Stu Ungar bluffs Ron Stanley in battle of big stacks at 1997 WSOP Main Event final table.

In 1980, Stu Ungar won the World Series of Poker Main Event on his very first try. He returned in 1981 and again Ungar made the final table. As Al Alvarez reports in The Biggest Game in Town, that’s when poker legend Johnny Moss handicapped the chances of “The Kid” repeating as champion.

“I reckon Stuey’s got it made,” said Moss of the 27-year-old phenom from New York. “He may not look like Buffalo Bill, but he’s one tough poker player. That boy’s got alligator blood in his veins.”

It’s a great line, one likely having inspired a frustrated Teddy KGB to make a similar comment about Mike McDermott in Rounders. Ungar went on to win in 1981. Then after more than a decade-and-a-half of struggles with drug addiction and other demons, Ungar surprisingly returned to another WSOP Main Event final table in 1997.

One of the more memorable hands at that final table involved Ungar and Ron Stanley, a poker pro known as “The Carolina Express” who had won a bracelet before in a limit hold’em event in 1991.

Stanley had gone deep in WSOP Main Events before as well, making the final three tables on a couple of occasions during the ’90s. He also stood out thanks to having come to the final table dressed in a tuxedo and bowtie, albeit with a white baseball cap and shades. Those accessories were useful, as this was the only Main Event final table played outdoors. The players sat at a table in front of Binion’s Horseshoe with the Vegas sun beating down upon them as usual that hot May afternoon.

There were 312 players that year, and as was customary then the final table was six-handed. Ungar started the final day in front with just over a million chips, with Stanley his nearest challenger with just under 700,000.

After 35 hands, Ungar was still the leader and still with around a million, while Stanley had closed the gap after chipping up around 900,000. They were the two big stacks then, when the following hand took place.

The Hand

Unfortunately for Stanley, for the final table he drew a seat to Ungar’s right, meaning the chip leader would have position on him most of the time — a factor that proved meaningful in this hand.

The blinds were 5,000/10,000, and after Stanley limped in from the small blind, Ungar checked his option in the big blind and the flop fell A♠6♠9♥. Both checked.

The turn was the 8♣. Stanley led for 25,000, and after a brief pause Ungar raised to 60,000.

“If I had to guess at this point, I would say Stuey has two pair,” said Gabe Kaplan while delivering commentary for ESPN. Phil Hellmuth co-hosted that year, and when Kaplan asked him what he thought, Hellmuth speculated Ungar could have 10-9.

Keep in mind the announcers didn’t have the benefit of hole card cameras, and so had to guess right along with everyone else what the players were holding.

Stanley thought a while and called, then the river brought the K♦, making the final board A♠6♠9♥8♣K♦. Stanley checked quickly, then Ungar made a big bet of 220,000. That was more than the pot, and even more than what the two short stacks Mel Judah and Peter Bao were sitting behind.

“I’ll tell you this much, I’m really beginning to love Stuey’s hand here. It doesn’t look like a nine-ten anymore,” said Hellmuth.

“Yeah, and I don’t think he’s got two pair anymore,” Kaplan replied. “Having played with Stuey over the years, I would say that Stuey’s usually got a straight or he was drawing to a straight. In other words, he’s got the 5-7 or the 7-9, or he’s got a 10-J or a 10-Q. I would put him on one of those four hands.”

After a long time in the tank, Stanley finally folded. Ungar immediately flipped over his cards to show what he had — Q♠10♣. For the cameras (it appears), the dealer turned over Stanley’s hand as well to reveal he had folded a nine for a pair of nines. Incidentally, the ESPN telecast appears to show his hand as 9♦7♦, although that hand might have been staged afterwards as the actual hand Stanley folded looked like two black cards.

“Stuey played that hand exactly like he would have played it if he had a straight or if he had nines and eights,” noted Kaplan, completing his solid read of the hand and situation.

Unlike another famous poker hand Ungar once played in which he correctly called an opponent’s bluff while holding only 10-high to win, here Ungar was the one doing the bluffing. They didn’t use terms like “polarized” then, but as Kaplan’s analysis suggests that’s exactly what Ungar’s big river bet indicated. Ungar was either very strong or had nothing at all.

Like most successful bluffs, Ungar told a good “story” with his bets, and Stanley believed it.

Stanley ultimately fell in fourth before Ungar went on to win his third WSOP Main Event title and equal Moss’ record, prompting an update of his nickname to “The Comeback Kid.” It proved a final triumph for him, as Ungar sadly died the following year at age 45. The hand versus Stanley, one of several in which Ungar confirmed his reputation for fearless aggression, helped cement both the win and Ungar’s status as a legendary player.

Having that alligator blood in his veins no doubt helped.

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