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Mike Sexton Talks About Stu Ungar and Poker’s Past

Hall of Fame Inductee Remembers the Good and the Bad

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Mike SextonIn 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.”

Stu UngarMike 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.

Stu Ungar -- Courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau“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.’

Stu Ungar -- Courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau“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.”

 
 
 
 

Comments

texasroadgambler
almost 11 years ago

Well Mike, Stuey was a great Hold-em tournament player, but I can't remember many times when he won in the high stakes cash games. And I played in a lot of them where he was staked. One bad beat and he was on tilt. Doyle has written the same thing about Stuey. So Stuey was not the greatest no-limit Hold-em player of all time, not even close.

Stuey was indeed a gin rummy savant. But he wouldn't have made anybody's top fifty list of no-limit high stakes cash game Hold-em players.

And yes Stuey was a friend of mine.

 
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texasroadgambler
almost 11 years ago

Mike, and BTW, I voted for your induction into the HOF. So my previous comment is not a criticism of you. You even write that Stuey had to wait for the WSOP from year to year. Of course that was because he had no bankroll to play in the high stakes cash games unless staked. The stakehorses disappeared after they saw him go on full tilt. A $10,000 stake (WSOP Main Event entry fee) in the cash games of those times so many years ago was chump change.

 
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TigersWood
almost 11 years ago

oh snap^^^

 
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f1ferrari02
almost 11 years ago

texasroadgambler......first off, you dont have to be a great cash game player to be the greatest hold'em player ever.

Secondly, you obviously must have gotten your butt whipped by him to be talking about him like this. Stu probably sniffed more money then you have ever seen.

Anyone who doesn't think Stuey was a top 5 all-time player is an idiot!!! Doyle, Sexton, they all have stated for the record he was one of the greatest, but I guess that doesnt count right?

 
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texasroadgambler
almost 11 years ago

f1ferrari02: And what would you know about anything that you are commenting on unless you were a participant in those battles? Of course we all know that you were not.

And yes you do have to be a great cash game player if you want to be in the pantheon of great hold'em players. If you don't understand why, then you know nothing about the game.

Mike never had the bankroll to play in those high stakes games, so he doesn't know what happened in them. That is not a critism of him as I wrote previously. Doyle did, and he knows that Stuey was a chump in those games.

The truth is what you think doesn't count, since you weren't there.

 
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Deep Stack King
almost 11 years ago

It is very sad that you have to bash Stuey in any way. There is no doubt Stuey was one of the greatest. His performance in 97 was historic, and if he were alive today, he would have 15+ bracelets, 5+ WPT titles and would be the toast of the poker world. I even believe he would be a fixture of domination on HSP. I am not sure what pleasure you get from you comments, but I think it is sad and disrespectful. Let Stuey RIP, and give Mr. Sexton, a leader in the poker world, the respect he deserves.

 
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texasroadgambler
almost 11 years ago

Deep Stack: I'm not bashing Stuey, just stating the facts. You wouldn't know that since you are most likely some kid that was wearing diapers when all the poker history that Stuey was a part of was taking place.

Yes, Stuey overcame his demons in '97 to capture his third WSOP main event. And I applauded that.

But Stuey was not a winner in the high stakes NLH games, and that is a fact. You don't know because you weren't there; I was.

If I was a bookmaker, from an interpretation of your lack of reading skilss, I'd make it 10 to 1 that an MRI of your brain would reveal that it is no larger than a BB.

 
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Deep Stack King
almost 11 years ago

Obviously, you are not a Texas Road Gambler, because those men had class.

Obviously, your a bitter man whose is jealous of other's success.

That will be all from me.

Congrats to Mr. Sexton!

 
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bigbetfornit
almost 11 years ago

Well the guy wasnt a brad pitt or anything so obviously him being so famous comes from something, I guess he was a mega legend at poker, he won wsops way before poker blew up and hes still talked about. So your bashing him like he was an amatuer. If he was playing his best game, probably didnt so it most of the time, He would smash you in any game. Thats my opinion, I'm 32 and no I'm not from that time.

