Time to say goodbye

The Last Game

Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson Excerpted from the book, ONE OF A KIND by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson

On November 11, 1998, 45-year-old Stuey Ungar, five-foot-five and barely a hundred pounds, charged across the shining marble floor of the Bellagio’s grand entrance with a bounce to his step and a wad of cash in his pocket. It would have been a real stretch to call him The Kid at this point, though from a distance his Beatle haircut and boyish frame still gave the impression of youth. Up close, he looked like what he was; a longtime drug addict whose excesses were now written in his face. The ravaged nose was the most disturbing feature, one side of it deflated like a bad flat tire.Still Stuey was excited to be making his first foray into the Las Vegas’ newest and most spectacular hotel.

It was a different world than the one he had arrived in thirty years earlier, when the town was mostly run by the mob. But at the heart of it, no matter how it was dressed up or presented, no matter how corporate it might have become, or how much like a theme park, the blood that pulsed through the veins of Vegas was still gambling blood.Stuey walked into the poker room, where he met up with Mike Sexton. The two of them briefly discussed what game Stuey should play. Sexton knew how badly Stuey needed to hang onto the money that Baxter had given him for a little while if he was going to have any chance of getting back on his feet. “Don’t blow it all in one big game,” Sexton cautioned him. “Start off playing $200-$400 limit.”Even in the shape he was in, Stuey’s ego prevented him from thinking that small. He wanted to play in the biggest game around.“What about no limit?” Sexton offered. “That’s your strongest game. What if we got a no-limit game going?”Stuey agreed that made sense.“This was before no-limit was played widely in cash games the way it is today,” Sexton recalled. “It was still unusual to get a no-limit cash game going. Plus, as Stuey pointed out, who was going to want to play no-limit with him?”Erik Seidel, the former stockbroker turned poker pro and the runner-up to Johnny Chan in the 1998 WSOP, was sitting across the room, playing in what he termed a “very good Omaha game.” He got up and walked over to say hello to Stuey.

In the course of talking, Stuey mentioned that he was interested in playing no-limit, and Seidel said he’d consider playing a $5,000 head’s-up freezeout.“There’s nobody in the world I wouldn’t play head’s-up against,” Stuey said “But your one of the few that would give me a tough time. I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you a hundred bucks to play me.”It was pure, classic Stuey bravado. Seidel laughed, thinking that even though Stuey had lost some of the spark he’d once had, there was a hopeful feeling seeing him there that day. “Like maybe he could give up the drugs. Like maybe he really was back and this could be another chance.”In the end, Seidel decided he didn’t want to get up from the game he was in just yet. But as soon as he walked off, Stuey and sexton looked around and saw Melissa Hayden, one of the strongest women poker players in the world at that time. Sexton said, “You want to play a freezeout?” and Hayden said, “Sure.”Sexton laughed and said to Stuey, “See, you’ve been out of action so long you got girls that want to play against you.”The cardroom manager found Stuey and Hayden an empty table and set them up with a dealer and chips. Melissa wanted to start off with a $2000 freezeout, but Stuey insisted it be $5000, and she finally agreed.

They sat down in the expensive swiveling upholstered seats and watched the dealer fan a deck across the felt face up. Stuey reveled in the moment: the nonstop musical chatter of the chips being shuf-fled, bet and dragged, was as soothing to him as the sound of an ocean wave, a burbling brook. He was back in action.The game started with $25 and $50 blinds. Hayden, a tall, attractive red head, who had been a professional photographer back in New York before moving to Las Vegas to concentrate on poker, recalled that “Everyone who knew Stuey was concerned about him. There was a feeling of wanting to protect him.”That noble sentiment didn’t stop Hayden from trying to beat Stuey’s brains in. In fact, forty-five minutes after they began, Hayden had won every chip on the table. Someone from the high-limit table next to them, said, “Aw, Stuey, letting a girl beat you.”“When the guy said that,” Hayden recalled, “Stuey leaned over and whispered to me, ‘Don’t let them get to you. Don’t ever let them get to you. That guy’s a piece of shit.’ and he was. He was a guy who was known to have beaten up his girlfriend.

I mean, you had to know Stuey to really appreciate what a gentleman he Intelligent Gambler 2♠was, and how much he loved women. He was extremely gallant in his way.”By this time, a couple of other players had wandered over, and a non-freezeout no-limit game began at the table with the same $25-$50 blinds. Erik Seidel got up from his Omaha game and joined in. The painful truth was that Stuey was the “live one” in the game. “Yeah, that game was pretty much built around him,” Seidel said.The members of the poker fraternity might’ve been rooting for Stuey to get his life back on track, but the sympathy stopped as soon as the cards were dealt.It was no easy lineup under any circumstances. Aside from Hayden and Seidel, the other players included Russian poker pro Ralph Perry, the young gun Daniel Negreanu, and Perry Green, the Alaskan fur trader who’d been runner-up to Stuey in the 198 World Series final.“It was strange that Perry Green was there,” observed Melissa Hayden. “He didn’t live in Las Vegas, and it was unusual to see him. It was a little eerie, to tell you the truth, almost like the completion of some kind of circle.”

Stuey was far from the top of his game. Hayden said he seemed “very edgy. His focus and attention weren’t good.” Playing impatiently and aggressively, he bluffed off most of the $25,000 in a few hours. Hayden said she didn’t think that he lost all of it. “I think he probably kept some of it to buy dope.”The game was still going when Stuey got up. As he was leaving the poker room, he saw Mike Sexton again, and the two chatted briefly. sexton was under the impression that Stuey had not lost everything, and he interpreted his departure as a positive sign, demonstrating that he had some discipline and patience, and that he would try to find a better spot the next day.

Stuey made his way out of the Bellagio’s north side exit. He walked past the already famous fountains, the 1,200 multi-colored jets of water that danced in computer choreographed rhythm high above the quarter-mile-long lake fronting the hotel along the Strip. Stuey stopped to watch for a minute, standing alongside the large crowd of vacationing families, tourists, and convention-goers who stared up in awe a the majestic geysers leaping 240 feet toward the heavens while the giant loudspeakers piped out the sounds of Sarah Brightman and Andre Borcelli singing “Time to Say Goodbye”.

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