Genius is an overused word, but in the history of the game if there is one poker player to whom the term could be fairly applied, it is Stu Ungar. In a relatively brief tournament poker career, UngarNick Christenson is widely regarded as one of the best gambling book reviewers publishing today. He is a contributor for Poker Player magazine, and has published in Full-Tilt and Gambling Times. He is also the editor of the very funny 'Casino Death Watch,' which chronicles the comings and goings of casinos in Las Vegas. He is an avid poker and blackjack player. Nick's website is www.jetcafe.org/~npc/ amassed a staggering record of success. Part and parcel with his great proficiency for card games, however, were serious personal problems which led to his untimely death in 1998. His story is chronicled in the much anticipated book, One of a Kind, by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson.
The seeds of this work were planted in interviews with Dalla before Ungar's tragic death. Initially intended as an autobiography, events forced the authors to completely recast this book. Because much of the information they compiled came from Ungar himself, as well as the recollections of his family and closest friends, One of a Kind presents the story from a personal angle that no other source will be able to match.
The authors trace Ungar's life from his upbringing in New York to his arrival in Las Vegas. The authors reveal to us his domination in the game of Gin Rummy and his quickly acquired prowess in the game of poker. We learn a great deal about what shaped Stu Ungar through the formative events of his youth. Through these pages we are told not only about his well-known exploits as Ungar the legendary card player and his antics as a self-destructive drug addict, but we also see Ungar the family man. He is an archetype for many of he best and worst aspects of humanity trying to coexist as a 5'5" bundle of energy.
Many biographical works quickly develop into hyperbole in an attempt to glamorize their subjects. I greatly appreciated the fact that Dalla and Alson felt comfortable enough with the story they had available to them to forgo such excesses. It is quite clear that their interest was in doing justice to all aspects of Ungar's character. They obviously felt confident enough in the intrinsic power of their narrative to let the events of Ungar's life speak for themselves, and this confidence is well placed.
How much insight do we gain into Stu Ungar's character from One of a Kind? The book provides considerable context for both the subject's remarkable successes as well as the ruinous lifestyle he led. At the same time, I don't think anyone ever really understood either what it was that made him such a proficient card player or what prevented him from interacting in a healthy manner with any other part of the world. Moreover, I don't believe that at any time Ungar himself could have provided much insight on this subject. The reader is left to ponder this issue, and I believe that any attempt to unravel this mystery on the authors' parts would have been misguided.
The serious poker players out there who have marveled at the amazing prowess he displayed at the table might be disappointed that less detail regarding Ungar's gambling exploits is provided here than they might hope. One has to remember, though, that Ungar's poker career ended years before reporters routinely recorded final table hand histories and hole-card cameras brought us a complete record of the play of major poker tournaments. Dalla and Alson have elected to provide these sorts of details only where they are certain they can substantiate the events as they actually happened. As a consequence while there may not be much in the way of strategy for serious poker students to learn from this book, we can at least be confident that the events as they are transcribed here actually did occur.
Do we admire Stuey or revile him? Do we praise his skill or decry his behavior? I believe the conclusion everyone must come to is that nearly all the extreme reactions to this person are appropriate, and all of these aspects are represented in this book. Undoubtedly, One of a Kind will be considered the definitive story about poker's most enigmatic figure. This is much less a book about poker than it is a real-life dramatization of the archetypical battle between humanity's best and worst aspects. I found it to be a well-written story about a fascinating personality, and I highly recommend it.
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