|random thoughts and thoroughbred selections|
|"All life is 6-5 against" - Damon Runyon|
Saturday, June 11, 2005
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
Foreward by Mike Sexton
Atria Books, 2005
Gambling lore is filled with tales of colorful characters. Whether it's a Wild West card sharp cheating his way to the business end of a slug or a dot com millionaire finding his latest adrenaline rush playing poker against the world's top players, there are as many varied and engaging tales from the tables as there are black chips on the felt at the Bellagio.
But I'd give you ten to one there was never anyone like Stuey Ungar.
Stuey was the son of a small-time hustler, a bar owner booking sports action for local gamblers from a back room. Whether predestination or simply a preternatural affinity towards gambling, Stuey began to show an aptitude at an early age for sports betting. While over/unders, point spreads, and money lines took hold and became a lifelong passion, it was also as a child that he found he had a skill - even a sense - for playing cards.
One of the strengths of this enjoyable book is that Nolan Dalla had originally intended to assist Stuey in writing his autobiography. So while it is indeed obvious that Nolan has a great deal of sympathy for Stuey due to their friendship, it is in Nolan bringing Stuey's own words to the tome in which this sympathy is often tempered with harsher doses of reality. Like most gamblers, Stuey lived in a world where critical self-analysis was absolutely key to understanding where he stood before and after the next card hit the felt. From his earliest days, Stuey knew that gambling for him was not about the money - it was about the competition and the action:
"I used to sit behind my mother and watch her play seven-card stud. She was terrible... I watched my mother lose, saw the faces of the other players, how smug they were, the way they'd laugh at her behind her back and make wisecracks... The only reason that they won her money is that she played even worse than they did. I didn't like to see that. I guess it affected me. It made me want to beat them. It made me want to get back at them for the way they treated my mother." (pg 16)
"I was an action freak. Winning got boring if it was too easy. I needed the constant challenge." (pg 45)
Stuey adopted poker, along with horse racing, sports betting, numbers, and craps in his early teens. While most kids his age were fawning over box scores in the paper to see where their heroes stood in the home run race, Stuey's only concern was if the Indians covered to complete his parlay. But while these games gave Stuey the action he desired, his main love in his early days was Gin Rummy. From the time he was sixteen, Stuey began to form the reputation as quite possibly the greatest Gin player who ever lived:
"Gin is a lot different from any other card game. It's not like poker. You can't bluff or put moves on people. Gin is a game of control. I used to break my opponents down. They'd crumble right in front of my eyes. I got a lot of satisfaction from that - seeing the smirk disappear from their faces and turn into fear. They'd come in wearing ties, with their hair neat, and after five hours with me their tie would be undone and their hair would be all over the place. They'd have this look in their eyes like they realized they couldn't win. It was... beautiful." (pg 78)
Stuey could easily have become a latter-day Fast Eddie Felson, using his mob connections for financial backing and a feint-and-counter style to lure the big fish into the Gin Rummy pond. He could have been an under-the-radar millionaire, jetting from big game to big game, robbing Gin's old guard at every step along the way. But Stuey didn't have that kind of mentality. Dalla writes, "Stuey wasn't a con man or a hustler; he was an assassin. That was just who he was, and he couldn't control it." (pg 76) On his first day in Vegas, Stuey annihilated the man recognized as the best Gin player in the world, and his action in Gin took a severe hit after that. Other players, deep pockets or big egos be damned, didn't want to fight a losing battle.
It was here Stuey discovered tournament Gin, and soon enough, tournament poker.
Nolan and Peter paint a spectacularly entertaining picture of Stuey Ungar's ascent to the top of the tournament poker world, and just as rapid descent into drug dependency and death. Interweaving Stuey's own words with first hand accounts of Stuey's early brilliance by Mike Sexton and others, Dalla and Alston give us a peek into the world of high stakes poker through the eyes of one of its most degenerate souls. The tales spun in these pages are the stuff of legend, from Stuey recounting his tournament action to some of the more intriguing minutiae which will leave most readers astonished at the world in which these high stakes gamblers operate. For example, while most of us take for granted the arrival of our bi-weekly paychecks, Stuey Ungar received one "paycheck" in his entire life - for his appearance on "The Merv Griffin Show." It is in these surreal moments - trying to bribe a Government official to get his Social Security number set up to collect on a big tournament win, betting over $50,000 on the golf course despite never having picked up a club before, losing a large sum to Doyle Brunson on the golf course and nearly losing the paper bag containing the cash by leaving it for hours in an unlocked locker - that the reader is able for a moment to orbit Stuey's world and understand how and why some of these big time gamblers can have such a casual relationship with sums of money we'll not likely see in our lifetimes.
Stuey's story is riddled with the highest highs and the most ignominious lows a life can provide. The best fiction writers would hope to find a character arc as broad and varied as Stuey's, and Dalla, Alston, and Stuey himself spin the yarn with a journalistic eye for detail and an obviously reverential tone of sympathy towards the flawed hero. While the story told here is engaging and entertaining, the approach and prose is breezy at best. Where I was left wanting more was in the exploration of Stuey's psyche. A dive into degeneracy is never complete without a frank look at the motivations behind the fatal flaws of the protagonist, and Stuey's various foibles - drugs, gambling, mismanagement of money - were a volatile mix that eventually caused his too-early passing. I believe that had Dalla been graced with more time with Stuey before his passing, it's conceivable that he could have broken further into Stuey's issues, and shined a brighter light into a troubled life.
This criticism aside, "One of a Kind" is a well-paced and engaging read, and is a title I will certainly revisit again down the road.
"One Of A Kind: The Rise And Fall Of Stuey "The Kid" Ungar, The World's Greatest Poker Player" is due to be released on June 28, 2005 as per Amazon.com. Pre-orders can be made using the link above.
Bobby Bracelet Makes Good
The local paper featured an article about Bob, who, if you weren't aware, played in the WORLD SERIES OF POKER. Thanks to Gracie for the photo they used, and to Geek, Blood, and Jason for coming through with pics as well.
The link above is not a perma-link to the article. It'll be less than a week before that gets buried, so head over and check it out.
Friday, June 10, 2005
Y'all Know The Name
Pauly covering the WSOP? That's unpossible!
Ah, my children... Not at all unpossible...
Find it all here:
Tao of Poker (Live WSOP Blog)
WSOP Photo Gallery (courtesy of Las Vegas Vegas and flipchipro)
2005 World Series of Poker News (brought to you by Las Vegas Vegas and The Poker Prof)
WSOP Tournament Results
You're still here? Click away!
I just picked up from the Amazon Friday Sale a(nother) Dutch oven, but at least this time it's Le Creuset. If you're any sort of capable in the kitchen and don't own one of these, go now and pick it up. These retail for $350, and for today only you get it for $139 with a bonus grill thrown in for good measure. That's an awesome deal, and you won't be sorry when you use this for damn near everything you make from here on out.
Also, I got an email from a guy looking for a link-up for his Kem cards store. Normally I don't respond, but the guy was so sincere and friendly in the way he asked, so I'll give him a quick pimp.
If you're looking for Kem cards, visit Nathaniel's store at PlasticKemCards.com. He'll treat you right.
Thursday, June 09, 2005
Need A Favor
Actually, Bobby Bracelet does...
I need a pic of Bob at the World Series before 5PM tomorrow. Who's got one? Send it my way using the link on the "BG" at the bottom of this post. Thanks.
As per Daddy's pleading, I tried not to leave any detail of the meal out...
It was supposed to be just me and the Prof, but with a few of our flights leaving late in the evening, dinner turned into a family affair.
The day started not so bright-and-early in the race book at the Plaza, when Derek, Pauly, Al and Eva, and April stopped by to get in on the thoroughbred action.
Actually, just prior to their arrival I found a solid play in the fifth at Finger Lakes that looked due to spike a good run. With four minutes to post he was at 14-1, and I put $10 to win on him. Two minutes later he dropped to 7-1, and I nearly ran up to the counter to put another $20 on the horse.
Wish I had. When that kind of late money comes in on a horse that's been in the mid-teens for twenty minutes, you know that's the kind of late money that has some inside info. My horse went off at 6-1, and I ended up +$30 for my selection.
