In part, no doubt, Romano saw his own advantage in Stuey's stable future. Soon, he arranged for Stuey to shake the hand of Gus Frasca, Romano's Mafia captain. Stuey's name went on the record: He belonged to Romano. To Stuey, this official ceremony must have seemed an honor. Said one friend, "If you were a gangster, Stuey loved you." He memorized Mafia movies. Sometimes he was called Meyer, after Meyer Lansky, the Jewish gangster. "He fucking loved it," says Price. The affiliation must also have seemed practical to Stuey. After all, he'd sometimes run up debts to bookies, as if great talent or adorable size offered special immunity. Now that he was on the record, Romano spread the word: Anyone Stuey owed money to should come see Romano, or Romano's nephew Phillie Brush Tartaglia, whose reputation as a brutal street fighter was well established. Not many came.
One New York bookmaker, a gruff old Jew to whom Stuey owed $28,000, explained: "Stuey told me, 'Someday I'll pay.' He was untouchable. Nothing I could do."
What held for some creditors, though, didn't hold for all. One weekend, Stuey overextended himself, and Funzi Tieri, Genovese-family boss, had an interest.
On Sunday, Stuey called Price.
"We got to go to California tomorrow," Stuey said.
"We got something to do?" said Price.
"No, I lost $60,000 over the weekend, and I don't have any money." Stuey was afraid they'd kill him. From California, he called Romano, who intervened. Stuey wouldn't be hurt as long as he went to Las Vegas, earned money, and made good on the debt -- a deal that neatly advanced Romano's plans.
News of Stuey's departure reached the East River Housing Development, where, Alan Dell remembers, Phillie Brush Tartaglia was involved. None of the neighborhood kids had ever spoken to Tartaglia, but everyone had seen him -- his shiny bald head, his bushy seventies sideburns, his sharkskin suits. Now, word was, Tartaglia was taking Stuey to Vegas. "Everyone thought it was a great thing," said Dell one day in Katz's deli. "Here was a guy who could make easy money."
In the seventies, Las Vegas was a gamblers' destination, a desert city where only 150,000 people actually lived. Casinos were opulent stage sets. Entertainers were there, Hollywood stars, Frank and Dino, and the mob too, in suits and ties, among them Tony "the Ant" Spilotro. "You heard of him?" Stuey would later excitedly ask. "The guy in the movie Casino that Joe Pesci supposedly portrayed."
Few had ever seen the likes of him, this bitty Jewish New Yorker with a nearly hairless chin -- as if he really were a child -- and the strut of an Italian gangster. "He always felt like he was a big shot," his mother-in-law would later say. "His walk alone. 'Here I come, you know, I'm Stuey Ungar.' " He'd enter the Dunes's poker room, where he had quickly found a home, talking a mile a minute in thuggish New York strains. The effect was comic -- the munchkin mobster -- until the cards were dealt.
Danny Robison was the best gin player in Vegas in 1977 when he met 22-year-old Stuey. "He knows something everybody else doesn't. It's like a sixth sense," said Robison, who lost $100,000 in their first meeting. Stuey, rarely humble, was soon telling one Las Vegas friend, "Think about 50 years from now. How can there be a better gin player? I can't even conceive of it." Robison, though, agreed: "Stuey was just the greatest gin player that ever lived."
Soon, he reported to Madeline, who'd remained in New York, that even after paying Tieri he had $1 million in a vault at the Dunes. (Having inquired how checking accounts work, he decided they were ridiculous.)
Madeline visited one weekend, and Stuey convinced her to move out to Vegas. She'd gotten engaged to someone else, a lawyer, who offered security. "But it was Stuey I really cared about," she realized. Soon they were married and had a daughter. Romano's citizen-gambler plan seemed to be succeeding, and, as if to celebrate, in 1980 he flew out -- Stuey paid the first-class airfare. Now 68 and in bad health, Romano had been evicted from the Jovialite. Without Stuey, without his club, he was a lost soul.
While Romano was in Vegas, Stuey entered his first World Series of Poker no-limit hold-'em contest -- entry fee $10,000. Though he'd almost never played no-limit poker, it was his natural game. The key strategic element is that a player may bet all his chips at any time. "If you think about what money can do for you, you're gone," explains David "Chip" Reese, who'd stopped in Vegas on his way to Stanford Law School and never left. "That's what made Stuey such a great no-limit player: He never, ever, ever cared."
Prize money that year was $365,000 and a gold bracelet from Neiman Marcus, which Stuey, at the time the youngest champion in the tournament's history, gave to Tartaglia. "Winning the tournament was the greatest high in the world," Stuey said at the time.