Stuey “the Kid” Ungar was no longer a kid. In 1997 he was 44 years old, a long way from the young man propped up on Coke bottle crates who Billy Baxter played gin and poker with back in the 70s.
Ungar first arrived in Las Vegas in the late 70s after running up a $60,000 sports betting debt to a mob-connected bookmaker. Two soldiers in the Genovese family, Victor Romano, and his nephew Phil “Phillie Brush” Tartaglia, accompanied Ungar west to look after him as he attempted to earn back the money he owed.
Ungar blitzed his way through every gin tournament he could find on the West Coast. He busted every money gin player in California and Nevada. He started offering rebates to players to play with him. Once the gin action dried up, he bet on sports. By the end of the 70s he had amassed over a million dollars, which he kept in the cage at the Dunes. He paid back his $60,000 debt, but Romano and Tartaglia kept a piece of Ungar.
“These mob guys he was with, they brought him down here. They staked him and took a cut. They ran him. They knew he was a talent,” Baxter said. “They just took money off of him. They was blood-sucking him for years.”
In 1980, when Sarge Ferris staked Ungar in the World Series of Poker Main Event, Ungar was a poker novice. In fact, prior to that tournament, Ungar had tried his hand at poker a number of times in Baxter’s game at the Dunes.
“Whatever money he’d get a hold to, he’d come play our game. We busted him every time,” Baxter said. “There’s no question in my mind, Stuey was the best gin player that ever lived, or will live. He was a savant, whatever that is. I don’t think anybody could possibly beat him. He had a photographic memory. He was just unbelievable,” Baxter said. But Ungar’s talents didn’t immediately translate as well to poker, much to his surprise.
“Many times he’d come to me, he had this little temper, like, ‘What the fuck is it with this fuckin’ game?’ He says, ‘How in the fuck can you beat me playing any kind of fuckin’ poker?’”
That first year, in 1980, Sarge Ferris’ staking of Ungar in WSOP main event seemed foolish at the outset. He did so despite Ungar having only learned to play No Limit Hold’em a few months prior. But Ungar won the championship in 1980. Then, in 1981, Ungar won the WSOP Main Event again, going back-to-back – something only Johnny Moss and Doyle Brunson had done – and since, only Johnny Chan has matched it.
In Baxter’s lowball games, Ungar was just another fish. But in No Limit Hold’em tournaments, Ungar found a game he could understand. “His record at No Limit Hold’em was fantastic, as far as the Main Event is concerned.”
“He was just very good at Hold’em. He just always knew where he was at. He had a great sense of what anybody had. He could make big bluffs better than anybody, ’cause he could read the cards. See, he had a talent that most people just don’t have. You could take a deck of cards, shuffle the deck all you want, give it to him, and he could deal out every card face up as fast as you want and he’d know the last card. He could memorize every card in the deck as fast as you could turn them,” Baxter said as he demonstrated quickly dealing out the cards. “He had a special talent that nobody else had. He had it. He was it.”
Throughout the 1980s, Ungar’s appetite for action was insatiable, and he became a profuse and prolific gambler, betting on anything and everything for as high as he could push the stakes. He won millions, got married, bought a nice big Tudor house, and started dressing in Armani clothes. Ungar was a local celebrity in Las Vegas, a living legend. Tourists posed for pictures with him. He even appeared on the Merv Griffin show.
But the party wouldn’t last.
Cocaine took a toll on Ungar, and by 1990 he was essentially broke. His wife and daughter had left town. He was living in a friend’s apartment. According to ‘One of a Kind’ by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson, Ungar’s cocaine habit cost him $1,200 a month, and he was borrowing from friends, or sometimes lying to backers and claiming to need money for poker tournament buy-ins, in order to stay high.
When the 1990 WSOP Main Event rolled around, Ungar asked Baxter to stake him the buy-in. Baxter agreed, and Ungar went right to work. “He won so many chips. He was like running away with everything. He had the lead by a mile,” Baxter said. On Day 2 of the tournament, Ungar kept it up, finishing the second day with one of the biggest stacks of the tournament. Ungar was confident he was going to win the whole tournament. He went back to his room at the Golden Nugget to rest up for Day 3. The next day when the cards were in the air, Ungar was nowhere to be found.