When the rest of the crew arrived shortly thereafter, we opted to goof around on selections instead of having me give a ten minute how-to-read-the-form seminar. With the ladies in the house, one wouldn't expect a scientific or statistical approach. However, there were enough aptly named horses running to keep everyone interested. A quick recap:
GAMBLEN DEREK: Loser
GIFT OF APRIL: Loser
APRIL AFTERNOON: Loser
MT. PAULIANO: Winner
Mt. Pauliano paid April $18 on her $10 win bet, which I spun for her into the heavy favorite in the next race, LUNES GRITO, who ended up in third.
Mrs. Can't Hang, however, hit the biggest score of anyone in the group. A $5 to win bet on a horse she said was "pretty" at Mountaineer (DYNAMITE DEVIL, who ran an unbelievably strong race) in the first paid $40.40 to win on a $2 bet. This, of course, meant she was cashing a hundred dollar winner. She then decided to lay off the next race, but mused aloud that she "liked the three," which was named FURIOUS CHAD. She didn't bet him, and he took first paying $11.30.
I'm pretty sure I've never been two-for-two with winners.
With 530PM approaching, and a promise to meet Prof at the "Animatronic Zeus" in the Forum Shops, we picked up, met Grubby, lost Geek to an afternoon flight, and were on our way.
Shortly after the Pete Rose fiasco (see Tuesday's post), we hooked up with Prof and wandered the shops until we stumbled upon an empty but fancy looking steakhouse called BOA. Darkly lit, and stylish with the stainless steel accents playing well off rich amber woods, Boa also featured floor-to-ceiling windows at the back of the dining room that lead out to a terrace overlooking the big Caesar's sign, Paris, and beyond.
We were seated quickly, and as the only table in the house for nearly the whole first hour of our dinner, we received a spectacular amount of attention. As I took my seat, I noticed the steak knife placed horizontally at the top of my reeded placemat, and saw what looked to be a button of some sort at the top of the hilt. Aloud I mused, "What are these? Switchblades?"
"Those are (some French name), and were made for Napoleon. The button you're seeing is actually a little bee." I turned the knife in my hand to find that it was, and turned my head to meet Victor, our server for the evening. Victor was equal parts Paul Lynde and Mother Hen, and greeted our seven top warmly despite our too-casual dress (not to mention the presence of Al).
Victor asked if we had visited the flagship Boa in Los Angeles, to which we all replied no. He gave us a quick rundown of the recent press the restaurant had received, having been written up in a fresh Vanity Fair issue, and then mentioned Ryan Seacrest was a part owner. Instantly, Prof threatened to leave, but Victor kept going, also dropping co-owner names such as Justin Timberlake and Cameron Diaz, to which I replied, "But you drop Ryan Seacrest's name first?" Everyone had a good chuckle out of that one.
I think I won Victor over when he took our first drink order. As is my custom when having a dinner of this potential caliber, I try to trust my server as much as possible to help me enjoy both the food and the drink in harmony. But I was absolutely going to start with wine. "I drink mostly Italian reds - Barberas, Brunellos, the full-bodied ones. I trust you, go ahead and bring me a glass of whatever you recommend." Derek and Prof, however, both jumped in with the same, so at that point it made sense to get a bottle.
Now, I know just enough about wine to not look stupid. I'm not very good at picking out the leather, tobacco, boysenberry, and belly button lint flavors, but I know what I like, and I have a pretty decent grasp at the differences between a Chianti, a Pinot, and a Priorat. Thankfully, Priorat is where Victor immediately steered the selection. Sizing up the group correctly, Victor artfully moved us towards some of the less expensive wines on the menu. He suggested the 2003 Las Rocas Garnache, which was $36 ($12 in stores) and well recommended.
From what I've had personally (which isn't a wide catalog), the Grenache and Priorat varietals from Spain are really quite terrific for the price. I have yet to buy a bottle over the $15 mark, but what I've had under that number have invariably been solid and tasty wines. The Las Rocas was solid and unspectacular, but was fruity and full-bodied enough to be well worth what we paid.
The highlight of the meal were the appetizers. With true community spirit we ordered a few different ones and passed them around. Al, in a shocking development, ordered the Foie Gras. Eva and Prof got the Escargot, Grubby the Oysters Rockefeller, and I the Ahi Tuna Carpaccio.
