Just before sunrise, you can find the ghost of Stuey Ungar wandering the hallways of the convention center at the Rio. Somedays he's cleaning out the trash. Other days he's bartending in front of the poker kitchen. Sometimes he's dealing a satellite or standing guard near the cage. Most of the time, he's standing on the rail checking out the action in the biggest cash game in the room.
Stuey Ungar is the greatest NL Hold'em player of all time. And that's not a half-baked comment coming from a hack of a poker writer. The men that knew him and played with him are the ones responsible for bestowing that accolade. If you don't believe me go ask Doyle Brunson or Mike Sexton. They'll sit you down and tell you some stories about Stuey that will blow your mind.
These days, the legend of Stuey Ungar grows, thanks to plenty of colorful stories about the kid from New York City with a voracious appetite for action who took Las Vegas by storm. The gin rummy prodigy could not get a decent gin game and turned to poker instead. You've heard the ensuing stories. You've seen the awful movie about his life. You've read the amazing book by Peter Alson and Nolan Dalla. There are plenty of heroic gambling tales to go around and even several sad and pathetic ones. Those somber stories are told with a semblance of disappointment as the storyteller usually paints a desperate picture of Stuey in the years leading up to his death.
Did Stuey Ungar's self-destructive behavior kill him or was Las Vegas an accomplice?
Another player turned Stuey onto cocaine in the early 1980s. Players and gamblers used to do it because it allowed you to stay up all night to gamble. (That was before Red Bull aka cocaine in a can was introduced.) But a drug like cocaine in the hands of a monster like Stuey was what helped steer him to his downfall. It was bad enough that he limped through life with a serious gambling problem (sports betting, horses, prop bets, you name it) but when you add the affects of rampant drug abuse, you basically have a recipe for disaster. Instead of snorting a few lines in a bathroom stall late at night to stay awake, he was doing it more frequently. Before he knew it, he was a raging cokehead in a 24 hour city that profits on your every weakness. It's no wonder that several of his friends bet on whether or not he would survive his 40th birthday.
At the 1990 WSOP, Stuey amassed a monster chiplead and went back to his hotel room to party. His backer Billy Baxter frantically showed up the next day when Ungar was a no show at Binion's Horseshoe. Ungar suffered an overdose and could not make it to the rest of the tournament. He had a big enough lead that his idle stack advanced to the final table before he was blinded off in 9th place.
Flash forward 17 years later to the Amazon Ballroom in the Rio. For second time inside of two weeks, Vinnie Vinh's stack sat at his table without him behind it. He failed to show up for another Day 2. When he disappeared last week, rumors swirled around the poker community of his whereabouts and many of us pontificated about his current state. My gut told me he was strung out somewhere, probably close by, but millions of miles away from home.
Vinnie Vinh with the Ghost of Stuey in the background
(Photo courtesy of Ed from Gutshot)
I had seen it happen dozens of times before in my own journey through life. Some folks slip and when they slip, they dive head first into the deep end of insanity. Usually they are hopeless souls and no one can save them except themselves. The lucky ones stumble out of their alcho-narco stupor barely alive. And the weak ones? You show up at their funeral a few weeks later with a knot in your stomach the size of a basketball as you look this person's mother or wife or daughter in the eye and say, "I'm sorry for your loss."
I covered Day 2 of Event #30 $2,500 NL Shorthanded. Everyone showed up at 2pm for the restart except Vinnie Vinh. The field had plenty of big names left like Erik Seidel, Erick Lindgren, Mimi Tran, Hoyt Corkins, and of course Vinnie Vinh who was noticeably absent. The floor supervisor walked over to his table and opened up his sealed bag of chips. He quickly stacked them up before he left the table. Ten minutes later, I wandered over to see if Vinh had arrived. His chair was empty and as my eyes focused on a figure standing at the rail. I saw the ghost of Stuey Ungar.
The dealers began the process of blinding Vinnie Vinh's stack off. Since the tournament was short-handed NL Hold'em, his stack decreased at a faster rate.
"He's the tightest player left in the tournament," Mimi Tran joked as she sat at his table. "He hasn't played one hand yet."
He still outlasted twenty players and finished in 22nd place out of the 42 players who survived Day 1 and advanced to Day 2. He won $12,468 and did not play a single hand on Day 2.
Every ninety seconds or so, another person would come up to the media desk and ask, "Where's Vinnie Vinh?"
Players, media reps, and spectators bombarded me with the same question and that put me on tilt.
"How the fuck should I know?" I snapped a dozen times.
The constant interruptions were slowing down my work and then I'd get distracted again when someone asked the same question. The anger was slightly misdirected. The media reps were trying to get to the bottom of the story and besides Hellmuth trying to win bracelet #12, the Vinnie Vinh saga had become one of the biggest stories of the 2007 WSOP right up there with Eskimo Clark's waning health (which I'll discuss shortly).