“I called the Golden Nugget, no answer,” Baxter said. “So I called security. I had him go to the room. They go to his room, get the door open, and he’s laying on the floor. He’s out with drugs. They call the ambulance to take him to the hospital.
“I go to the hospital. They haven’t admitted him, but he’s such a little guy, he’s in almost a bassinet in the hall. And I go up there and I’m shaking him. I said, ‘Stuey! Wake up! Wake up!’ And a doctor comes up and taps me. He says, ‘Sir, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘This guy is in a poker tournament, and I gotta get him.’ He says, ‘Buddy, I just give him a shot. He ain’t going nowhere.’ So I called Eric [Drache]. I had never played the World Series Main Event, but I says ‘He’s got all these chips, Eric. Can I come down and play his chips?’ He says ‘You know you can’t do that.’”
For the next two days, dealers would continue to deal two cards to Ungar’s empty seat and take chips off his stack to pay his blinds. Two whole days. When the final chip came off of Ungar’s stack to pay his last blind, he had made the final table of the tournament. He busted out in 9th place in absentia. Baxter couldn’t believe it.
On one hand, backing Stu Ungar in poker tournaments at that point was a risky investment, because you couldn’t be too sure he wouldn’t lie to you or steal from you or O.D. and not show up. On the other hand, even laid up in the hospital, Ungar was good enough to make the final table of the WSOP Main Event.
Seven years later, Baxter made the decision to enter the WSOP Main Event himself for the first time. Prior to 1997, Baxter had never cashed in a single No Limit Hold’em tournament, but after taking on a full schedule of Hold’em events that year, Baxter decided to play the $10,000 Championship event.
Baxter played in a one-table satellite (10 players put up $1,000 each and play a quick winner-take-all tournament for the buy-in to the main event) completely on a lark, and he won it. Ungar was at the Horseshoe that day, and made a beeline for Baxter to ask him to stake him in the tournament.
Ungar looked worse than he did even in 1990. He was skinnier than he had ever been, his nose was visibly damaged from cocaine use, his hair was stringy and his fingernails were dirty. Long gone were the days that Ungar could get poker players to stake him.
“Everybody knew he was on drugs,” Baxter said. “He couldn’t just get money anywhere anymore. He really needed me to do it because I guess nobody would fuck with him no more.”
Baxter wasn’t interested in backing Ungar again. “I don’t wanna fuckin’ stake you. You can’t keep your fuckin’ seat no ways. If you get a hold of chips, you might go to the fuckin’ hospital,” Baxter told him.
Ungar was persistent. He hounded Baxter on his phone. He followed Baxter around and railbirded his games. “You’re winning every fucking pot!” Ungar would carp at Baxter from the sidelines. “Just give me $10,000, what the fuck does it mean to you?”
Finally, as Baxter was driving to the Horseshoe for the start of the main event, he got a call on his cell phone. It was Ungar, and he was desperate. This was his last chance to get in the tournament. Baxter finally relented. “Finally I put him in.” Ungar was the last entry in the field of 312, which was the biggest field in WSOP history at that time.
Baxter had a deep run in the tournament and found himself at the final three tables. His table draw wasn’t ideal. On his left was 1989 WSOP Main Event champion Phil Hellmuth. Directly across from him was Brunson, the two-time WSOP Main Event champion. And on his right was none other than Ungar, who had the second-biggest chip stack in the tournament.
Ungar outlasted them all.
Once Hellmuth was eliminated in 21st, Ungar looked at Baxter and said “This fuckin’ tournament is over, I just wanna tell you that, Billy. There ain’t no chance I ain’t gonna win this.”
“And sure enough,” Baxter said, “he just wiped everybody out.” Ungar became the second player in history, and quite possibly the last, given modern field sizes for the tournament, to win three WSOP Main Event titles.
The prize that year was a cool $1 million dollars. Baxter didn’t wait for Ungar to bring him his share. He told Jack Binion, son of Benny Binion and the president of the Horseshoe Casino, that he had staked Ungar’s buy-in. Binion told the cashier to give Baxter $500,000 and the rest to Ungar.
So what happened to Ungar’s share of the prize money?
“It’s funny you should ask that,” Baxter replied. “I got most of it.”
Now that Ungar had a bankroll again, he went right back to what he always did. He bet. And he used Baxter as his bookie. “He lost like $300,000 of the money to me.” Ungar lost it betting on baseball. When Baxter came looking to collect, he found out that Ungar still, after all these years, was connected with the Genovese family.
