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.
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.”
By the time he was a teenager, Stuey was on his way to becoming a legend in New York’s gambling world – “a bona fide legend” was how he himself once put it.) “Everyone wanted to be with Stuey,” Price says. People 20 or 30 years older – and 100 pounds heavier – hung around him. Few, though, were as close as Victor Romano.
Stuey, a Jewish teen from the Lower East Side, and Romano, a 60-year-old soldier in the Genovese crime family, were at first glance an odd pairing. Yet fatherless Stuey would come to think of Romano as a father figure. And Romano, who’d spent half his adult life in prison, would tell people: Stuey’s like a son to me.
Stuey and Romano met – or met again, as it would turn out – when Stuey, 18, wandered into Romano’s Jovialite Social Club at 306 East 72nd Street, a second-floor walk-up with bare floors, white walls, bright lights, and two guards at the door. The two must have recognized each other. After all, Romano, an old friend of Stuey’s father, had attended Stuey’s bar mitzvah. Before long, Stuey was driving to Romano’s Queens apartment at midnight to pick him up. They’d stay at the Jovialite until nine the next morning, when they’d head to breakfast. “This kid is going to be a millionaire,” Romano would shout to waitresses, embarrassing Stuey, “but he needs a date.”
The Jovialite attracted a rough crowd: bookies, jewelry thieves, stickup men. There was Big Anthony DiMeglio (a Lucchese-family connection), John “Jackie Nose” D’Amico (now said to run the Gambino family), and Romano’s nephew Phil Tartaglia, who went by “Phillie Brush” because, since he was 20, he’d been bald. Soon, all the tough guys were gathered near leprechaunlike Stuey, who arrogantly insisted that any bettors wager against him. He – and Romano – would cover all bets. “This kid was like somebody from another planet,” said one New York gambler. “He was so little and noisy, and he’d pick on those guys because he was smarter than all of them.” The Bronx Express looked like a tattered pensioner with white hair, half of which stood up, and $20,000 in his pockets. The Bronx, as he was called, was one of the better gin-rummy players in New York. He gave Stuey a try. “I’ll get that kid,” the Bronx would mutter after each defeat. Leo the Jap tried, but had no shot and soon quit. People flew in from Canada and Las Vegas to have a go. Some said Stuey was naturally “fearless,” by which they meant he bet large amounts. But, for Stuey, money never seemed the issue. “When the cards are dealt,” he once said, “I just want to destroy people.”
On Sundays, Stuey stopped by Queens in the afternoon. Then the fidgety teenager and Romano, a bald five-pack-a-day smoker, huddled with a deck of cards. Like Stuey, Romano was a gifted card player. He knew all the games and in prison had even taken up bridge, publishing a series of articles in Bridge World. (They were signed V. Romano, Attica, NY.) He, too, had an extraordinary memory – while incarcerated, he’d learned Webster’s dictionary by heart. (Later, he’d mingle with respectable folk at bridge clubs and, while there, define any word, a trick for which he usually earned $50.) Every Sunday, Romano reviewed the week’s gin hands with Stuey – dealing them out from memory. Then, their session over, they’d eat with the family, Romano presiding, as was his habit, in his boxer shorts.
Soon, Romano’s fatherly interest took in areas beyond cards. When he heard Stuey had snorted cocaine at another club, he threatened the club owner. Also, he started planning for Stuey’s future. For a Mafia soldier, Romano had instincts that were decidedly middle-class. Stuey had met Madeline Wheeler, the attractive half-Italian daughter of a Queens postal worker and bookie. She served Stuey tea at a club in the West Seventies; he tipped her $10. They went to dinner; she recalled that impatient Stuey would call ahead to have his order readied. At 20, Stuey moved out of his mother’s apartment and into Madeline’s. Now Romano urged Stuey to marry Madeline, to have kids, and to treat gin rummy as a profession, something to do every day – and also to dress nicer. Stuey should be a respectable “citizen-gambler” – that was Romano’s concept. And he should do all this in the best place possible for someone with his talent: Las Vegas.
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.
Romano must have been pleased, too, because everyone said the trip had been worthwhile, even though he died four days later in Las Vegas. Stuey, profoundly sad, bought a bronze casket and flew East for the funeral. In New York, as if in farewell to Romano, he visited the few remaining card joints – most, by then, were giving way to Atlantic City. “I did good, didn’t I?” is what he’d tell everybody. “I really showed them.”