I was pissed off because my biggest fear about Vinh became a harsh reality. Vinh was not pulling off a Hellmuthian psyche-out and arriving a few minutes late. He wasn't going to be coming in at all. I accepted that fact ten minutes into the tournament. He was a goner. But everyone else was brainwashed and honestly thought that good would triumph over evil and there would be a warm and tender Hollyweird moment where Vinh would swear off loose women and drugs for the rest of life and race into the room with his NA sponsor and his family cheering him on from the rail as he won a bracelet. That only happens on Lifetime's Movies of the Week.
Under the gritty lights of Las Vegas, evil always squashes good. Vinh was long gone, somewhere deep into the thirteenth hour of a serious bender. Crystal meth? Crack? Cheese? Cocaine? Pills? Booze? All of the above?
The last place Vinh was going to be found was at Table #72 in the Amazon Ballroom. You had better luck finding him passed out in the bathroom of the Oasis Motel. That's were Stuey Ungar's dead body was found in November of 1998 with $800 in his pockets. They say he died of a heart attack, but Stuey's friends would tell you that he died years before.
David "The Dragon" Pham walked up to me around 6pm. He normally wears sunglasses and slid them down as he looked me in the eye and said, "Vinnie didn't show up today?"
The gloomy look in The Dragon's eye told me that he already knew the answer yet he asked anyway.
"Nope. He got blinded off in 22nd place."
"What the fuck?" he said before he muttered something in Vietnamese and walked away.
Otis walked over to me and shook his head.
"Eskimo just pissed himself at the table. He can't feel his left side," before he disappeared.
I had never seen Otis that upset before. He felt like everyone else in the room felt. Eskimo Clark should be in a hospital and not playing poker.
America loves underdogs. That's why sports movies like Rocky and The Bad News Bears and Hooisers send tingles down your spine when you watch them. Some of us were hoping that Eskimo Clark would win a bracelet a week after he collapsed in the Poker Sauna and the day after he passed out twice and held up Day 2 of the Razz event. The reality was a sad one. He was stuck. Big time. Most of his ralibirds were people that he owed money too. The man was moments away from the Angel of Death sucking out his last few breaths and the vultures circled his dying mass ready to get paid moments after he busted out in 4th place.
When I first watched the WPT first season and they panned the audience and focused on shots of pros, I thought that it was cool to have your peers sweating you and cheering you on. Little did I know, that those pros weren't there out of camaraderie. Rather, they were there to collect a debt or had they own piece at someone at the final table. It happens all the time. So when I see Johnny Chan wandering around a WPT final table set, my immediate thought is, "Who does Chan have a piece of?"
Jeffrey Pollack tried to talk Eskimo out of playing in the Razz event on two different instances. The first time was on Day 2 of the Razz event after he refused to be taken away by Clark County paramedics. Eskimo wanted to play though the pain. He had debts to pay. Before the final table started on Day 19, Pollack asked him to seek medical attention instead of playing. Eskimo declined again and said he was going to play through the pain. I heard a rumor that Harrah's made him sign a waiver which would not make them liable if something happened... like if he had a stroke or heart attack or died at the table.
Once again, the ghost of Stuey Ungar was on the rail of Eskimo's final table. I don't know why he owes money to others. I assume it's more gambling related than anything else. But borrowing money to chase a loss is probably the worst vice to have in Las Vegas. And when you're running bad in Las Vegas, you should probably get out of town. But a guy like Eskimo who is almost 60 years old is in a bad spot. What kind of job is he going to get that will pay him enough money to pay off his debts? He'd be lucky if he was able to find a crappy job that will help him pay the weekly juice on any of his debts.
He had to play. That was the only way that he saw he could climb out of debt. Even if it was going to kill him, he was not going to leave the tables. Bravado or pure stupidity?
Las Vegas is a place where desperate souls make desperate decisions all the time. If there was anyone who should have skipped a day and let his stack get blinded off, it was Eskimo. I hope that I don't see him for the rest of the summer and he gets the necessary rest and medical attention his weary body craves before he does any more damage.
It's kind of disappointing that I'm writing about the Eskimo drama when Katja Thater should be the focus. She won her first WSOP bracelet in Event #29 and not only did a European win another bracelet, she was a female. Not too many European women have taken down bracelets at the WSOP and Katja Thater is one of them. She's also made a final table during the Ladies NL event and final tabled an event on the EPT.
"She's an excellent Stud player," her husband Jan Von Halle said. "She joked that she always got bad cards in Stud so she decided to play Razz instead."
Of course when I play Razz, I always get rolled up Kings or Queens. Katja Thater outlasted a tough field of 330+ players and endured the side drama of Eskimo at her table. Katja Thater was named to Team PokerStars last summer to help promote them in the German market. And now she's their latest bracelet winner.
2007 WSOP Razz Champion - Katja Thater
(Photo courtesy of Flipchip)
Congrats to Katja for winning a bracelet in one of the most sadistic forms of poker around.
Don't forget to check out LasVegasVegas for Flipchip's WSOP photos. And come back at the Tao of Poker for daily recaps and head over at PokerNews for live coverage and updates including chipcounts.
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