I have received several e-mails from readers asking about the status of my forthcoming book on the life of Stu Ungar I'm presently in the negotiation stage with my agent and publisher. I am also finalizing the rough draft, as we speak which will soon go to the editor. Please be aware that I do appreciate your interest. I hope that you will all consider buying this book when it's finally released. Naturally, I will give a few books away here at the site -- perhaps as part of a handicapping contest (whoever picks the most totals right, wins?). Of course, I'm biased but let me say that if this book is done right (which is my job), I believe it will become a hit movie and will win an Oscar. This is a great story.
What follows is the inside jacket (which is an introduction), and a chapter in the middle of Stuey's life. It's not the best chapter, by far, but it shows an interesting side of his character. I rarely make references to Stuey in any of the work I am doing because the book is not complete yet. But I do feel it's a good time to release some small part of the book to my friends who have been so loyal at the site..
Stu "the Kid" Ungar was the greatest cardplayer that ever lived. He earned millions of dollars playing high-stakes gin and poker. He won astronomical sums betting on sports and horse races. Yet, he died an agonizing death in a seedy Las Vegas motel room alone and virtually penniless.
Ungar's life and legacy were of contradictions. He was a savant in a world of card sharks and con men. A high school dropout, by 17 he was widely acknowledged as the worlds best gin player. Mafia wiseguys instantly recognized Ungars awesome talent and staked him against all comers. Eventually, no one would play him for cash anymore. So, he moved to Las Vegas and found a new game with a new set of playmates.
Ungar was a poker provocateur who stunned his contemporaries with raw nerve and unbridled talent not seen before -- nor since. He vaulted himself into the toughest card games in the world, putting his money and skill to the test against men twice his age. The first time Ungar entered pokers world championship, he won it. Proving that victory was no fluke, the very next year he won again.
Ungars photographic memory made him a devastating presence at blackjack tables, which resulted in being barred from most casinos. So, he turned to sports and horses to satisfy his most primal urges. Ungar was known for gambling every single dollar in his pocket on a daily basis and then some. One week he started out with $2 million. Five days later, he was broke and owed $150,000. He burned through $100 bills like they were postage stamps.
Ungars passion for risk extended to his personal life. He had no concept of night or day. He didnt own a wristwatch. Ungar never had a job. He didnt have a bank account or a drivers license. For years, he had no home address nor personal possessions. At the end of his life, the worlds most gifted gambler didnt even own a toothbrush.
However, there were scarce moments of normality. Ungar married his longtime sweetheart, had a daughter, and tried to settle down. He was a millionaire at the top of his profession. But managing success proved a bigger challenge than achieving it. The fall would be arduous, lasting more than a decade. It would especially be painful for those around Ungar, who begged him to get help. He refused.
Ungars final years and days were spent bouncing between hotel rooms, casinos, and crack houses. In 1997, he somehow won a third world championship -- including yet another million dollar cash prize. But by then, it was too late. Too much damage had already been done. Ungar had burned every bridge leading to his own salvation. His life had taken such a detour, he died alone. Broke. Addicted. Why did it happen?
In this riveting biography, gambling-writer Nolan Dalla examines Stu Ungars life and searches for answers. In the final years up until his death, Dalla was a close confidant to Ungar, and was chosen by Ungar to be his biographer. Through months on interviews, Dalla examines the early influences and critical twists and turns on Ungars path from obscure Manhattan back rooms into the neon glow of high-stakes gambling in Las Vegas and finally to the back alleys of Ungars own psyche that seemed to foreshadow his self-destruction.
As the author shows, Ungars contradictions are our own. Ungars rise and fall, comeback, and ultimate doom is a haunting tale with meaningful lessons. Whether an individual blessed with exceptional talent, or a society collectively vested in its technical virtuosity -- we have yet to uncover the most fundamental mysteries of human existence -- matters of the human mind and spirit. Such discontent leads to conflict, and inevitably to tragedy. Stu Ungars story is our story.
