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October 16, 2018

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Ungar’s play was as hot as the gallery

and Gary Thompson

While some sweltered under the Fremont Street Experience canopy watching several hours of World Series of Poker action, others with a passing interest found relief elsewhere.

Though the stage was air-conditioned for the players, spectators in the bleachers had to settle for a ring of spraying misters that dropped the hot afternoon temperatures a couple of degrees -- but not enough to stop sweat glans from kicking in.

While noted gambler T.J. Cloutier spent the early moments of the tournament seated in the stands alongside former world poker champion Tom McEvoy, he spent the afternoon doing what he knows best -- gambling inside the well-chilled casino.

Cloutier joined two-time world poker champ Johnny Chan and Grand Casinos, Inc., President Lyle Berman at a private craps table, monitored by at least eight floor men, who watched as $5,000 chips were stacked $20,000 to $40,000 high on single rolls of the dice.

While the gamblers gambled, many of the railbirds under the canopy discovered a cooler venue from which to watch the ESPN TV feed -- the Binion's Horseshoe Poker Pavilion, site of the month-long preliminary action to Thursday's finale.

There, hundreds gathered around two-large screen TVs to watch the cameras catch the expressions on the players' faces and -- more importantly -- closeups of the community cards.

"You can see a whole lot more in here than out there," commented one spectator. "And it's sure a lot cooler."

Those who didn't mind the near 100-degree temperatures lined up outdoors for a deep-pit Texas barbecue, where they slapped down $5 bills for brisket, pork ribs and chicken swimming in a tangy sauce on a plate that also featured baked beans, coleslaw and corn bread.

But the hottest action was at the single poker table set up at the crossroads of the Fremont Street Experience where the Horseshoe, Golden Nugget, Pioneer Club and Sassy Sally's meet.

There, the players constantly jockeyed for chip position, hoping to cut into eventual winner Stu Ungar's huge lead, which grew as he constantly made large raises on small pots that the others could not call with marginal hands.

Ungar, legs pumping nervously beneath his chair and constantly rifling chips, was relentless even when losing hands.

When he sustained a $100,000-plus loss in a big pot, he silently mouthed obscenities, then looked up through his deep blue granny glasses into the stands and shrugged at friend and fellow gambler Billy Baxter.

Many assumed, though no one could actually prove that it was Baxter who helped Ungar put up the large buy-in fee on Monday. It is no secret in the poker world that Ungar had been in a tight financial situation as of late.

A SUN reporter recalls that about two months ago, he was sitting across from Ungar as they played in the Monday night $20 buy-in no-limit Texas hold 'em tourney at the Orleans casino. The first-place purse that night was about one percent of the cool million Ungar won Thursday.

Another time during Thursday's finale to the $10,000 buy-in no-limit Texas hold 'em event, Ungar made a large bet on a 9-8 offsuit -- a marginal hand.

After losing the pot, he turned to ESPN television announcer and fellow gambler Gabe Kaplan and grinned sheepishly, saying, "I'm gonna look bad (on TV) playing hands like that."

But aggressive play has always been Ungar's trademark. His slight stature belies an extraordinary competitiveness, determination and willingness to flat out gamble that propelled him to two earlier World Series championships and a host of other victories.

Casino executive John Strzemp, seemingly out of his league against the professional gamblers, won some incredible hands while he unmercifully chain-smoked in a manner that would have made the Marlboro Man envious.

Gambler Ron Stanley was the table's fashion plate in a tuxedo, accessorized with a white baseball cap. On one particular hand, Ungar made him look as foolish as his swirling gray cummerbund.

Stanley had a pair of nines, while Ungar had nothing but queen-high. The five cards on the board held a couple of straight possibilities. What Ungar did have was a lot of chips, and he stuck $220,000 worth into the pot.

Stanley, who had been pressing the bets on that hand, pondered the situation -- call what could be a big bluff and risk being eliminated if Ungar indeed had caught the straight.

Stanley wisely folded, only to be taunted by Ungar, who flipped face-up his two cards that matched nothing on the board. The snickers in the gallery had to irk Stanley as it would any other gambler in that situation.

Two new faces on the poker scene, Las Vegans Peter Bao and Bob Walker, fittingly were the first and second to go, but their $100,000-plus purses were respectable for their first time cashing in at the World Series.

When Stanley was eliminated after trying to pull off a huge bluff against a pair of pocket aces, the field was down to three players.

With the antes at $2,000 each and the blinds $10,000 and $20,000, Mel Judah, the only foreigner among the finalists -- he was born in India and now lives in London -- and Strzemp did not have the luxury to wait for real good hands.

Ungar with $2.1 million in chips, did, but opted to continue the aggressive play that had brought him to the brink of victory.

Judah had played extremely solid, patient and disciplined poker to this point, husbanding his small stack of chips just to survive and making selective positional raises hoping to accumulate more. But he locked horns with Ungar with a marginal hand and was gone.

Down to two players, the game stopped for a moment as several burly Horseshoe security guards came to the table. One carried a cardboard box that once held James River Chiffon white two-ply facial tissues.

Now it held $1 million in bundles of hundred-dollar bills that were dumped onto the table, along with a gold bracelet that soon would belong to Ungar.

When play resumed, Ungar won a few quick pots and held a 4-to-1 edge on Strzemp's chip position.

At 3:04 p.m., Ungar looked at his hole cards, saw the ace of hearts-four of clubs, and raised $60,000. Strzemp, holding the ace of spades-eight of clubs, called.

The flop came ace of clubs-five of diamonds-three of hearts, giving each a pair of aces. Strzemp had the top kicker with his eight, but Ungar had an inside straight draw. Strzemp bet $120,000.

Ungar fidgeted nervously, shuffling his chips and peering back at his hole cards. His eyes darted to the board cards as he calculated his chances.

He knew Strzemp probably had a better kicker to his likely ace, but putting him all-in might force him to fold. In the alternative, Ungar could hit the straight or two running high cards could give him a split.

Ungar raised $800,000. Strzemp didn't hesitate, calling immediately and building a $1,194,000 pot.

The three of diamonds hit on the turn, giving each player two pair. Strzemp had a better kicker, and Ungar needed a card above eight to give him a split pot, a four for two higher pair or a deuce for the winning straight.

The final card was the deuce of spades.

"That was by far my greatest performance ever," a drained Ungar told Horseshoe President Jack Binion. "It was so tough to come back" from the hard times that haunt every professional gambler at some point in their career.