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WSOP: History -- 1997 Recap

Stu Ungar Goes From the Kid to the Comeback Kid by Winning his Third World Championship


Stu UngarThe World Series of Poker main event in 1997 featured the ultimate story in poker redemption by one of the most embattled players in the history of the game. Stu “The Kid” Ungar made his triumphant return to the final table in ’97, although he wasn’t a kid anymore at the age of 44, and the years of fast living showed. He survived a field of 312 players that year to make it to the final table. It was hardly the toughest table he faced during the tournament, as there was one period during day 2 where he was sat with four other world champions, Doyle Brunson, Bobby Baldwin, Berry Johnston, and Phil Hellmuth, and prevailed.

The final table of nine was considerably less challenging for Ungar, he took a seat with Chris Bjorin, David Roepke, Tormod Roren, Peter Bao, Bob Walker, Ron Stanley, Mel Judah, and John Strzemp. Bjorin (ninth), Roepke (eighth), and Roren (seventh) were eliminated in route to the television cameras, and for the first and only time in the history of the main event, the final six played down to a champion outdoors on Fremont Street. This was to accommodate the massive crowd present to see if Ungar could become only the second player in the history of the WSOP to hold the title of world champion three times.

Ungar did not disappoint that crowd when he came out firing in the aggressive fashion that made him famous. He raised hand after hand and no one stood in his way. Even though he came into the final table with double the chips of his next closest competitor, he wasn’t waiting around for anything to happen. Bao and Walker fell rather quickly and then the first player who really attempted to cross Ungar was devastated by Ungar.

The board read A 9 6 8 when Stanley bet 25,000. Ungar raised to 60,000 and Stanley made the call. The river fell K and Ungar bet 225,000. Stanley mucked and Ungar showed Q 10 for a stone-cold bluff that Stanley would have been able to beat (he showed the crowd 9 7 when he mucked). This started a freefall for Stanley who lost with pocket kings against Strzemp who spiked a 10 on the turn to go with his pocket 10s. His final hand came against Strzemp a short time later. Still steaming from the previous defeat he tried to bluff Strzemp out of a pot with J 8 in the hole on a flop of K 7 2 by moving all in. Unfortunately for Stanley his opponent held pockets aces and quickly made the call to knock Stanley out in fourth place.

Stu UngarUngar then eliminated Judah in third and he took a huge chip lead into heads-up play with 2.5 million against Strzemp’s stack of 600,000. Ungar wasted no time, just as he had the entire day, and just six hands into the match between the final two things came to a close. Ungar raised to 60,000 and Strzemp made the call. The flop was dealt A 5 3 and Strzemp bet 120,000. Ungar thought for a minute or two and he then decided to move all in. Strzemp made the call and they turned up their hands. Strzemp was ahead with A 8, while Ungar held A 4. The turn and river came 3 2 and for the third time Ungar was a world champion, adding to the back-to-back main event titles he won in 1980 and 1981.

Ungar would never play in the WSOP ever again after that year. He ducked out just minutes before the 1998 main event, and he tragically died just seven months after that on November 22, 1998. Just $800 was found in his pocket and traces of cocaine, methadone, and Percodan were found in his bloodstream. Ungar was considered by many to be the greatest poker talent ever despite his bad habits away from the table, and he was among those who knew that on both counts. Minutes after his win at the 1997 WSOP, he had the following answer to a question from Gabe Kaplan on ESPN, “There’s nobody that can beat me playing cards. The only one that ever beat me was myself, my bad habits. But when I get to playing like I was, on stroke, this tournament, I really believe that no one can play with me on a daily basis."

1997 WSOP results

WSOP history article links:

Preludes - 1970 - 1971 - 1972 - 1973 - 1974 - 1975 - 1976 - 1977 - 1978 - 1979 - 1980 - 1981 - 1982 - 1983 - 1984 - 1985 - 1986 - 1987 - 1988 - 1989 - 1990 - 1991 - 1992 - 1993 - 1994 - 1995 - 1996

Quote source: “All-In the (Almost) Entirely True Story of the World Series of Poker,” by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback