Monday, June 27, 2005

What the hell is going on here?

It's been a tough two weeks. Still is. I don't have anything else to offer on this outside of saying, "Don't take people in your life for granted."

But you knew that already, didn't you?

Then on Friday, while grocery shopping, some fucktard smashed into my car in the parking lot and tried to flee. Witnesses captured the license plate, however, and they were busted. But still....

And then Saturday afternoon, a massive lightning strike fried my computer.

I just got it back up and running an hour ago.

I appear to need some kind of karmic readjustment.

Yes, I went to work today. I flipped a coin after taking a shower.
Heads, I lose. Go to new job.

Despite my newbie status, I am awarded an office with a shiny new computer. The only downside is I'm sharing this office with one of the company superstars. Very talented but eccentric guy.

He's an ultra-vegan. Imagine that.
He won't eat anything that casts a shadow.

I am currently buying every single anti-vegan tshirt I can find on the web.
Feel free to email me any you may know of. Don't worry, I also ordered a dozen bacon-scented candles.

My officemate also has some truly disconcerting habits. Like always using a hankerchief or tissues to open doors. Real Howard Hughes-like.

He's probably jarring his own urine, for all I know.

Anyway, enough on that insanity. I'm gonna go to work on an uber-post, damnit.

For now, here's a NY Times feature article from Sunday on Stuey Ungar.


June 26, 2005
The Boy King Has Left the Table

IN Las Vegas terms, it's almost a rite of spring: a talented newcomer
plants his elbows on the cash-green felt of a big-money table at the World
Series of Poker. He gets on a roll, starts talking some trash, and
inevitably, the murmurs start. "He's the next Stuey," somebody will say.
"He's another Kid."

But anyone who has actually played against Stu Ungar will disagree.

"He'd kill these guys," said Bobby Baldwin, a champion of the late 70's,
referring to the new generation of players who are expected to swell this
year's World Series of Poker to more than 6,000 contestants for its main
events, more than twice the number of contestants as last year's series,
which drew about three times the number of the year before. "It wouldn't
even be close."

Stu, or Stuey the Kid, Ungar was the swashbuckling enfant terrible of
poker before it blew up into a mainstream obsession in the 1990's. The
diminutive son of a Lower East Side bookmaker, he won his back-to-back
World Series of Poker titles by the unheard of age of 27 and went on to
win, and lose, $30 million by one estimate before his epic taste for
excess left him dead, in a cheap Las Vegas motel on Nov. 22, 1998, at 45.

A legend even when he was alive, Ungar left a legacy that has always
loomed large at the World Series of Poker. It looms even larger for the
hundreds of players roaming the hangarlike convention hall at Harrah's Rio
All-Suite Hotel and Casino, where the tournament is being held this year.
(It began on June 2 and runs through July 15.) 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, hits stores this week.

To his contemporaries, Ungar remains the ultimate gambler's cautionary
tale, the embodiment of hazardous risk. But to a wonky new generation of
players, decked out in Oakley snowboarder sunglasses and iPods, schooled
on Internet poker and striving for corporate sponsorship, Ungar is a
renegade genius, the last and wildest of a breed of players who learned
the game in illegal backroom card clubs and played the game for thrills,
with rock 'n' roll abandon.

"He was pure id," said Adam Schoenfeld, a youthful 41-year-old player from
Brooklyn in Pumas and a trucker hat, who counts himself a member of the
"cult of Stuey" and has a framed photograph of the young Ungar hanging in
his apartment. "I could stare at him all day," he said. "He's there
leaning back. He's got his mop top. You can just see the disregard on his
face for everything around him."

As Mr. Alson, the co-author of Ungar's biography, said, "He was the Jim
Morrison of poker."

With his hollowed cheeks and surly pout, Ungar looked the part of the
romantic rebel. And having become a pet of the extended Genovese crime
family after honing his skills in the shadowy card parlors of New York of
the 1960's, as his biography recounts, he embraced the wiseguy swagger.

In Las Vegas, where he moved in the late 70's, he took up with a different
breed of outlaw. The reigning card sharks of the time were mostly
middle-aged "rounders" from the rural South who had honed their games over
decades, favored pale Stetsons and went by names like Amarillo Slim
Preston and Doyle Texas Dolly Brunson.

"Back then, it was Texas oil men, gangsters, drug dealers," Mr. Dalla
recalled. "It was the Wild West. Now it's a technical game. The math guys
are taking over."

The older players chafed at Ungar's arrogant, abrasive style, but they
could not deny his talent.

"His mind just worked 99.9999 percent faster than everybody else's,"
recalled Mike Sexton, a prominent player who often played Ungar, starting
in the late 70's.

While today's top young players tend to be studied in their boldness,
Ungar, by contrast, was known for his kamikaze fearlessness combined with
a predator's nose for weakness. "I remember him telling me, 'I just have
to make myself hate my opponents,' " Mr. Sexton said, speaking over the
cricketlike din of thousands of clinking chips. "'I just want to rip their
throats out.' "

Putting Ungar's prowess in perspective, Mr. Dalla, who serves as the media
director for the World Series, pointed out that Ungar won 10 out of the 30
major events he entered, despite losing many of his prime years to drug
use. This is a "staggering" record, he said. "There have been people who
won more than 10 $10,000 majors, but that's spread over 20 years, over
literally hundreds of tournaments."

But for those playing in Ungar's wake, his self-destruction remains an
indelible part of his allure. "He's a legend," said Shane Schleger, a
28-year-old player from New York City, taking a cigarette break between
games. "The type of personality that's drawn to the lifestyle is bound to
have a lot of vice in his life. I'm no stranger to that."

"Let's just say," he added, "Stuey died for all of our sins."

