Unexpected life lessons from poker masters Stu Ugnar and Daniel Negreanu

June 10, 2020 8 min read

Unexpected life lessons from poker masters Stu Ugnar and Daniel Negreanu

It’s the game where you have the opportunity to make several million dollars in a single tournament, let alone a single year. Where instant rock star status is thrust upon you overnight, and casinos will treat you like a god. Only the very best can survive and two of the greatest players ever to count their chips had highs and severe lows. If you fancy yourself as a poker star, we suggest you read this first as we all know: In gambling some you win, some you lose. 

Stuey The Kid 

Stu Ungar

Stu Ungar has been called the “Jim Morrison of poker” and his poker-playing peers say no one was quicker, smarter or better than him. The son of a loan shark he learned quickly how to play cards and had a real knack for numbers, so by seven-years-of-age he was running his father’s books. His teachers recognized how smart he was. Some even believed he was a genius, so he did what all the clever kids do – he dropped out of school. He played gin rummy around the city, where his nickname ‘The Kid’ was born due to his height and the fact he was so young. He became so good that eventually, players wouldn’t sit at the table with him, so he packed his bags and headed to Vegas. 

Las Vegas Calling 

In 1980 Stu Ungar sat down and placed his first ever bet in the World Series of Poker, then went on to win the entire tournament along with the $365,000 first prize. Not bad for a 26-year-old who had only just recently picked up the game. The next year he returned to defend his title and won that one too, pocketing $375,000, and people began referring to him as the greatest player in the world. Ungar walked with a swagger and the look of a member of the Rolling Stones, yet this was the beginning of his harrowing spiral downwards into the depths of despair. Where other professional gamblers would be depositing their winning, investing in property and the future of their family, Ungar didn’t even have a bank account. His electricity was switched off at his home as he hadn’t paid the bill, yet he had a stack of cash to pay it with. He just forgot. Unbeatable at the poker table, the green felt was his domain yet sports and racing gambling was his Achilles heel. He’d place bets on horses with no knowledge of their form and once lost $110,000 on a horse race after it broke its leg in the straight, dismissing it as part of gambling. He had an insatiable appetite for action yet with the horses and sport he was a loser.

Las Vegas

 “A good loser is still a fucking loser.”

In the 80s he begins to experiment with cocaine, seen as a keep-you-up in the poker world where sometimes marathon games would go on for days. And like most people with addictions, he also became addicted to that too racking up a $1000 a day habit. In 1986, he got divorced from his wife, and three years later his son committed suicide; Ungar went into freefall and became reclusive. In 1990 one of his friends bankrolled his $10,000 entry fee to the World Series, and he didn’t show for the second day after an adverse reaction to some drugs he was taking and was carted off to hospital.

By this time in his life, he had squandered all his cash and couldn’t even afford to buy his daughter her school clothes. He scratched around, borrowing money to play cards and pay for his habit. In 1997, he returned to the World Series Tournament and again was bankrolled by his mate. He was determined to make amends, to clean up his life and get on with winning an unheard of third World Series.

Close to his heart, in a pocket, sat a photo of his daughter.

After years of despair, drug abuse and living almost like a hobo the poker world witnessed one of the most incredible comebacks in poker history, winning his third World Series of Poker Tournament.

He picked up a cheque for $1 million. One moment destitute, the next a millionaire.

“No one ever beat me playing cards. I beat myself”

And beat himself he did for within four months he had lost his share of the winnings and was broke once again. For a third time, his mate bankrolled him so that he could defend his title in 1998 but he was in bad shape and told his friends he was too tired to play. Around that time, he got arrested for possession of crack cocaine and both family and friends urged him to take the best odds he would ever get: Go to rehab.

He refused.

On November 22, 1998, Ungar was found dead in a cheap motel in Vegas.

He died of a heart condition, aged 45, after years of drug abuse. This was the man with the rock star looks who had lived in Caesar’s Palace, was treated like royalty and mobbed wherever he went by his fans.

Earning over $30million playing the game, Ungar had only $800 in his pocket when he was found dead.

Changing Times For Gamblers

In 2013, after numerous studies in psychology, neuroscience, and genetics, The American Psychiatric Association (APA) agreed thatgambling and drug addiction were far more similar than previously believed. In a landmark decision, it moved gambling to its ‘addictions’ chapter.