A Taste of Money
Caesars Palace, Las Vegas -- 1974
By Nolan Dalla
(All Rights Reserved)
Mans biggest problem is boredom. Face it, most people are bored out of their skulls. Its why the largest industry in the world is the entertainment business. Travel, sports, movies, television -- all are boredom killers. Its why people drink. Its why people take drugs. It's why people watch pornography. Its why people gamble. Boredom.
Its why a city in the middle of nowhere with a habitat more suitable for scorpions than human beings draws 40 million dupes every year from all corners of the globe, from all walks of life, to a place that exists for no other reason than gambling. They come to alleviate boredom.
Las Vegas certainly does that. Its immutable excess and daze of distractions numb the senses in submission, making boredom evaporate as quickly as a teardrop in the 115-degree heat. In the process, it makes fools of the wise, its hedonistic pleasures shattering prudence like a shot of novocaine to common sense. First-time visitors are especially vulnerable to its spell. Seduced from the instant they arrive, most would rather gamble than make love to their spouse, or talk to friends. Most would rather gamble than eat or sleep.
Gambling is the moment. Its the now. There's no past. There's no future. When gambling, youre not thinking about your business, family problems, health worries, or anything else unconnected to the moment. Right now. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is on your mind when you are sitting at the table and the dice are rolling.
Every throw of the dice, each spin of a wheel, every turn of a card delivers hope. Gambling gives hope. From nickel slot players to high-rollers, the "rush" of anticipation is identical, inexplicably linking the most disparate of personalities into a common melting-pot of optimists. Its why people are drawn to Las Vegas like moths to light.
But the light is merely an illusion. It masks an ugly truth, that beneath the glitz and glamour is the stark actuality that this is a city thats built not on giving hope -- but on crushing it. Las Vegas is a three-card Monte game on the grandest of scales, offering the carnival of excitement, but in reality thriving on one thing the human desire to kill boredom. Boredom killing usually carries a high price tag.
In December 1974, a few months after his 21st birthday, Stu Ungar made his first trip to Las Vegas. He arrived on a junket arranged by friend and protector, Phil Tartaglia (a.k.a. "Phillie Brush") of the New York underworld. Stueys connections to New Yorks gambling circles, combined with Phillies Las Vegas associations rendered them both full "RFB" from Caesars Palace, which meant everything was paid for by the casino. All Stuey had to do was give the house action. That wouldn't be a problem. After all, "action" was Stuey's middle name.
Less than an hour after arriving on a mid-afternoon flight, Stueys impatience was wearing thin. Stuey had no interest in checking into the hotel, or wasting time standing in lines. Hed been sitting on an airplane five hours. Hed waited 21 years for this moment -- a veritable lifetime. It was time to gamble!
Stuey plowed onto the plush red carpeting of the worlds most luxurious casino like a matador ready to face the bull. His shoes sank into the soft deep carpet. To Stuey, it had the feel of belonging -- as though hed finally arrived on his own territory, the crowning jewel after a lifetime spent in the purgatory of underground poker rooms and back alley dice games.
Stuey brought $30,000 in cash. The bulky banknotes wouldn't fit into his skin-tight pants. So given no other choice, he lunged around three bulging packets of $100 bills which were bound tightly with a single rubber band. Only in the city of Las Vegas would the sight of a 5 foot-5 mop-topped kid carrying stacks of hundreds not cause a stir.
He marched up to the nearest craps table. $10,000 was dropped onto the layout which fanned on the layout marked "Come."
"Change only," the dealer announced, taking the fistful of $100 bills into his left hand, while briskly counting them out.
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Ten thousand. How would you like that, Sir?"
"$2,000 in black. The rest large," Stuey answered.
