Stuey still put streaks together, but by the mid-nineties, the Tudor house with suede wallpaper, the only one he'd ever owned, was gone. He'd mortgaged it to raise gambling money, and soon a friend who'd become his creditor foreclosed. Stuey moved in with Don McNamee, a friend of a friend. McNamee had once had money. "I didn't waste it," he said. "I spent it on whiskey and women." Now, the whiskey was banished, and McNamee was a Teamster working in the convention business. Stuey took a bedroom in McNamee's rented house and abided by the house rules: no alcohol, no drugs.
Personal salvation is always on offer in Las Vegas; its terms, though, are narrow, cash-and-carry. To endure, Stuey needed something else. Since his teenage years, he'd been a gambling celebrity. People had put up with him, done for him. Once, trying to be helpful, Stuey had put the wrong soap in the dishwasher -- suds exploded from the machine. "He didn't know how to take a walk in the park," says McNamee. "He'd never had a job." He didn't even really know how to spend time with his daughter. "He loved her so much," said one friend, "but he wasn't capable of being a father."
On St. Patrick's Day 1997, McNamee, who'd been doing all the cooking, insisted that Stuey prepare dinner. McNamee wanted traditional Irish corned beef.
"Stuey got more upset about this than if he'd bet $50,000 on a ball game," McNamee recalled.
"What do I do? What do I do?" Stuey always spoke rapid-fire.
"Put it in water and let it go," said McNamee calmly.
"When do I check it?"
"Every twenty minutes."
"Should I check it now?"
"It's only been five minutes."
"I better go check it," said Stuey.
When they ate at the kitchen table, where tiny cloth roses sit in bud vases, McNamee says, "he was so fucking tickled with himself he ate the whole thing."
McNamee was sure Stuey was on the path to change, as if the few self-sufficiencies learned in this modest setting were just what he needed. "It got to where he was doing for himself, having fun," said McNamee. "He was coming off self-destruct, coming to where life was going to make sense to him."
In May 1997, another World Series of Poker opened. Stuey's photo was on the casino wall -- a young man in a gold satin jacket and bright, mischievous smile. Few of his buddies, though, had even seen Stuey in a couple of years. He hadn't won a tournament in half a dozen. In fact, he had trouble hustling up the $10,000 entry fee. He talked big. "Do you believe all them donkeys over there?" he said to Billy Baxter, a gambler who now lives in a huge home a few steps from Wayne Newton's.
"The second- and third-best players in the world -- they all looked like suckers to him," said Baxter, who took a chance on Stuey. "What the hell -- I done worse things with money."
In 1997, Stuey was the last player entered in the 312-person field, the largest in the tournament's history. He looked gaunt, his belt cinched tight. His teeth, which were capped, seemed too big. His bangs were ragged and flecked with gray. He wore round blue glasses, which he believed hid his nose, crushed on one side, growing out on the other.
At the table, though, Stuey was his old self, daring players to meet his large wagers. "Everybody thinks they got the nuts," he said and laughed. He talked constantly, reeling all into his jurisdiction, the old-timey nexus of gamblers and gangsters. When he spotted a venerable entertainer cutting up for a camera, he said, "That there was a guy liked to gamble in his day. He owed all the mob guys money, had to work their joints for nothing."