Now, we all now how fond I am of meats that end in vowels, and this one was no exception. The Carpaccio was expertly sliced and delicate, but may have been just a little too well bathed in a lemon-infused olive oil. Much of the flavor of the tuna was buried. Still terrific, although I might have added capers for an additional flavor. I had never tried Foie Gras before, and was neither impressed nor aghast at the flavor. I didn't have any expectations before I tried it, and wasn't sure what all the hubbub was about. That being said, the Escargot was terrific. I can't imagine an easier dish for the kitchen to whip up than Escargot, as it is simply snails in garlic butter. But awesome snails in garlic butter.
By the way, we got April to eat a snail. Considering her dinner order (Filet - WELL DONE), I consider that a major victory.
The best of the bunch, however, were the Oysters Rockefeller. In most restaurants in which I've ordered these, I believe what the cooks do is pile spinach atop an oyster, steam it briefly, then melt cheese over the top under the salamander. Not here. The spinach was likely - and only briefly - sauteed in butter, placed in an empty oyster shell, the oyster returned, and a very small amount of cheese broiled atop. They were perfect. So many times the spinach is an unrecognizable mess, but in this case the individual leaves were discernable and just expertly prepared.
The oysters too were so good I nearly ordered three raw on the spot before dinner. Thankfully, I didn't. We had dinner coming.
Victor's second recommendation from the wine list was a bottle for which he got very excited. I had mentioned I drink Brunellos and Barolos, which are often referred to as SUPER TUSCANS. There is something about that region that breeds some of the most unabashedly frank and brutal wines (in a good way) on the planet. From Blanchard's Liquor dot com:
What is a “Super-Tuscan?” It’s an elite, small-production Tuscan wine usually styled for international palates, with oaky character from aging in French oak barriques, and fairly pronounced fruitiness for a European wine. It’s usually a wine that goes by a special, proprietary name, and it often contains internationally fashionable grape varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon—although some Super-Tuscans are made entirely from Sangiovese. It’s a wine made from the grapes of a producer’s best vineyards. Like all great wines, it’s ageworthy, usually needing at least ten years from its vintage date to mature, just like Barolo and Brunello.In this spirit, Victor suggested a Montellori Castelrapiti 1995 from Tuscany. While not technically a "Super Tuscan" (by price or reputation), I hoped this woud be a good companion to my meal (I'm getting there), and a chance to introduce Prof, Grubby, and Derek to one of the world's great wine regions. Victor got us an $8 break on the bottle, and brought it to the table.
I'm going to let this site's tasting notes describe their experience with the same bottle. It's dead on to my review:
The Italians have taken a freewheeling, experimental attitude, eschewing DOC guidelines in favor of creating a proprietary moniker that garners its own reputation for excellence. The first of these was the “Castelrapiti” of Fattoria Montellori. Sangiovese had the upper hand here in a rather “harsh and aggressive” style, “lacking complexity”. It was at somewhat of a disadvantage being a ’95 tasted against younger, brighter group of “96s. One taster liked its hint of rosemary and sweet spice in the nose but objected to its Brunello-like tannin on the palate without any depth of fruit to warrant it.Granted, they probably tasted the wine five plus years (1999) before it was due, but what I should have realized is that opening a wine like this in a restaurant and drinking it ten minutes later is an enormous mistake. Tuscans generally need time - a lot of time - to breathe. Last year on my birthday I had a 1996 Brunello which I tasted the moment I uncorked. I then let it sit open and breathing for nearly fifteen hours, and it mellowed into something with astonishing depth and complexity. This wine could have used time to aerate, and was a mistaken selection for the $60 we paid.
Miraculously, Gracie and Pablo managed to track us down just after appetizers, and joined us for the main course.