 
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occupant
almost 11 years ago

As a pure NLH tournament player, I don't think anyone can dispute Ungar's record. He's definitely somewhere around the top 3. As far as a pure cash poker player, it's been documented fairly extensively that Ungar was stuck more than he was ahead in his lifetime. I would hesitate to crown him the best ever because of that, because playing the cash game is an integral part of poker. That's why guys like Doyle and Chip are always mentioned as the greatest, because they have been tried, tested, and succeeded in both arenas (cash games & tournament games). That being said, there is no shame in being one of the greatest NLH tournament players. Unfortunately, we'll never really know how great Ungar could have been. It's a great topic for debate, though.

 
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Diplomat
almost 11 years ago

Ungar was above the rim...nuff said

 
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occupant
almost 11 years ago

And texasroadgambler, while I respect your opinion and understand that you were there to witness Ungar play and whatnot, that does not mean that your opinion is better or worse than anyone else's opinion.

 
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texasroadgambler
almost 11 years ago

occupant: Your first post was right on point. But I disagree with you about the relative value of my opinion versus the opinions of those who never played with Stuey. I played with Stuey many times, at least, that is, whenever he could get someone to stake him. And yes, all the top NLH players in the world at time were in those high stakes games.

Stuey, who I have already written was a friend of mine, did not win in those games.

So the eyewitness testimony of a player who was in the games, whoever that player might be, is worth more than the opinion of a person who was not there.

I can tell you from the postings of this blog that I am the only one from this blog that was there.

Stuey is not the only name on the list of great tournament NLH players who have had a difficult time transitioning from tournament NLH to high stakes NLH cash games. And that successful transition must be mastered if a player wants his name found in the unqualifie pantheon of great NLH players.

 
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timmmykay
almost 11 years ago

texasroadgambler, im sure you were a huge winner in all games. so much of a big winner that youre on this website arguing with people who you obviously think youre better than. [Sentence removed by moderator for TOS violation]

 
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texasroadgambler
almost 11 years ago

timmykay: Thanks for proving my point that this blog is populated mostly by people with who are unable to defend their point of view. You are the avatar for them. Interesting that the unarmed in a battle of wits, such as you, always revert to some sexual comment.

 
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Who_Yaw
almost 11 years ago

I agree with TexasRG. If a player wins every tournament and then gets broke in the cash games, he's just another specialist who gets broke outside of his specialty. Greatest ever? Not a chance. Greatest tourney player? I won't argue against it.

As for those who do say he's the greatest ever, Doyle, Chip, Chan, and Ivey have had plenty of tourney success and nobody smiles when they take a seat in a cash game. To be considered one of the greatest, you have to be +EV every time you pull up a chair.

 
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donkeytron
almost 11 years ago

Texasroadgambler.. could you at least reveal who you are so we know that what you're saying is legitimate. For all we know you could be making it all up. Thanks.

 
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texasroadgambler
almost 11 years ago

donkeytron: Don't take my word for it. Many people have written about this same subject, and they are in accord with what I have written.

As a current example of a great Hold'em tournament player that struggles with high stakes cash NLH, you need look no further that Hellmuth. The record reflects that he has won more WSOP Hold'em tournaments than any player in history, yet his adventures into high stakes NLH cash games have been less than successful.

He shares a fatal flaw in cash games with Stuey---tilt. On the other hand, look at the really great NLH players like Doyle, Chan, and Ivey who have mastered the game in all its aspects---no tilt whether in cash games or tournament games.

 
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fl1pm0de99
almost 11 years ago

Haha. You've got to be kidding me. You guys are actually falling for this garbage. That texasroadgambler, the guy who has stalked this blog and responded every hour for the past 18 hours, plays high stakes NLHE and is a "great" friend of Stuey? Please. All he's doing is repeating the well known fact that Stuey had no steam control. And just b/c Stuey would tilt like a maniac, doesn't mean he wasn't great at NLHE. So over a drug-riddled lifetime of ups and downs, he didn't make money. Who would have guessed? The guy had demons that he couldn't beat, and you are judging him from his low points. At his peak, and for the few times he was sober, I'd take Stuey over anybody.

 
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donkeytron
almost 11 years ago

Thats a good point about Hellmuth, but many still consider him one of the best Holdem players in the world, even though his success has been mainly in tournaments and not cash games. Ungar may have been the same way, but at the very least Ungar was arguably the best NLH tourney player who ever lived, and he is BY FAR the best gin player ever. I read somewhere that Ungar played in 30 10k buyins in his life, and he won 10 of them. That's an absurd stat that no man, Hellmuth, Ivey, Brunson, or anyone could accomplish, placing first in a third of your lifetime 10k buyins.

