One Bad Movie and One Great Book About Stuey Ungar

by Lou on June 14, 2005

Last night High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story, a movie that was never released to theaters, was shown on TV. Much as I love poker, and as compelling a character as Stu Ungar was, I found the film unwatchable. The story line was choppy and casting both Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa in the same movie made it tough to realize I was watching this particular film and not a rerun of The Sopranos.

As diligently as I tried, I finally gave up and watched The Outlaw Josey Wales, a 1976 western that’s one of Clint Eastwood’s earliest directorial efforts, and a film that’s a lot more enjoyable even the fourth or fifth time around than High Roller.

But a much, much better take on Ungar’s life is 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. I was able to read an advanced uncorrected proof, courtesy of Nolan Dalla and I did so with much trepidation.

Nolan is as close a friend as I have in the poker community, and he’s been working on this book since 1998. Over the years, I used to ask Nolan when the hell he was going to finish the book. And I wasn’t the only one, either. Everyone who knew Nolan would begin conversations with that very question. He was always adding to it. Finally, it was nearly done, but far too long and the publisher suggested that he take on Peter Alson as a co-author. Alson, you might recall, wrote the wonderful Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie a few years ago. Together Alson and Dalla were able to edit it down to 300 pages.

Before I opened the book, I was afraid that Nolan, who labored so long on it, would have missed the mark completely and seven years of effort would have been down the drain. Now admittedly this was a completely irrational fear on my part because Nolan shared chapters and snippets of the book with me over the years and I enjoyed everything I read. Still, he’s a very close friend, and I wanted to see him succeed.

And succeed he did. This book is masterful, and ranks right up there among the best of the books that have been written about poker. It’s right up there with A. Alvarez’s The Biggest Game In Town, which is the standard against which all books about the poker lifestyle must be judged.

But Stuey Ungar wasn’t just about poker. If he was arguably the best no-limit tournament hold’em player anyone ever knew, there’s no argument at all regarding his prowess at gin rummy. He is considered the best gin player who ever lived, and I haven’t heard anyone — even other gin mavens — argue that point.

One of a Kind is also a story of choices, lifestyles, love, compulsions, family, and drugs. Ungar was about all of this and more. He was always protected by mobbed up guys. He could be kind and loving and incredibly considerate one moment and a wise-ass street punk who was unbelievably self-centered the next. He had all the characteristics of an idiot savant: a tormented genius who made all the right choices at the card table but couldn’t get out of his own self-destructive way when it came to making decisions about other aspects of his life.

It’s a compelling story, a great read, and Ungar comes across as simultaneously much sadder and much more sympathetic a person that I expected. If you take mya dvice, you’ll skip the move and buy the book.

One of a Kind is published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Shuster, and should be out this summer. Dalla and Alson did a terrific job and my hat’s off to both of them. But to Nolan, who is, after all, a close personal friend and someone I watched go through the highs and lows of what turned out to be a seven-year project (and much longer than even he might have expected when he first took it on), kudos on getting it done well and done right.

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