Poker biographies can be very difficult to pull off successfully. For a start, the very absence of the pre-cursor ‘auto’ is a dead giveaway that the player in question did not write the book themselves, or at the very least dictate to a ghost writer.
Released in 2005, seven years after his death in a Las Vegas hotel room, One of a Kind is the first authorised biography of Stu Ungar – by the man himself in 1998, the year of his death. Written by well-known poker enthusiast and professional Nolan Dalla along with Peter Alson, who also write the 2006 book on Ungar, The Man Behind the Shades.
Alson’s familiarity is with the gambling side of the game, typified by his authorship of Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie and Atlas: From the Streets to the Ring. Dalla’s nous, however, is in the game of poker itself of course, and Ungar position in the game we all love – so often open to interpretation by those of us who never met Ungar – is brought to life in fine style by a man accustomed to such.
The story doesn’t just cut to the World Series of Poker Main Event wins, with plenty of backstory on Ungar’s days working for the Mob in New York, and from the introduction by Ungar’s friend in the game, Mike Sexton, to the tragic closing passages that detail Ungar’s untimely demise in a Vegas hotel room, the book oozes authenticity.
Dying aged just 45, Ungar is, in many ways, a warning sign to the players of today, a boogieman who lives just three buy-in levels up. ‘Don’t blow it all like Stuey’, the voice under the bed might whisper to today’s GTO generation. Ungar knew no way of maintaining strong bankroll management. He might have been the best gin rummy player in the world, but as told in the excellent PokerGO series Legends of the Game, as superb as he was at both rummy and poker, Ungar couldn’t hold on to what he had.
Unable to resist gambling, drugs and the seedier elements Vegas threw at him, Ungar spiraled into the sad end to his life and the book spares no punches. Reading it as a friend of Ungar must be like revisiting how it all felt at the time, and watching a runaway train falling off a cliff is only fun in the movies when it isn’t real.
Stu Ungar’s life was real, however, which makes it all the more tragic. If he was a clown, then the big top he left behind was that much emptier for his absence. Poker, as glorious a game as it is today, still misses him, and he has been proved to have been the one-off his friends described him as on his passing.
Ungar died with $800 in his pocket on a motel bed, but his genius lives on. His words, brought to life by Dalla and Alson are a hypnotic read, one that brings him back to life in a small way. If you love tales of Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, Chip Reese and Johnny Moss then the book is a must-read.
Even if you already know about the Bob Stupak bet, then it’ll be brought to life once again better than you remember. Stu Ungar was One of a Kind, and this book comes highly recommended. It’s the closest you’ll come to understanding one of poker’s lost players, and a genius at the felt.