 
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texasroadgambler
almost 11 years ago

donkeytron: I did state previously that Stuey was a gin rummy savant. I don't know if the stats you state about the 10K buyins are accurate, but you can check them by going to www.hendonmob.com. The data should be there.

But the point is that Stuey could not transition his NLH tournament skills to the high stakes NLH cash games. And that ability to transition between the two games makes all the difference.

 
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donkeytron
almost 11 years ago

I think if you look at the fact that Ungar was arguably the best tournament player of all time, hands down the best gin player, an amazing stud player, 3 Main Event titles, and a good cash game player, you probably have to call him the best poker player of all time.

 
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bigbetfornit
almost 11 years ago

texasroadgambler,

I dont understand how you are comparing yourself in the likes of Phil Ivey and Doyle Brunson. If this is the case the public would know you. If the public did know you, you wouldnt have to bash someone that is well known as Stu Ungar. Could you beat Ungar headup ever. I doubt it, not knowing anything i would lay 3-1 he wins. I dont understand why you keep bashing him he just played and never talked it up like you are.

 
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texasroadgambler
almost 11 years ago

donkeytron: The only part of your post that is not a good description of Stu is "good cash game player". His inability to succeed in the games where the big bucks were at that time in poker history disqualifies him from being considered as you suggest "the best poker player of all time".

If you'll read up a bit on the history of the WSOP, it will become aware to you that the tournament was created publicity bait for the media. They published it variously, then the mullets with big bankrolls began to show up. That was where the money was, the "side games", not the tournament chump change.

Stu was not able to transition his game, for whatever reason, to enable him to gorge on the easy money in the high stakes cash games of the time.

BTW, I did check his record about the 10K buyins, and even though it doesn't have the number that he entered, it does show that he did win 10 of them at various tournaments. And that in itself is remarkable. There is no doubt that Stu was a great tournament player.

 
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TXMaxx
almost 11 years ago

Congrats Mike!

 
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bobbyt54us
almost 11 years ago

who qualifies as the best ever then? i think they all have tapped out at one time or another.johnnie chan? dont think so.phil ivey? dont think so.i dont think anyone will dominate both tourney and cash games as there are too many world class players in both groups now. interesting debate though.

 
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PokerJoeK
almost 11 years ago

texasroadgambler, Why didn't you use your REAL NAME when you signed up here???

Wouldn't ANY "proud" oldtimer use their REAL NAME to help "promote" themself???

hmmmmm

 
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kuzman89
almost 11 years ago

its amarillo slim. obviously.

 
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TommyKGB
almost 11 years ago

Allow me to interject on the subject gentlemen. For those who would like to know more about Stuey, I highly recomend Nolan Dalla's book, "One of a Kind". Absolutely tremendous. You'll laugh, you might even cry, but you won't be able to put it down.

 
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coolershakerbiz
almost 11 years ago

i think texasroadgambler is forgetting that when stu ungar first came to vegas all the " greats" of the time icluding,; johnny moss, doyle brunson, puggy pearson,chip rease, danny robison etc all played the 'cocky' newcomer, suffice it to say..........they all lost againt stu'the kid'ungar...and this was when stuey was virtually unknown in vegas, he beat allcomers, and this is from people who were around at the time talking about it today, including mike sexton. stuey was the best. period.
10 bracelets, 3 world series, 3 superbowl wins, endless legendary wins, $30 million dollars, all this before he was 45 years old, who knows what else he could of achieved? we can only speculate.Geatest ever card-player, bar none.

 
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Phelps1183
over 10 years ago

texasroadgambler, i think they point that you are missing is that Mike saying Stu was one of the best players ever was in referrence to tournament poker. if you read the article, Mr. Sexton kept stating that the WPT would have saved his life. Mike never said Stuey was the best cash game player ever, in fact i dont think he ever even mentioned cash games once?! there are very few players who excel exceptionally well in both tournaments and cash games. the ones that do are the guys we all know (i.e. doyle, ivey, negreanu, reese, etc.). hellmuth is a perfect example of this, he's obviously a great tourney player but everytime you see him play on HSP, he gets drilled. you can tell how little respect he gets bc the players at the table all perk up when he gets in the game. theres no debate, stu ungar was probably the best tournament poker player of all time. who knows, if he had stayed clean maybe he would have gotten better at cash games and truly been the greatest player ever!!

 
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