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Stu Ungar (wikipedia.org)
76 points by luu on Oct 1, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 44 comments

I read his biography over a decade ago in one night and it has stayed with me probably more than any other book I've read. It's such a gripping read. His talent and intellect were so clear that it makes his story all the more tragic.

Just one small anecdote from the book. By the time he was like 13 or 14 he was playing in the biggest underground card games on the East Coast. We're talking sketchy backrooms of bars hanging with some of the shadiest people betting tens of thousands of dollars. Not only was he super young, he had a small underdeveloped frame that made him look even younger.

So how was he able to get by in such an environment taking the money of shady characters much older and bigger than him? He was backed by the mob! Yup, his talent was so apparent at even such a young age, that the mafia took an interest in him and backed him both financially and physically from harm.

I really suggest any one interested to read the book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/074347659X/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_U_x_v...

I was in Vegas this summer, and an older lady dealing in my games told us a few Stu stories. She dealt for him back in the days. She said that he was never the same after his son's death and never recovered from it. She also talked about his total recall memory as said in the article, he couldn't forget anything or anyone unless he was on high doses of drugs, which is probably why he was so addicted (must have been some sort of relief).

Today players are much stronger than he could possibly have been, though. There are a couple of players online of which we can easily say that they are the best players to ever live, and we know from recent advances in AI poker that they still have room to improve. Saying that he is the best player to ever live would be like saying Bobby Fisher or Paul Morphy are the best players to ever live ; it's true in the sense that they were more dominant in their days than anybody else in other eras, but in terms of pure game knowledge it keeps evolving as years pass.

That is true that the best players are better than he was, but they did not play during his era so the comparison doesn't seem particularly important. He did not have access to the same information, the same solvers, the same top level players. If he had access to these things, then he would have played at an even higher level than he did.

I'm not so sure you can say the best players today are better than he was because, at least in the case of no limit hold em, the game is as much about psychology as it is about math. I've watched some of the video of his playing and, from what I saw, he controlled the table with a very aggressive style. It's one of the more interesting things I've seen in game composition because one would think that component of the game would not be such a determining factor. Who knows how, Phil Ivey for instance, would handle it.

When asked about Stu making that insane call with like 10-high, Doyle Brunson (I think) said something like, "When Stuey has the second best hand, he's gonna go broke."

There are so many stories about his successful aggression that people really overlook his unsuccessful aggression.

> If he had access to these things, then he would have played at an even higher level than he did.

Access isn't enough, it takes a lot of work. There are plenty of talented players who simply can't hang with the people who spend most of their time studying. Now I don't have a way to know if Stu Ungar would have been up for studying solver results for 10 hours a day, but the rest of his personality seems to indicate otherwise.

Online poker is a different game to live poker. Stu was a live player and he would probably eat every current "online" poker player alive if he sat down on a real table and could get his legendary reads off. The sort of technical analysis and "solvers" that you see ppl bring up in this thread is completely nullified when one plays live and is really good at reading people (Stu was considered the best ever).

> Stu was a live player and he would probably eat every current "online" poker player alive if he sat down on a real table and could get his legendary reads off.

I couldn't disagree more with this but all of that is just speculation.

> The sort of technical analysis and "solvers" that you see ppl bring up in this thread is completely nullified when one plays live and is really good at reading people

This is just mathematically wrong. You're also overestimating the degree to which live reads matter. And underestimating how little it takes for an even half-decent player to have good live-poker composure.

Bobby Fischer's legacy is haunted by his personal life namely his racism and problems with authorities, both his defiance and his being abused. But he was at least one of the greatest chess players, at least in my humble opinion. It's hard to say because of advances in the game, but just judging a player's ability to "play chess," which means to a chess player once you are well-out of theory, some still say he was the best ever, at least one of them.

Alekhine and Capablanca are also among the best ever chess players, of course most probably there are lots of today’s players that could probably beat them (as today there are better defenders than Beckenbauer or better strikers than Gerd Muller or Van Basten) but in the great scheme of things they are among the greatest in the history of chess. And there’s always Kasparov and I would add Karpov, too, even though he is not as liked.

> There are a couple of players online of which we can easily say that they are the best players to ever live

Who are they?

I don't know who OP is referring to but I would argue against the notion that there are a couple of players who are clearly the best to ever live. The edges between the top players are way too small to determine this especially at the small sample sizes that they play against each other.

And the question becomes more complex when you realise that poker isn't just one game and you need to consider NLH vs PLO vs mixed, heads-up vs 6-max, cash vs tournaments. Some people specialise in a variant, others just play everything.