Further research has shown that pathological gamblers and drug addicts share impulsivity and reward seeking. As drug users crave even stronger hits to get high so compulsive gamblers take even more chances. We know now that up to80 percent of gambling addicts never seek treatment and for those that do, 75 percent return to the casinos anyway.

We will never know if Ungar could have been helped if he had agreed to rehab.

Kid Poker

Daniel Negreanu is another kid who was bright in school and good at maths but found the whole thing too boring, so he hung out at the local pool hall instead where he hustled to make some cash. He took to poker, playing in the local charity halls, making $44 an hour, “I thought this was my calling,” he said.

At the age of 21 Negreanu’s father died, so he focused on playing poker to take the pain away, slowly building up a bankroll so he could go to Las Vegas to seek his fame and fortune. When he eventually had $3,000 in his hand he left for Sin City.

Dan Negreanu


Within 24 hours he had lost the lot, so he returned to Toronto to build his bank once again. Off he flew back to Vegas, only to lose the lot again, so he’d go home build his bank and return. Then lose and go home, build his bank . . .

“I took those lumps and didn’t worry too much about it.”

Where others would have given up, Negreanu refused to be beaten, such was his desire to make it. Even when he was broke, he woke up ready to kick arse again that day. Along the way, he learned he had to change his playing persona if he was going to be a success.

The penny dropped after one long and intense game when he lost all his chips and went to the bathroom to wash his face. When he came back all the other players had gone, he’d been the game’s sucker. All they wanted was his cash, and once they had it they called it a day.

Negreanu learned from that day on he could no longer be 100 per cent bull at the table; he had to tone it down. Instead, he concentrated on being the best he could be, putting in the hours, watching and learning.

In a bizarre coincidence Negreanu had a dream one night, where he went down into his basement and in the cold, standing there was Stu Ungar, who looked at him and said, “Don’t do what I did kid. You gotta fly straight.”

The next morning he found out that Ungar had died that night.

First Major Win

In 1998, he got his big break and in his first ever World Series of Poker (WSOP) Tournament at the first table he bluffed Johnny Chan (who had won WSOP in 1987 and 1988) and got away with it.

Negreanu realised he could do this and ended up on the final table where he eventually won his first ever WSOP bracelet, becoming the youngest player at 23 to do so, collecting a cheque for $169,460 for his troubles.

After winning some more cash in 1999, Negreanu blew the lot over the preceding months. In one game, he had a $30,000 bankroll and was so drunk he couldn’t walk. In a few hands, he lost the lot and was now officially broke.

Self Doubts

He began to have a few self-doubts. “What have I got to do to make it work? Can I? Am I good enough?” he said. He went on to play 80-90 hours a week to get his bankroll back, “It was a character building moment for me.”

If he borrowed money, he made sure he played tournaments and won it back. He began to understand that he could, in fact, play poker well and realised that if he did become broke, he could win it all back again.

Negreanu has always stated that is his capacity to stay one step ahead of the game that has made him a success. He has had to evolve continuously and ensure he works hard for his success.

With all the young guns coming through these days with their new theories he has adapted to new styles of gameplay. Just because he was good five years ago does not mean he is good enough now, so he “re-learnt what all these kids are learning.”

Negreanu’s slow descent down his ladder of desperation began with the death of his mother, and he started to look at the world differently. It took a toll on his performances, and he hit a bad streak where the forums berated him, trying to destroy him.

However, Negreanu wouldn’t be broken, and he went back to what he does best: he re-studied the game, worked out what he had to change to be a success.

Instead of feeling depressed and sorry for himself he now acknowledged his mistakes and how he could change them. He knew it was all down to your own philosophy if you want to succeed in life.

“People are where they are at, based on decisions they have made in their life. Good or bad.”

Negreanu asked himself what was it that he wanted to achieve? If he believed he could reach it, then he was going to have to do the hard graft to make it work. He says you need passion, “Whatever you choose to do in your life, being passionate is a pre-requisite.”

Negreanu climbed back up the ladder, and today he is considered to be the best poker player of his generation, having amassed over $30million playing the game he loves.

Self Determination Theory

Self-determination theory’s premise is that people have a need to feel self-determined and competent when acting in their environment, that they need to gamble as it gives them pleasure and satisfaction. Intrinsic motivation to experience stimulation ties in nicely with Negreanu, as it gives pleasure to gamblers who surpass themselves and improve on what they know.

Throughout his career he has tried to better himself, evolve and become a better player and this is perhaps one of the reasons why Kid Poker is at the top of the game.

The Emporium Barber
The Emporium Barber

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