“Philly Brush” Tartaglia came to talk to Baxter about the debt. “He says, ‘Billy, I wouldn’t pay you a fuckin’ dollar for this kid,” Baxter said. “You know he’s a fuckin’ sicko. But he wants to pay you, so I’m giving you the money. But I’m gonna tell you right now, if you ever take another bet from Stuey, you ain’t gonna fuckin’ get paid.’ And that was the end of his betting career with me.”
The following year, Baxter agreed to stake Ungar in the 1998 WSOP Main Event again to defend his title. Baxter dispatched Mike Sexton to keep an eye on Ungar and make sure he stayed sober and was ready to play. “Mike sat with him for a few weeks,” Baxter said.
For the week of the tournament, the Horseshoe comped Ungar a free room. He went up to his room and never came back down. When the event began, Ungar had sent word to Baxter that he wasn’t going to play. He said he was too tired. A few weeks later, Baxter was posting Ungar’s bail after he was arrested carrying a pipe and a vial of crack.
Six months after that incident, Ungar showed up at Baxter’s house, looking for a stake. Sexton was by his side, and told Baxter there was a big Stud game on the Strip that Ungar could beat. “There’s no way he can lose,” Sexton told Baxter. “I’ll watch him.”
Baxter gave them $25,000. “That’s the last fuckin’ money I’m givin’ y’all,” Baxter said. “So you better go try to win with it.
“Mike calls me about three hours later and says, ‘Billy, he got up, took the money, went to the restroom, and I can’t find him now.’”
Ungar was stuck $11,000 in the game, and walked away from the table with $14,000. Baxter knew better than to think Ungar would quit a game with money still on the table. “I knew it was bad right then,” Baxter said. “I told Mike right then, ‘I tell you what, this son of a bitch is gonna be dead in a month.’”
Baxter’s prediction was ultimately too generous. Four days later, an employee at the Oasis motel found Ungar in his room lying face down, fully clothed, and dead. He had $800 in his pocket and nothing else. He was 45 years old.
Stu Ungar’s incredible feats at the poker table enshrined his legacy as one of the greatest to ever play the game. Over the 25 years that have passed since his death, poker has changed in ways he never could have imagined, with tournament fields as large as small cities, and games all over the world with millions of dollars on the table.
As the game has grown into an international spectacle, many more of the game’s greatest practitioners and savants have gone broke, retired, or passed away. Even the Dunes is long gone.
But not Billy Baxter.
Today, Baxter is 83 years old, and he continues to gamble for a living. He bets sports, plays golf, and enters plenty of poker tournaments. He has shown no sign of stopping. At the 2023 WSOP, Baxter nearly won his 8th bracelet in the Seniors Championship, an event that had over 8,100 entrants. A victory would have made him the oldest WSOP bracelet winner in history.
Incredibly, Baxter finished in second place, a result that is impressive enough that you or I would never live it down. But to Baxter, it was a disappointment.
“I didn’t put in the effort I should have at the end. I actually just really kinda run outta gas,” Baxter said. “It would’ve been nice to have won it. But nobody’s ever won one at my age, so I guess I wasn’t supposed to win anyway.”
As long as he’s still winning, Baxter is intent to keep playing the game that changed his life. But with everything he’s seen since the mid-1970s, when his time is up, Baxter wants to walk away on his own terms.
“Doyle told me one time, he said, ‘Billy, I want to tell you something. I went up and down the highways in Texas all my life, and I can tell you this, Johnny Moss was the best, best player I ever saw.’ That Johnny Moss must have been incredible because when I saw him play, he couldn’t play at all. So that speaks to age. This is what happens. I saw Puggy [Pearson], he couldn’t win at the end. And that’s the reason I’ve watched myself so closely, and I’m real on top of my play. I know just what I can do, I think, and I’m still doing it good. I make very few mistakes and I still play good. And I still got the heart for it. I haven’t lost that. That’s what I have left. That’s pretty intact.
“I saw that with all these guys. They all go. They go. That’s what Father time does to everybody. So having said that, I’m gonna try not to ever be the little fish for the piranhas. I’m gonna be the very first to pull the plug when I see that.”
Relive the rest of the ‘Tales of Billy Baxter:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4