Dinner, of course, was next. Despite April's briquet, I think everyone did a good job of ordering medium-or-better steaks and chops. I had a bleu cheese encrusted veal chop, which I ordered rare, but received no better than medium-rare. Despite the mistake, it was still flavorful. The sauce accompanying the chop was a sort of basil/garlic/olive oil thing that really gave the steak a nice finishing touch. For side dishes we again took the community approach, with everything from wasabi mashed potatoes to broccoli and apricot rabe to black truffle macaroni and cheese. I again had a culinary first, trying the mac and cheese to experience black truffles for the first time, and was again underwhelmed. I'm sure there's a better way to savor that flavor, and I'll find it at some point.
After dinner, I had Victor bring me a Southern Comfort Manhattan (Al, I swear to god...), and he offered to set us up for dessert out on the main terrace. The Vegas evening was descending, and with the temperature and the sunshine both in retreat, the terrace promised to be a beautiful way to finish both the meal and the vacation.
The view was spectacular, as seen in pictures on Gracie's blog, and so was the conversation. I continue to be amazed and impressed at the warmth, intelligence, and personalities of my fellow poker bloggers, and I couldn't imagine spending my last couple hours in better company or in a more engaging fashion.
Dessert was non-descript. I ordered warm doughnut holes with a toffee sauce, which were exactly as you're imagining. Grubby, Gracie, and Prof went for the Creme Brulee, which I believe is the most grossly overrated "fancy" dessert out there. Derek had three scoops of various sorbets, and that looked pretty terrific.
All in all, there's nothing like being surrounded with good friends, good food and good drink while watching the lights on the Strip come to life for the evening. Thanks to Prof who was gracious enough to turn "taking me out to dinner" to the last of the WPBT events for the weekend, and thanks to Victor and Boa for a memorable experience.
We'll have to do this again for sure next time.
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
"Naw man, I ain't got any... but you run out there and find me some crystal meth and we'll talk."
If that had come out of nearly anyone's mouth besides Iggy's, I might not have caught the humor. I think I know the guy well enough by now to know when he's just dicking with someone, in this case some transient wandering through the poker room at the Plaza.
Moments earlier I spotted this dude ambling from the floor of the casino, making a bee line right for Iggy, who was on the periphery smoking a cigarette. He looked like a cross between one of those Warner Brothers' Hatfield/McCoy yokels and Charles Manson, and certainly smelled like the corpse of Marty Feldman. He was going on at least five days of not shaving, and his Fuller brush mustache was easily the product of a couple years of growth. He was in a t-shirt and shorts, and was wearing a blue baseball cap backwards over his tangled greying hair. Over the arch on the back it said, "ANCHORAGE, ALASKA."
"I don't do that sort of stuff," he stammered. "It's all pot man, I'm a pot guy." Uh huh. He was shuffling sideways, nearly teetering off-balance as he rocked from left to right.
"I did crystal meth at a place called 'Humpy's' in Anchorage once. You ever been to 'Humpy's?'" He turned to face the question from Iggy, and sure enough the front of his hat featured a fish and the words "HUMPY'S SEAFOOD RESTAURANT."
"Hump... uh... um... no, I never been to no 'Humpy's.'" I'm not sure if he thought this was a trick question, but it was apparent we were making him nervous. At that moment a rather attractive Hispanic girl in her early 20s walked by and into the bathroom. "I'd like to get me a piece of that!" he shouted, barely containing a gurgling chuckle afterwards.
"You know what they appreciate?" I offered, gesturing towards the bathroom. "When you keep an eye on them in the bathroom. You know, follow them inside, take a peek under the door. Just keep that mustache of yours from dragging in any puddles though, would ya?" Iggy coughed into his hand to hide a giggle, and the dude peered around my shoulder at the Hispanic girl who had not yet disappeared into the bathroom.
Iggy saw his leering and said, "You should think about her when you masturbate." I popped right back with, "I polished my knob in a little joint up in Anchorage called 'Humpy's.' You ever been to 'Humpy's?'"
He shook the cobwebs as he turned to look up at me. "Whas Humpys?"
"Seafood joint. Restaurant."
"What type of fish do they serve?"
Without missing a beat I said, "Sturgeon." I have no idea why this was funny, but Iggy started cracking up. Maybe it was the puzzled sideways look our transient friend shot back, along with some muttering like "Perch! Salmon! I like salmon!"
Iggy walked back to the Dealer's Choice table, and the longhaired weirdo took another shot at panhandling. "Do you have any money? For rolling papers?"