We could explore every variants indeed, but nlhe is the most popular and Stu's game choice. I was thinking about Linus and Baron as pete_mc replied, they've both crushed it in the past few years.

Of course there are other specialists above their competition in every variant ; my point remain, though, that the level is much better now, and would we analyse the plays made by Stu with solvers, we would find lots of mistakes made. (Actually I will probably do it for fun).

My point being, Stu was incredibly dominant in his time, and props to him for figuring out so much about the game especially back then, and that's a feat just for itself, but other players are incredibly dominant now too and with a much better understanding of what they are doing.

Linus Loeliger (llinusllove) and Jonas Mols (OtB_RedBaron) are probably some of the best online players currently.

Where's Tom Dwan in the ratings these days?

He seems to mostly play cash games in Asia. You will see him if you watch the triton streams sometimes. Not sure if he's in contention as an absolute top flight player any more with the use of solvers and GTO strategies.

In terms of making money, probably high up there. In terms of skill I highly doubt he would be in the top 100.

> During the 1992 World Series of Poker, Ungar faced off against 1990 World Champion Mansour Matloubi in a series of $50,000 buy-in no limit hold'em heads-up freezeout events. On the final hand of the game, Matloubi tried to bluff Ungar all-in for $32,000 on the river with a board of 3-3-7-K-Q. Ungar, who held 10-9, thought for a few seconds and said to Matloubi, "You have 4-5 or 5-6 so I'm gonna call you with this" and flipped over his 10-high to win the pot and bust Matloubi, who in fact held 4-5 offsuit.

Today exploits like this are impossible against even average players

It depends what you mean.

As people have noted, the bet sizes before the river are much larger than what would happen in a well-played game today. I believe every action by both players before the river is a huge mistake relative to theoretically correct poker. So something like this exact hand would never play out between two competent players today.

However, the core problem is that one player has shoved the river and the other player beats all missed draws and no value, which is still a common situation. Since the prizes are $100k or $0, and the stacks will be roughly even if Ungar folds on the river, he needs to win more than 50% of the time to profitably call. Do top players ever bluff too much in this situation, and have their opponents profitably call them off? Sure, that happens a lot even at high stakes. Doug Polk recently had a video where he described how he lost a high stakes heads up pot to Jungleman in a similar situation.

I may be misunderstanding what you are saying. Are you saying Ungar needs to to win more than 50% to profitably call? That seems incorrect. There is no situation between 2 players where you need to be right more than 50% of the time. Even if there was only 1 chip in the middle and your opponent bet 100 chips, you would still only need to win slightly less than 50% of the time. If there are 100 chips in the middle and your opponent bets 100 chips, you only need to be right 33% of the time.

You're correct that I made a dumb mistake. In a tournament we want to calculate our EV in dollars of expected payout, not in chips. Here's the math I should have done:

1) Ungar folds, he is left with about half the chips in play, so about 50% odds of winning the tournament, and EV of ~$50K.

2) Ungar calls and is right, winning $100k.

3) Ungar calls and is wrong. I forgot that he'd still have chips left and assumed that this scenario was worth $0. In fact he'll have ~20% of the chips in play left, which is worth $20K intuitively but can be confirmed here: https://www.icmpoker.com/icmcalculator/

So if Ungar calls he needs to be right X% such that

$50K = $100K * X% + $20K * (1-X%)

X ~= 38%

Can you explain what would be impossible? Ungars call or Matloubis bluff? Novice poker player here, trying to understand.

We would need the transcript of the game to analyse it properly. Here it is :

---------------- Stacks: Ungar: ~60,000; Matloubi: ~40,000 Blinds: 200/400 Hands: Matloubi holds 5-4 offsuit in the BB; Ungar has 10-9 offsuit in the small blind (the button).

Preflop: Ungar raises to 1,600 in the small blind, Matloubi calls.

Flop (pot 3,200): 3-3-7 rainbow Action: Matloubi checks, Ungar bets 6,000, Matloubi calls.

Turn (pot 15,200): K, board still rainbow Action: Matloubi checks, Ungar checks.

River (Pot 15,200): Q Action: Matloubi moves all in for about 32,000 and Ungar calls within a few seconds, declaring, "You've either got 4-5 or 5-6, I call." Ungar then flips up his 10-high to drag the $80,000 pot. ----------------

Not sure what your parent has in mind, but just from the choice of sizings from both sides, I doubt that many people would play either side of the hand this way nowadays. Which kind of make any analysis a bit pointless. But I'll check tonight with a solver if it has anything to say about it.

