Mike Sexton Talks About Stu Ungar and Poker’s Past
Hall of Fame Inductee Remembers the Good and the Bad
In just over a week, Mike Sexton will be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame. Sexton sat down with Card Player last week to discuss his career, his proudest moments, and how he has seen the poker industry grow in the three decades since he went pro.
But he also talked about poker’s past and the great characters who came before him, including his good friend, Stu Ungar.
Ungar, considered by many to be the greatest ever to play the game, won three main events (1980, 1981, and 1997) and five bracelets overall. However, his career was cut short by his untimely death in 1998.
Sexton’s incredible Hall of Fame story will be detailed in the next issue of Card Player magazine (coming out Nov. 18), but below are some of his memories of “Stuey, the Kid.”
Mike Sexton: “Me and Stuey … Probably for the first 10 to 15 years, I was always the one who was broke. Later in his life, even though I didn’t even have money then, I finally paid him back, and he wound up owing me when he died. He was so helpful and beneficial to me over the course of my career. I was happy to loan him money, even though I knew it was probably going to drugs or something, but it’s hard to turn a guy down when he’s helped you so many times when he’s down and out. I put him up in hotels the last year or two.
“It was just so sad to see a guy who I believe was the most talented player who’s ever walked on the planet earth … (voice drifts off) Even though there are a lot of young talented guys out there now, I get asked the question all the time, ‘How would Stuey fare against all these young guys?’ I said, ‘Let me tell you something. There’s no question in my mind — and there’s really not — that once we started the World Poker Tour, not only would he become the biggest star in the poker world, whoever was the second-biggest would’ve been a distant second.’
“It would’ve been like golf. You’ve got Tiger Woods and everybody else. Stu Ungar would’ve been that kind of person for the poker world. And, truthfully, I believe the World Poker Tour would’ve saved his life. Because Stuey’s problem was that the World Series of Poker only came up once a year; there weren’t many $10,000 tournaments back in those days. Once the event was over, he’d have to figure out what to do for the whole year until it came back again. Now you’ve got $10,000 tournaments every other week on television. Stuey always loved the limelight. He loved television, and he loved poker tournaments.
“In my mind, I believe the World Poker Tour would’ve kept him off drugs and kept it straight, and he would’ve been the biggest poker star the world has ever seen, by far. But, unfortunately, it didn’t happen. He paid the penalty for the bad habits he had in life. It was very tough.
“I’m the most anti-drug guy ever. If you put salt, sugar, and cocaine in three piles on the table, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one is which. That’s how dumb I am. I never did it.
“But as much drugs as Stuey did, he never, ever, ever would let me come near him when he was on a drug binge or doing any kind of drugs. He really kept me from that, and I always appreciated that. So many times, Chip (Reese) and Danny (Robison) and Doyle (Brunson) tried to send Stuey to rehab and all these places.
“After he won the World Series for the last time in 1997, he was staying at Binion’s hotel. Nobody knew it except me and one or two other people, but he was staying there for a whole month. He didn’t come down except to play the main event. It was like a night or two before the main event was going to start, and Bob Stupak comes up to us, saying, ‘I want to find Stuey, do you have any idea where he’s at?’
“So we all go up to his room and knock on his door, and I said, ‘Hey, Stupak wants to talk to you.’ We all go in the room and Stuey looked like he was, well not in bad shape, but he was in there, and Stupak said, ‘I’d like to talk to him by myself.’ So Todd Brunson and I went back down to the bar, and Todd and I were talking. Todd said, ‘Why don’t we just kidnap him? Just tie him up, take him up to Canada, and keep him there for three months?’ Todd Brunson wanted to do that. I said, ‘Hell, we’ll go to jail if we try something like that.’ He said, ‘I don’t care, it’s the only chance we have to save him.’
“We didn’t end up doing it, of course, and I regret that we didn’t do it. Stupak came back down, and said he was going to put him back in action and this and that, but Stupak did a lot of drugs himself. They had that bond, Stu and Stupak. They got Todd and me out of there because I knew they wanted to talk about the drugs and this and that, how much he was really doing and probably wanted to do some with him, who knows, I don’t know what happened there. But I do know that when Stuey died, which was just a few months later, Stupak did come to bat and paid for the whole funeral to start with.
“At the funeral itself, all of the players came out. It was a really nice affair. The family didn’t have any money, so Stupak funded it. But at the funeral, he did go around and pass the hat around to all of the players, and everybody forked in and put money in the hat. Knowing Stupak, he probably came out ahead on the deal. Still, I always admired him for stepping up to the plate and putting up the money for the funeral. That was really nice of him.
“I was fortunate to be so close to Stuey, but all you’ve got to do is talk to the old-school guys and all of the high-stakes players. To a man, every one of them would tell you he was the sharpest guy they’ve ever seen; he was the best card player and gin rummy player by 10 miles. I mean, I grew up with Danny Robison. Gin rummy was his game, even more than poker. He played everybody in every state and never lost to anybody. He came out to Las Vegas, and then Stuey came out. Stuey was this kid from New York. No one had ever seen him or heard of him, and he wanted to play high-stakes gin rummy.
“Well all the poker players tried him, starting with Danny. Puggy Pearson was a good gin player, Chip Reese was a good gin player, Doyle was a good gin player, Billy Baxter … these guys were super gin players, and they all played him, and Stuey just mowed them down and shot them down in cold blood. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.
“He’d have to spot them. He’d show them the bottom card in the deck; still, nobody could beat him. Stuey said to me once, ‘There is a chance someday that somebody could become a better no-limit hold’em player. That is possible. I doubt it, but it is possible. But it’s impossible for anyone to ever play better gin than me.’ That was Stuey.”
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