Stu Ungar: How Addiction and Talent Don’t Mix
It is hard to fathom how his life arrived at this point when poker legend Stu Ungar passed away in 1998 in a cheap hotel room at the age of 45. Ungar touted three World Series of Poker victories in his checkered career and amassed winnings of over $30 million. He died with no assets and just a few dollars to his name.
His perhaps most known for winning the 1997 WSOP after being strongly in debt and scrambling to find someone to stake him his entry. At the last minute, someone came through and he stuck in to win it, splitting his earnings with Billy Baxter who took the risk on him. It did not take long before he went broke, blowing his winnings on drugs and sports betting. He was attracted to big gambling action and had a habit of throwing good money after bad.
The end result is a resume of work that is incomparable both for its achievement and its tragedy. One cannot help but wonder what he could have accomplished if drugs, in particular, had not charmed him so much. Given poker’s boom in popularity in the past decade, he would be a fascinating figure in the game today.
He is not the only one to have succumbed to such vices. Gambling addiction, something poker pro’s are obviously susceptible due to the culture in which the game is immersed, has distracted many phenom’s from their talent. The most notable because of his worldwide popularity was Michael Jordan.
Sometimes the power embodied with being the best begets the quest for power in beating long odds. Jordan, who rarely passed on the opportunity to make a great play against the odds, apparently liked the rush of taking risks with his money. His competitiveness bled him of a significant part of his wealth.
For Stu Ungar, the question remains whether he would struggle with gambling if he were to be talented in something more unrelated to this culture like chess, running, or mechanical engineering. There appears to be a mindset that, either conditioned or genetic, which yields this vulnerability. His addiction to cocaine, believed to boost his energy for enduring epic long poker sessions, was something that could not be overcome. It was his addictive behavior that transcended his skill. Soon, his gifts at the poker table were used to fuel his addictions. This is a clear sign he was a very ill man.
John Daly, the pro golfer who burst onto the PGA tour by winning the PGA Championship in 1991 appeared to fall somewhere in between Jordan and Ungar. While Jordan seemingly did not have the magnitude of social problems Ungar did, the case of Daly shows more similarities.
Daly’s challenge was alcoholism. Butch Harmon, Daly’s swing coach once said of Daly, “the most important thing in his life is getting drunk”. Daly struggled through two unsuccessful marriages but, like Ungar, his most pronounced habit was gambling. In his autobiography My Life In and Out of the Rough: The Truth Behind All That Bull**** You Think You Know About Me, he cited that he lost North of $50 million wagering which included big losses playing the slots. That’s a lot of Titleists.
Professional psychobiographers could probably delineate the formative experiences of these athlete’s respective pasts which lead to such behavior. However one thing is apparent, the cocktail of gambling, drugs/alcohol, and epic talent is a powder keg. Talent draws easy money and if there is any attraction to the excitement of gambling and the substance abuse, it is an easy way to blow money quickly.
Many people are able to avoid the temptations which hurt Ungar and Daly. It is possible to live a normal life. If anything, the case of Stu Ungar reveals how he lived with an incompleteness deep within. Substance use and gambling did not fill the void nor did the knowledge of being the best poker player alive. Nothing brought him peace so the artificial joys that saddles addiction acted as freedom from his pain. As a result, the pattern repeated itself. In a way, it was unlucky that poker was his gift. For it was the culture in which his talent was expressed that likely drove him to an early death.