It's always hard to comment on a live hand, what with reads and all, but these bet sizes sure look funny by today's standards.

Can't see how Ungar could have acted any differently here given the betting by Matloubi?

He had ten high. That loses to most bluffs. It's an underdog to a random hand.

Normally you'd fold and laugh quietly to yourself because your opponent thought they bluffed you when really they had the best hand.

I don't think many people would have played it that way back then.

Then I guess it is also impossible to say how he would have adapted to other players of this time? What is a good strategy now maybe not have been as great then?

Just to answer this, a good strategy today would wreck everything back then. Basically game theory shows us that it is possible to be very aggressive while still being unexploitable, and the more you deviate from this strategy (by being too aggressive like Stu, or not enough like everybody else pretty much), the more you lose.

This article referenced on the wikipedia page gives a great breakdown of the hand: https://www.pokernews.com/news/2008/02/he-said-she-said-vol-...

He was so good with counting cards that he had full situational awareness of the game.

I used to play online poker a lot in the early 2000s.

What's really interesting between Stu's era and today (or even the last 20 years) is technology.

Live poker is a pretty slow game. You might get 30 hands in per hour and play with 5-15 other people (rotating in / out) during a few hour time span. The bottleneck is mainly the physical action of moving cards around, counting chips and slow players due to the environment.

But online is a totally different game. You could pretty easily play 4 tables in parallel by tiling them on your monitor. Then there was software you could run that overlays stats about every player you encounter (collected automatically). You gathered tremendous amounts of data that you could then analyze in real time to help make decisions and then also look at a hand by hand audit with those stats to help evaluate your game after the fact.

Some people ended up playing 10+ tables at once (even at pretty high stakes), and an online game can easily get 90 hands per hour just on a single table. So if you do the math, you could be cranking through 900 hands an hour vs 30 in a live scenario. That's 30x more hands played per hour. If you factor in playing for tens of thousands of hours, the amount of experience you can gain online in such a short amount of time is crazy. You could put in many millions of hands online vs low hundreds of thousands live, and then have a ton of data to help figure out the game better.

1 year of playing online like that gives you 30 years worth of experience. Of course it's not as high quality of experience since 10 tabling is tough, but even if you dropped it to 5 tables, that's still condensing 15 years worth of live play in 1 real life year online. So it's no surprise that players now have a huge upper hand in being able to improve their game.

Online and live are very different, though. Some of the skills are transferrable, others not so much. I think you can get very good online and then get trounced live where you are limited to one table and don't have all your HUDs and record keeping software. When you're playing 10+ tables simultaneously online, are you even paying attention to the action at any particular table when you're not in the hand?

I don't play that many tables, but probably not much thought would be given to those hands since people playing 10-20+ tables are usually trying to grind out hands at a low +BB/100 win rate or even breaking even while taking advantage of rake back deals (not sure if that still applies today).

But at 3-5 tables you can definitely play close attention to everything going on. A lot of really high level players do well in both environments.

> software you could run that overlays stats about every player you encounter

Is this allowed?

It was back when I played and probably is today. It was also openly used and talked about in large scale SAAS sites that offered training videos.

Back then most people used Poker Tracker or Holdem Manager. Things might have changed since then. I haven't played since "Black Friday" which is when the US cracked down on letting people play poker online.

PT4 and HM2 are still the dominant software products but more sites have popped up that either block all HUDs who limit your options to one or two random crappy offshoot HUDs that happen to work with that site for whatever reason. You can still usually export your hands to PT4 and/or HM2 after the fact.

Most top players today are like athletes. They eat, exercise, and study the game like pros. Being a sick drug addict and winning tournaments was just raw ability.

The level of the game was lower at the time. Ungar would be high level player even today's standards, but his game would not look as spectacular.

That's not certain. A lot of the old guard foundered after computer analysis became a part of poker. They were all people skills and no math skills, to greatly simplify it. Computers changed the game and some were unable to adapt.

I was playing professionally back then. A lot of the people you used to not want to see at your table suddenly became soft spots.

> Being a sick drug addict and winning tournaments was just raw ability.

And lots of luck. The variance in low sample sizes is ridiculously high, especially in tournaments.

I’d argue in those days the edges were much much bigger as well.

A good player like Stu would not have experienced that much variance against a weak field like back then

A true legend. Probably would have been considered the best poker player of all time (and still is by some) if not for his drug problem and untimely demise.

How could he bust out of single deck black jack with a $300,000 bank roll? Even someone like me who has a terrible memory can play a winning game against the house in a single deck game. Actually, you can easily play a winning game against single deck with basic high-low. That has to be drug abuse.

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