STUART ERROL UNGAR was born on Sept. 8, 1953, in Lower Manhattan. His
father, Isidore Ungar, ran a bar but made his real money booking bets on

When Stuey was still in elementary school, he was recruited to keep the
tally sheets. He learned cards - mostly what not to do - staring over his
mother's shoulder at Sunday night poker games at summer resorts in the
Catskills. By the time he was 10, he was telling her how to play.

It turned out the young Ungar had a knack for almost every card game he
tried, and at the age of 15 he dropped out of high school to play gin,
often earning up to $500 in a game at various card clubs. It was at one
such club that he met a sultry blond cocktail waitress named Madeline
Wheeler. Standing 5-foot-5 and dressed in the garish polyester of a
50-year-old Brooklyn underboss, Ungar was hardly an ideal suitor, but his
doggedness and charisma eventually won him a date - after a year. They
married in 1982.

"I knew what I was getting into," Ms. Ungar, now 52, recalled in early
June over lunch at Caesars Palace, where she works at a fashion boutique.
"I knew it was always going to be the cards."

At that point in Ungar's gambling career poker was still a side interest.
Gin was his game, and his skills seemed to border on magic, friends
recall. But he was a flop as a hustler, humiliating one player after
another. "They'd crumble right in front of my eyes," he said to Mr. Dalla.
"They'd have this look in their eyes like they realized they couldn't win.
It was - beautiful."

Before long he found it impossible to get a game. So on a spring day in
1978, he turned up at the highest stakes poker game in Las Vegas at the
time, the no-limit Texas hold 'em game at the Dunes casino, tossing a
bundle of bills worth $20,000 on the table. It was gone in less than 15
minutes, his biography recounts. But at the end of 36 hours Ungar had won
back that sum, plus another $27,000.

By 1980, when Ungar won his first World Series, taking home $365,000, he
was living in Las Vegas with Madeline and her son, Richard Wheeler, from a
brief marriage when she was 18. As a husband he had serious shortcomings,
Madeline Ungar said. He would disappear for days at a time, playing cards
and chasing women.

Meanwhile the basic rituals of daily life remained a mystery. He never
opened a bank account, Ms. Ungar said, and shopped for his groceries at

"Back when he had two or three million dollars in his pocket, they turned
his lights off because he wouldn't pay the bills," Mr. Sexton said.

High stakes gamblers as a breed have a curious relationship with money.
(How else could you push in $20,000 on a bluff?) But to Ungar, those who
knew him say, money meant nothing, except as a means to keep score.

Mickey Appleman, another player from New York who knew Ungar well, said he
always kept a short mental list of the "the real 'action' people in
Vegas." These were the thrill-seeking gamblers who "didn't think about
I.R.A.'s or that nonsense other people think about." Mr. Appleman included
himself on the list, but Ungar, he said, "was off the charts."

At a Starbucks off Sahara Avenue, Ungar's daughter Stefanie, who is 22 and
describes herself as a Christian, is studying to be a psychologist. She
recently recalled that he would tip a waiter $100 on a $50 tab. "He would
tip a busboy just coming to clean his plate $20," she said. He bought, and
lost, Tudor-style houses and Jaguars.

"He just had too much gamble in him," said Mr. Sexton, who said that Ungar
would win tens of thousands of dollars at poker, a game where he was a
world-class player, then blow it all on dog racing, a sport about which he
knew nothing.

"He was the best winning poker player I ever saw, and he was one of the
worst losing poker players I ever saw," said a drawling Doyle Brunson, 71,
a poker legend.

Ungar was volatile to begin with, but his flirtation with cocaine, which
steadily grew into a profound addiction over the course of the 1980's,
proved ruinous, friends say. He and Madeline divorced in 1986; Ungar
continued to slide.

IN 1990, according to his biography, Ungar's friend Billy Baxter, also a
top player, put up $10,000 to get Ungar into World Series. After going up
$70,000, Ungar failed to show on the third day and was found unconscious,
in his underwear, on the floor of his room. He never returned to the table
during the tournament, but his early success earned him a ninth-place
finish and a prize of $20,050.

As the gambling industry turned increasingly corporate, other top players
found ways to leverage their skills. Bobby Baldwin worked for Steve Wynn,
the casino operator, as a top executive. Mr. Sexton became a commentator
for the World Poker Tour. Mr. Brunson and others launched online poker
rooms. Ungar, meanwhile, continued to drift.

Then in 1997, wearing a pair of round, blue-tinted sunglasses ("to hide
the fact that his nostrils had collapsed from cocaine," Mr. Alson
explained) and looking like "a homeless man," according to Mr. Dalla, who
was there, Ungar sat down to play at the World Series and went home with
the $1 million first prize. Mr. Dalla said that the winnings, which were
split with Ungar's backer Mr. Baxter, were gone within four months.

At that point Ungar's daughter, who often spoke to him five times a day,
said she told him "I'm not even going to pick up my phone until I see
Mountain Vista - that's a rehab center out here - on my caller ID."

A few days after that conversation, Stu Ungar was found dead from a heart
attack, alone, in bed in a motel at the far end of the Strip. He had $800
in cash. And though he was known for ingesting huge quantities of drugs,
the coroner found only trace amounts in his system. A housekeeper had seen
him in bed, shivering, the day before.

Ungar's short, fast life already inspired one film, the little-seen
"Stuey," starring Michael Imperioli, in 2003. Last week Graham King, a
British film producer who backed "The Aviator" and "Traffic," bought the
rights to "One of a Kind." If Ungar were still alive, friends say, he
would hardly be surprised to see his life turning into Hollywood myth. In
fact he expected it.

He had only one problem, Mike Sexton recalled: "Stuey always said, 'Yeah,
but who is good-looking enough to play me?'"

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