A stack of twenty black chips was pushed across the felt. The boxman reached into the bank of multi-colored chips. He counted-out 16 more chips, purple this time, which were denominations of $500 each. He placed them into a separate stack. The dealer shoved $10,000 across the felt towards Stueys open palms.
"Change ten-thousand. Good luck, Sir."
Stuey knew it was the houses way of welcoming a new player. The last thing the casino wanted was a gambler to get lucky and win money.
Stuey made a small bet, and lost. He made another bet, and won. He increased his bets. He won, then lost, then lost again. Soon, instead of betting black, he was betting purple chips every roll. Then, he started losing big. He lost again and again. An hour later, Stuey broke the seal around the second bundle and dropped another $10,000 to the felt.
"Change only," a new dealer said. The same transaction was completed with careful precision.
"Give me all purple this time," Stuey demanded.
Twenty $500 chips were pushed to the kid.
"Change ten-thousand. Good luck, Sir."
Stuey cocked his head and rolled his eyes.
He placed two purple chips on the pass-line.
The dice tumbled across the felt, from right to left, bouncing off the jagged wall at tables end. "Five is the point. The point is five," the stickman chirped.
Stuey backed-up the five with double odds -- $2000 behind the wager. Then, he reached across the felt and bet $1000 on the "Come."
The same dice were pushed back to the shooter, who cupped the two red cubes in his right hand, shook his wrist, and flung them forward with all the thrust he could muster.
"Eight, no harm done," the stickman crowed.
"Whats the maximum odds I can take?" Stuey asked.
"You can lay up to $2000 to win $2400, Sir."
Stuey removed four purple chips from the wooden rail and dropped them towards the felt.
The dealer lifted them just in time as the dice shot past the stickmans arm.
"Seven-out! Line away!"
In an instant, the dealer reached out with both hands and whisked the chips off the layout into a large pile. He placed them neatly into stacks that were pushed tightly up against the rail.
Stuey took his remaining chips in his right palm. He stormed away from the table, ignoring the customary well-wishes of "thanks for playing Sir," barely audible as he fluttered away. Stuey no longer seemed captivated by Caesars ambiance of excess.
Next, he turned to a lonely blackjack table with a bored-looking tourist sitting in the first chair. Stuey walked up to the table and took a seat.
"Sir, this is a $100 minimum table," the dealer barked, suspicious of Stueys teenage appearance.
Just as the dealer reached to deal the first card from a new shoe, Stuey unveiled a fistful of purple five-hundred dollar chips and his last $10,000 packet which crashed onto the felt. The dealer stopped cold.
"Are you going to bet, Sir?
"Yeah, Im going to bet. Whattya think I walked over here for? Give me a hand -- here, here, here, here, and here!" With that, Stuey peeled-off five purple chips and slammed $500 onto each of five empty spots.
Stueys timing could not have been worse. He was dealt a lousy mix of stiff hands, and when the dealer turned up two face cards for twenty, Stuey was quickly down another $2,500.
When the second stack dusted-off in less than five minutes, Stuey returned to the craps table. He pulled out his last stack of bills, conspicuously divided into his two back pockets as if they were saddlebags. $10,000 more was lost within minutes.
Before hed even checked into his hotel room, Stuey had burned-up a cool $30,000. Stunned and depressed, he was left flat broke -- with his first-ever Vegas trip just beginning. Before he could manage to stagger away from he table, the pit boss leaned over to Stuey and touched his arm. The casino boss offered a complimentary nights stay.
"Is there anything else we can do for you, Sir?"
"Yeah, get me outta this joint."
The pit boss flashed a sympathetic smile, realizing there wasnt much to be said that could sooth the wounds of someone whod lost what most people make in a year.
"I need to know my room number. Call the desk and get me my room number. Check under "Tartaglia."
"How do you spell Tartaglia?"
"Look it up for Crissakes, just get me upstairs!"
Moments later, Stuey dragged himself to the elevator opposite the plush red carpeting hed walked across with such enthusiasm only a few hours earlier. He was lifted to his room on the fourth floor.