In the early eighties, “Stuey was Mr. Las Vegas,” said Price, who’d relocated to town. Stuey’s Vegas routine was like that in New York, just fancier, and also, of course, legit. In the casinos, tourists ran tripping down aisles of slot machines just to shake his hand. He appeared on The Merv Griffin Show, hamming it up with Merv over bundles of cash. To outsiders, Stuey liked to explain his celebrity in terms of buying power. “I’m rich, and I can do anything I want,” he told one reporter. When Madeline wanted a house, she recalls, “he told me to go buy a house. The second one I looked at, I just fell in love.” It was an English Tudor, for $175,000. To get a $40,000 down payment, the Realtor squeezed in at a poker table at the Dunes. Stuey signed his name and peeled $100 bills off his bankroll. Madeline built a swimming pool and covered the walls in peach-colored suede. Stuey refused to visit the house till it was done. After a couple of months, Madeline said to him, “Do you want to see what you bought?”
He loved the house. All he added were TVs – six of them – which he’d run between in his bathrobe, following the ballgames on which he’d bet.
Stuey upgraded his own image, too. Once Romano had encouraged him to dress nice. Now his wife laid out Versace shirts and cuffed pants, altered for his 29-inch waist. He had his hair cut in a pageboy and washed weekly at the Dunes’s beauty salon – and, while there, he got a proper manicure.
Usually interviewers wondered if all this made Stuey happy. The question seemed to confuse him. “Yeah, I get in good moods,” he told one, then laughed. “I like to spend money. You could say I’m a young philanthropist.”
The truth was, Stuey shared not at all the middle-class sense of money: hard-earned thing that might disappear. In 1981, when he beat the odds – six to one – and repeated as World Series no-limit champ, he was asked what he’d do with the booty, $375,000 that year. Reflexively, he muttered, “Lose it.” Asked to repeat that for the cameras, he straightened up, smiled and said, “I’m going to put it in the bank and give it to my kid, what else?” Then he laughed uncontrollably.
Really, though, for Stuey money was an entry fee to action. Luckily, he’d run into a bunch of gamblers who felt the same. “We’d lose track of how high the stakes were,” says Mickey Appleman, a New Yorker with two master’s degrees, whose real love was gambling. “Action was an end to itself.” Stuey would play Ping-Pong for $50,000. He’d bet $1,000 on a coin toss. People in his group bet on pool played with broom handles or golf with hammers. “I’m too embarrassed to tell you some of the things I’ve bet on,” Stuey once said, quickly adding, “but I’m not as bad as Doyle.” Meaty Chip Reese had once bet a meatier Doyle Brunson $50,000 over who could lose more weight – the bet to be settled on the meat scale at the Dunes. (Brunson collected.) Once, Stuey beat casino owner Bob Stupak out of $10,000 at poker, then, while waiting to cash in, gave it back by pitching chips against a wall – closest chip wins – in about ten minutes. Stupak remembered Stuey’s reaction: “Fuck it.”
And then there was golf. Stuey may have been from the Lower East Side, where golf was never played, but in Vegas, 20 or 30 guys would hit the golf course every afternoon. A handful played while a wagon train of carts followed along, betting on the match.
Stuey couldn’t stand to miss out, so a friend took him to the private Las Vegas Country Club. “Now watch – this is the most important thing about golf,” he said, and putted the ball into the hole. Two hours later, Stuey had lost $80,000 on the putting green.
In golf, his skill level lagged so far behind, and still he wanted so badly to compete, that he was given an advantage. He could put a tee under his ball – wherever it was. “We were playing for $40,000,” recalls Reese. “It was the thirteenth hole, a dogleg par four with a fast-running creek about a hundred yards from the green. Stuey hit his ball in the water, and I thought he was just dead. Then he reaches into his bag and takes out a foot-long tee. He took his shoes and socks off and got into the creek.”