"You know, I'd just be encouraging your bad habits by giving you money."
"Well, I don't have any."
"Bad habits, or money?"
"Yeah..." He had a faraway look in his eyes. I was done dicking with him.
"Alright man, keep that mustache clean. Have a good night."
He loped along past the Hispanic girl, looking her up and down before heading out the back door into the Vegas night.
Too Many MCs, Not Enough Mics
Man, was that fun. It was my pleasure to meet all of you, and really hope that we can do this again in the not-too-distant future.
So it's Wednesday, 825AM, and I'm a little disappointed that the trip reports are only trickling in. You'd think with seventy some-odd bloggers mostly back from vacation, we'd have seen a flurry so far. Y'all need to give me something to read here at the office.
Instead of a full-fledged trip report, I'm going to try to do something between what I did after the Bahamas and what I did below on the Pete Rose story. I'll take a couple of interesting moments from this weekend and just snap off a few paragraphs for your reading pleasure. I'm unlikely to dive into things like the tournament or the after-party, because I think there'll be enough voices in that chorus already.
I will, however, give you guys a brief history of Nate at some point. Dude went from poker newbie to legend in about 72 hours, and I'm thrilled you guys welcomed him to the tables with open arms. Thanks for that.
Oh, and I do have an obligation to pop out a Richard Brodie-esque post covering dinner on Monday with a small crew.
Anyway, I also wanted to let you guys know that these Vegas posts will mark the last posts on this blog that allow comments. A couple of writers who I respect and admire were discussing why they chose to close off comments (or in one case, never have them in the first place) on their blogs, and their reasons made perfect sense to me.
What this blog gives me that I can't get elsewhere is that release, that freedom from the little things that bounce around in my head. That being said, while I appreciate that my friends are reading and are supportive, I don't do this for you. I do this for me. And the part of this that probably makes me the least comfortable is when I spill something personal, and the comments continue the conversation. "Publicly."
When I wrote that post a week or two back about a friend of mine who might be spinning towards that same pit of depression I've been climbing out of for a few years, a few of you wrote me emails telling your own stories. I appreciated those words more than you guys know, and I'm glad you took the opportunity to make use of my email address to continue the conversation with me directly. That, to me, is the preferable option, and I want to encourage all my readers and all my friends that want to talk about anything I post here further to contact me directly, you're always welcome.
I'm anxious and excited to continue reading the trip reports that will be rolling in, and look forward to building on the friendships and mutual admirations that this Vegas trip has only helped to nurture.
Welcome back to blogging guys. Let's light it up for a week or three.
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
"Dude, it's Pete Rose!"
It didn't take a Boy Genius to see that Derek was right. There, sitting at a little card table in front of one of those overpriced sports collectibles stores was, in fact, Pete Rose.
Of course, the four by ten foot banner trumpeting "PETE ROSE HERE TODAY" was a decent clue as well.
As soon as I saw Pete, I leapt at my chance. "Al! Gimme a coin." Al tossed me a quarter and I ran over to Pete's table just as some other dude was arriving too.
I rolled up to the table just as the guy who beat me there was moving into position for a photo. "Hey Pete," I started, but got cut off by the bouncer at the table.
"Whattaya want?" I think he could tell I was up to no good. Pete looked around to me, the guy reaching into his pocket rather than for his right hand and a shake from the greatest Punch-and-Judy who ever walked the turf.
I produced a quarter and held it up for him to see. "Pete, would you toss a coin with me for a dollar? Heads or tails? I just want to say I gambled with Pete Rose!"
In an instant Pete curled down the sides of his mouth and started muttering something unintelligible. Needless to say, the bouncer took care of the rest, moving me off line posthaste.
And yes, it took me under twelve seconds to get under the skin of one of the most disingenuous people on the planet. Poor Pete sat there outside the store watching groups of people walk by without so much as a nod or smile, certainly not the draw I bet the collectibles people had anticipated.
Maybe he should have taken my action, if for no other reason than to occupy two minutes of what had to be an interminably long wait to get back to the craps tables.
Pete Rose can suck my balls. Shit, it's not like I asked him who he liked in the Tiger/Dodger game later...
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