Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Poker history quiz answer

I was expecting that somebody would figure out the significance of the door marked "16" in my photo in the previous post once I put up a second picture tomorrow. But I was not prepared for the mystery to be solved less than 30 minutes after I posted that one stark image!

OK, Mookie, you got it. You'd win the prize, if there were one.

Saturday will be the 10th anniversary of the death of Stu Ungar on November 22, 1998, in room 16 of the Oasis Motel.

Here's what the Oasis looks like today:

That picture of the parking lot is taken from the far end, looking back toward the entrance on Las Vegas Boulevard. Room 16 is near that entrance, on the south (left in this photo), just this side of the white pickup truck.

Here's how the place is described by Des Wilson in Ghosts at the Table:

As for Stuey, 18 months later he was found lying face-down on a bed in a sleazy
flophouse motel called the Oasis, the kind of cesspool that has only porno
movies on the television set, burn holes in the carpet, seedy drapes, a
cockroach to the square inch, and where you risk your life just breathing the
air. Only Stuey wasn't breathing. He was dead at 43.

I can't confirm the burn marks or the cockroach count, but the place really is nasty. I've stayed in a lot of Motel 6 franchises in my life, and all of them look like the Bellagio compared to the Oasis. Should you want to find it, for whatever reason, it's about a block north of the Stratosphere, on the east side of the street, and about a block south of the Olympic Garden strip club, just south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Oakey. By odd coincidence, it's also directly across the street to the east from the White Cross pharmacy that was the locale for a key scene in "Lucky You"--the one in which Huck loses his WSOP Main Event buy-in to his father in a foolish game of "Guts." My guess is that you might be able to see the Oasis through the windows in that scene; the cameras definitely would have been shooting in that direction. But confirming that would require watching the movie again, which isn't high on my priority list.

It had been my plan to bribe tip the desk clerk to let me into room 16 for a couple of minutes to snap some photos, but that proved to be unnecessary. By a nice little stroke of luck, the "seedy drapes" had been left open and I could peek in through the trellis-like wooden grating over the window. The photos didn't turn out great, because of the slats, the horrible grime on the glass, and the darkness inside and daylight outside causing reflections. But this shot lets you see most of what there is to see:

Just out of the picture on the right is a dresser with the TV set on it. The doorway to the right of the foot of the bed leads, I assume, to the bathroom. And that's it. That's the whole room. Given the general nature of the place, it could well be the same bed that was there ten years ago. Hell, it could be the same bedsheets, still unwashed.

Here's how Ungar's final days were described in his biography, One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, the World's Greatest Poker Player, by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson, pp. 292-293. (Since I'm about to steal some of their material, let me throw in a plug for the book: Buy it here. I just ordered a copy myself, something I've been neglecting for a couple of years.)

And here's a couple of photos lifted from the same source, thanks to's "search inside" feature:

It appears that the stone reads, "A great person, but a greater loss."

I'm not sure that I would describe Stu Ungar as "a great person." Frankly, he was a mess. He seems to have had no idea how to sustain a friendship or family relationship, and tended to mess up the lives of others nearly as badly as he messed up his own. Forget the stupid commercial with the frying pan smashing the eggs. To see your brain on drugs, just look at Stuey Ungar. He burned through relationships the same way he burned through money and narcotics. It's terribly sad to look back and see what a waste he made of a brilliant mind and an astonishing talent for poker. I can only imagine the feelings of those who knew and loved him, as they watched the self-destruction occur in real time.

I do not think that I could have made or sustained a friendship with a person as pathological as he was. Were he still alive, I would probably rail about him on this blog even more mercilessly than I do Phil Hellmuth, because by all accounts he was a terror at the table--not just in how he played his cards, but in how he behaved. He had no manners, no tact, no grace, no etiquette, no respect for others. He is said to have mercilessly berated opponents and dealers alike. James McManus spends a good part of two of his "history of poker" Card Player articles on Ungar (here and here), and says, "He was also an obnoxious winner and a terrible sport when he did lose the occasional match."

I really can't stand people like that. Nevertheless, I can stand in awe of his ferocious, prodigious, unequalled talent at cards. Perhaps the kindest assessment comes from McManus: "The bottom line is that Stuey's financial recklessness and freakish neural circuitry not only broke him and killed him, they were also what made him unbeatable."

Requiescat in pace, Stu Ungar.


Mike G said...

Stu Ungar was not "unbeatable". He lost huge amounts of money at nearly every cash game he played, including the last one at the Bellagio before he died. He won his last WSOP championship drawing to an inside straight. Hardly a genius. More like a lucky drug addict.

Unknown said...

Great blog entry! Enjoyed this a lot.

smokkee said...

regardless of his drug addiction, Stuey will always be remembered as a poker legend.

well done post and congrats to mOOkie.

Anonymous said...

Dalla's book is great. You should enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

The book is awesome. A real insight into why he was the way he was. The tragedy(s) in his life that lead to his drug abuse.

gr7070 said...

I suspect Unger dying young has a lot to do with his standing in poker history.

We like to lift up those who die young. We don't like to say negative or even average things about them.

If Unger had retired instead of died I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't mentioned at all. He'd be Chip Reese before Reese came out of retirement, unheard of by most.

Also, by only playing a short time the simple random sample doesn't exist for him. He didn't play great for decades piling up proof of his greatness.

Maybe he was the greatest ever. Who knows; we don't.

Anonymous said...

Good call on getting the book, it is a great look at one of the best, but most troubled poker players of our time.

Stu was one of a kind, I can hardly imagine what today's poker scene would look like if he could have stayed clean and sober.

Unknown said...

I agree, from what others have told me also. Barry Greenstein said that Stu was a steamer,he would go on tilt and lose it all if there was a bad beat against him

Unknown said...

Good point. I've watched Stu play in old tapes,and he had his fair share of sucking out

Unknown said...

Very true