For the most part, Stuey seems to have been in a state of near-constant joy in Las Vegas. Stuey loved these gamblers who, like him, intended to make a killing but hardly seemed interested in a living. It was as if Las Vegas in the eighties was, finally, the place little Stuey was meant to be, they were all meant to be, people who’d dropped out of other lives or, like Stuey, long been preparing for this one. “It was so exciting,” says Reese. “It was so much fun.” Stuey would never in his life own a credit card, never operate a computer. He walked around with thousands of dollars in his tiny pockets and came home to find the lights turned off, having forgotten to pay an electric bill. (How would he remember? He rarely opened the mail.) “He was like a guy coming out of the jungle,” said Jack Binion, former owner of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino.
Games lasted for days on end, and Stuey would simply stay at the table, sometimes snorting a bit of cocaine to stay alert, though one time Stuey fell asleep, his dainty chin plowing through his chips, and had to be carried, in his chair, to his hotel room three blocks away. All his group owed, and staked, one another. Nobody recorded the debts; everyone simply remembered them, squaring them in cash, of course, and always these guys, who’d be the greatest names in the gambling history, were in the biggest action possible.
“One time we were just playing and playing,” Appleman recalled, “and one guy said, ‘What’s going on in the rest of the world?’ Someone else said, ‘Who cares? This is Heaven right here.’ “
By the mid-eighties, Stuey had won millions of dollars – perhaps $10 million. “I saw him win a million dollars a couple times,” says poker-playing friend Mike Sexton. People remembered Stuey’s victories because, always, they led to grand celebrations. Once, after winning $800,000 in poker, he hired a girl. He gave her $30,000, says Arifoglu, adding, “It was just sex for one night, but he was happy he’d won.” (Stuey was separated at the time.)
Truth was, though, Stuey had started to go in and out of money. “When there wasn’t big action,” Reese explained, “Stuey would try to create it, because that’s what he craved. And the only way he could create it sometimes was to take a disadvantage. Then he’d lose his money. He did that a lot.”
One way to take a disadvantage was to bet on sports. “It’s stupid to bet sports,” Stuey knew, “because it’s all dumb luck.” Still, one Thanksgiving weekend, he lost $1 million betting football, some of it to Tony “the Ant” Spilotro. Stuey was tickled to call Spilotro his friend; it was another matter to owe him money. Spilotro would be arrested for killing twenty people, and though he’d be acquitted, his reputation for violence would endure, especially since, it was said, he’d squeezed one victim’s head in a vise until his eyes popped out. Tartaglia, Stuey’s protector, could be of no help here. Stuey had to work the debt off.
Losing depressed Stuey. “If you could measure the joy when you make a big score, as opposed to the depression when you go broke,” he once told Price, “the broke is so much bigger.” A doctor would later prescribe lithium, an antidepressant, but Stuey’s friends thought they knew the true source of his trouble. “Being out of action,” Reese said. Depressed, Stuey slept – for days. Or else, friends said, he binged.
Eventually, Stuey would get reconstructive surgery to fix a drug-battered nostril. Just hours out of the hospital, though, he indulged again, damaging his new nose, according to Madeline’s brother.
By the end of the eighties, Stuey and Madeline were through. “The only thing that got between me and Stuey was the drugs,” she’d say later. In 1989, Madeline and their daughter moved out of town.
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.”
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.”
The next day, when an employee looked in again, Stuey didn’t respond. Stuey, a celebrity pursued through casinos, expired in bed, fully clothed, alone. He had $800 in his pocket, and no drugs. The TV was off.
More than a hundred gamblers attended his funeral over Thanksgiving weekend, a time he used to spend with Romano. The rabbi hired by fellow gamblers argued that Stuey had a disease. He was referring to drugs, and certainly they played a part in his death at age 45. But toxicology reports showed that drugs were not at overdose levels. Stuey had sometimes suffered from asthma; he said he had a heart murmur. But others suggested he was simply unsuited for long life and perhaps, in the end, uninterested. And yet it would turn out that Stuey again had reason to live.
Just two days earlier, Stuey had signed a deal with his old friend Bob Stupak. On the same day Stuey checked into the Oasis Motel, Stupak said he planned to put him in a December poker tournament at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City – pot, $370,000.
“How we going to Atlantic City?” Stuey had asked gleefully.
“How would you like to go?” Stupak shot back.
“First-class,” shouted Stuey.
It was a terrific shot, and Stuey knew it, and so perhaps he died imagining his life just as he liked it: in action.