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The End of the Game


Just a few months ago, Stuey could do little but imagine a score. His friend Sexton teased him. Would he play Russian roulette for a million dollars? "With five bullets," came Stuey's shouted reply. Now, without his risking his life, the million-dollar prize was piled in front of him like a child's fort.

Stuey departed McNamee's and rented his own apartment. He headed down to the Motor Vehicles Department to renew his license -- he hadn't driven in years. Told he needed identification, he shouted, "Didn't you see the papers? I'm Stuey Ungar." It was possible to believe, as Baxter did, that "this may save his life." (For Baxter, it had improved life; for backing Stuey, he collected $500,000, his biggest payday ever.)

Stuey's million-dollar prize came twenty years after he'd arrived in Las Vegas, and the city had changed. Once, Vegas seemed a desert spot designed to isolate -- and also celebrate -- vice. Now it's a family destination. Las Vegas Boulevard, the Strip, is a theme park. A sphinx, almost full-size, sits just off the road as if ready to spring, and down the block lurks a re-created New York skyline. You can see the Chrysler Building from most anywhere in Las Vegas.

The Dunes, Stuey's first hangout, is gone, imploded -- the footage sold to TV. In its place is the Bellagio, the most expensive hotel ever built. It, like all the new casinos, trades on the stock exchange; Las Vegas, as part of a solemn corporate image, has assiduously shed its gangster past, the one Stuey adored. Circumstance helped. Tony the Ant was murdered. Lansky, of course, is dead. Nowadays, the Bellagio offers a spectacular collection of original art. A billboard reads: NOW APPEARING, VAN GOGH, MONET, CEZANNE, PICASSO.

All gamblers come to ruin, they like to say in Las Vegas; and they whisper about the man who arrived with nothing and built his stake to $25 million -- then lost it all. It's a terrific tale, and might be cautionary, except that there are few cautionary tales in Las Vegas these days, only strategic ones. "More people are in it as a business now," says Reese sadly.

Most afternoons, Stuey's old crowd can be found in the Bellagio. Some have money -- subversively, it would turn out, many aspired to grander lifestyles. Still, if just to pass the time, they gamble. Doyle Brunson limps in on one crutch, hobbled by weight. Danny Robison, former addict turned Bible teacher, plays poker as a profession now. ("I got revelation on it," he explains. "As long as I do it fairly and honestly, it's a skill, like selling insurance.") Reese is semi-retired, in part it seems because the big action is mostly gone and with it the thrill, which hinged, always, on the possibility of loss. "If I play in a game where you can lose or win $30,000 a day, you can make a lot of money at end of year," says Reese, who coaches his daughter's Little League team. "But there's no real risk involved. I don't enjoy it as much."

After his million-dollar day, Stuey was Stuey again, tossing money into sports. One week he won $194,000 on baseball; the next, as he knew he would, he lost that and more. Drug dealers showed up -- they, too, had seen the newspapers. One friend remembers booting a crowd of them out of Stuey's apartment. Four months later, Stuey had run through his stash and was again sleeping in a borrowed bedroom at McNamee's.

Stuey wandered by the Bellagio a few times after that, once with $25,000 that Baxter lent him. He tried to make a little money, but his heart didn't seem in it. Drugs no doubt had something to do with that. ("What does this shit have on me?" he'd ask McNamee.) But now, he'd admit, poker bored him. So did the scrubbed times. His era was over. Stuey grew a bit paranoid. He appeared ragged. "Don't look at me," he'd tell a friend. "I'm ashamed."

On Friday, November 20, 1998, Stuey checked into the Oasis Motel, at the shabby end of the Strip. The Oasis offers adult movies and rooms by the hour or for $48 a night, pay on arrival. Stuey moved into room No. 6, a small one that looked slightly larger because cheap mirrors covered two walls. The next day, Saturday, Stuey was in bed, apparently resting, when the manager looked in. Stuey paid another $48. "Before I left his room, he asked if I would close the window, because he was cold," the manager recalled. "But the window wasn't open."

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