more, he had a long, simian jaw, drawn-out arms, a narrow waist, and a tubercular chest, bony and stretched tight. His nose was like an infant's. Some called him "Monkey." Add to this hyperactivity. Walking, he raced. Talking, he churned words so quickly they sometimes emerged as one long, stuttery word. "He was like a little chihuahua," said Hasan "Turk" Arifoglu, who ran a card game in Camelot House, at 301 West 45th Street.
Arifoglu says Stuey's mother, bottle-blonde Faye, brought her son to his game when Stuey was 14 -- he was to help her. Soon, though, Stuey was playing. He'd get so excited he'd stand on a chair and throw his money on the table, talking all the while and shifting cards furiously in his small hands. "It made me dizzy," said Arifoglu, now retired in Las Vegas.
This, of course, was the other, and overriding, aspect of Stuey's freakishness. He was, in that implausible package, a complete prodigy almost from the time he could walk. "I've got what they call total recall," he once said, sounding incredulous. "If somebody asks me what I had in a game three weeks back, I can remember exactly what happened. It's sort of a pain." Memory, though, wasn't his only gift. He didn't know how he did it, but in gin, after two or three discards, he could say with great precision what his opponent held. "When he was completely focused, Stuey could see things that other people didn't," said one world-class gambler. "He was a genius."
When Stuey first played Teddy Price, one of the better card players around, Price was in his forties -- he'd already been arrested for "fleecing" unsuspecting celebrities "in one of the dizziest forms of dice rolling," as the Daily News put it. Price thought Stuey looked 12. In fact, Stuey, perhaps 16, had shown up with a man twenty years his senior, and Price assumed the older fellow would be his opponent.
Stuey said, "No, I'm the one who's playing you." He stuck out his hand. "How much would you like to play for?" said Stuey.
"How much would you like to play for?" said Price.
"Whatever you want." said Stuey, flatly.
They played for $500 a game. "I lost $1,500, and I quit," says Price.
By the time he was 17, Stuey led a gambler's life, going to social clubs, gloomy walk-ups behind unmarked doors. The Italians played Ziganet, the Arabs barbotte; Eastern European Jews played klaberjass (klab, for short). There was Greek rummy and Konkan, as well. Stuey played them all. Or else he'd look for pinochle and gin, the main betting games at "goulash joints," so-called because they served food. Alan Dell's father referred to these places as hekdish, Yiddish for "forsaken place," and warned his son away. Stuey, though, was making money at joints like these.
Whenever he won, he hurried off to the racetrack. "As little as he was, he'd fill his pockets full of money," recalled one friend -- and lose it all in a few races. Or else he'd borrow Price's Cadillac and stop at a massage parlor. "If there were 58 massage parlors in New York, he knew 58," said Price. "And he was a big tipper. He'd walk in the door, and the girls would yell, 'Stuey's here!' "
Broke, Stuey headed back to the clubs. "The cheapest commodity in his life was always money," said Price, who'd become a constant companion. "If you saw him in a card room waiting for a game and you said, 'Let's have dinner,' he'd rather give you $5,000 instead."