Stuey rapped on the door loudly, which awakened Phillie from a comfortable doze.
"Come on in. They brought up some fruit and drinks -- its over there," Phillie said.
"Im not hungry," Stuey remarked as he sat on the edge of the bed, his head collapsing into his hands.
Phillie sensed that something was wrong. "Whats the matter? What in the hell happened?"
"I lost," Stuey answered.
"All of it."
"The whole thirty?"
There was an awkward silence. It was the kind of silence that hangs in the air like a thick fog. A couple of seconds seemed more like a few minutes. It was the kind of silence familiar to those who mix money with friendship.
"What are you going to do?" Phillie asked.
"I dont know."
Another minute of silence passed before Phillie could think of something appropriate to say. "Look, lets try to relax tonight," Phillie suggested rising from the bed onto his feet. He was trying to spin on a bad situation. "Well have dinner and see the show downstairs, then well figure out what to do."
Stuey kept quiet. He knew his fate was in Phillies hands. It was up to Phillie to get Stuey back in action. The whole purpose of flying out to Vegas was to fleece a few suckers into playing gin. Stueys loss in the pit was a painful detour, but it didnt dampen the real goal which was to generate some heavy gin action. The reality of the relationship wasnt lost on Stuey, who knew Phillie was bankrolled to the hilt, with almost unlimited capital between cash reserves and a credit line at all the major casinos. All took was one phone call and Phillie had a blank check. Whatever money Stuey needed to play was his for the asking.
Like a father scolding his misbehaving son, Phillie lectured Stuey as the two rode the elevator to the lobby. When the metal doors opened onto the main casino floor, Stuey brazenly spoke what was on his mind.
"Gimme a thousand," he said.
For Stuey, a thousand dollars wasnt big money. Stuey liked to call it "walking around money." Phillie knew Stuey had to have cash -- at least enough cash in his pocket for eating, tipping, and some basic needs, like getting girls. Phillie forked over a small wad of hundred dollar bills and started to walk to the concierge to pick-up show tickets. Stuey darted-off in the opposite direction.
"Ill meet you back here in 30 minutes," Phillie shouted as Stuey blazed a trail and disappeared into the casino oblivious to the concept of time.
Thirty minutes later, Phillie returned to the lobby near the elevator where the two had parted ways. Stuey wasnt there. Phillie wasnt surprised. Stuey never wore a wristwatch, so tardiness was a way of life for those around him. Phillie waited five more minutes. Then, ten. Still, no Stuey.
Phillie knew where Stuey was likely to be found. He dashed into the casino and saw hundreds of gamblers crowded around dozens of gambling tables. Phillys eyes gazed over the crowd but he saw no sign of Stuey. The munchkin-sized gambler wouldnt be easy to find on a busy Saturday night. Philly waltzed up and down the aisles. He stopped at each table and peered into the crowds to catch a peek of the kid with brown bushy hair.
Then, something caught Phillies attention. There was a craps table in the middle of the casino floor with a huge mass of people around it. The table was packed at least three deep on three sides. Shouts and hollers rang out from the crowd. Betters clad in an odd mix of studded diamonds, cowboy hats, gold necklaces, furs, and coiffured wigs made the scene resemble a Halloween party. Phillie nudged his way closer and peered over the stickmans left shoulder.
At the corner of the table he saw little Stuey. He was hunched over the table, watching the chips and dice like a kid gazes at the Easter Bunny. There he was in his element -- getting bets down as fast as he could get his chips off the rail. Incredibly, the rail was filled with chips not just black chips, but purple chips, too. Stuey was having the time of his life.
Stuey was in back in action.
This excerpt is from the book, "Behind the Shades: The Stu Ungar Story," which will be released soon.
LATE NOTE: Title may change because of conflict with 1991 Bob Dylan biography, also called "Behind the Shades." Alternative title: "Stuey"