In the poker world, today marks another anniversary. It was ten years ago today that a desk clerk at the Oasis Motel discovered a destitute Stu Ungar had died of coronary atherosclerosis, his condition having been “brought on by his lifestyle” of heavy drug taking (so said the coroner). While Ungar’s name is often evoked in the poker world even today, the anniversary of his death usually doesn’t gain much notice. The fact that it has been a decade, though, has caused some to stop and marvel at both the length of time since Ungar’s passing as well as the profound changes that have taken place in poker since that fall day in 1998.
For those interested in learning more about Ungar, I again recommend One of a Kind by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson. The book originally began as an autobiography, with Dalla interviewing Ungar on several occasions during the summer and fall of 1998. After Ungar’s passing, Dalla brought Alson on board and the pair did a terrific job reworking the interviews into a coherent chronicle of Ungar’s “rise and fall” (as the subtitle describes his life).
For a full review of One of a Kind, click here.
Can’t really see much reason to compare Ungar and Kennedy if not for the coincidence of their death dates. Kennedy was just 46 on the day he died; Ungar was 45. I suppose with both we wonder what the world would have been like had they survived, though I think with Ungar that argument frequently gets overstated. Poker players speculate about how Ungar’s hyper-aggressive tournament style would have served him against today’s crop of players, and while he may well have enjoyed a significant share of success, thereby further establishing his place as one of the greats, one can only hypothesize.
Would Ungar’s presence on the scene have altered the history of poker’s development over the last ten years in significant ways? Perhaps. Ungar’s connections ran deep, and just about every major player whose career in poker extends back either to Ungar’s heyday (the early 80s, when he won back-to-back WSOP Main Events) or his swan song (the 1997 WSOP comeback victory) could be said to have at least had some contact with the man, in some cases quite significant. Am more inclined, though, to think the poker “boom” and all that followed probably wouldn’t have played out that much differently.
For those of us born in the 60s or after, the spectre of “JFK” has always been there hovering behind us in history, an utterly astonishing emblem of “what might have been” (and/or America’s violent nature). For poker players today, most of whom picked up the game since Ungar’s death, the “Kid” has also -- in a way -- been quietly haunting the game, particularly as the rise of aggressive tournament play has helped evoke his memory as the prototypical “young gun.”
To be honest, though, when thinking of the coincidence of Ungar and Kennedy having both died on the same date, I’m more inclined to contrast the two than look for similarities. Particularly with regard to their respective deaths.
One was spectacularly brutal and public, occurring at a moment of intense power and vitality, and unmistakably affecting the lives of millions.
The other was private, desperate, the culmination of a long downward spiral, coming well after whatever potency or influence the man had left had deserted him.
Both are to be lamented.