The Best and the Brightest

Is poker a game of chance?” someone asks W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee. “Not the way I play it,” he replies. Fields is an old-style cardsharp and he dresses the part—top hat, white gloves, dingy frock coat. These days professional poker players prefer bomber jackets and baseball caps, but on the question of chance they and Fields would agree: all of them work on the principle that poker, like chess, is a game of skill and the better player will always win in the long run. (What they don’t mention is that even for the best players, the short run can sometimes last longer than they could ever imagine.) Like artists, the professionals see themselves as free spirits, loners who work outside the system, without bosses to answer to or timetables that they haven’t chosen for themselves, and they thrive, some of them spectacularly, simply by virtue of their natural talents. Most have photographic memories and all of them—even old-timers like Puggy Pearson and the late Johnny Moss, whose schooling ended at third grade—are blessed with two gifts: a flair for mathematics that enables them to calculate the odds precisely at each turn of the cards, and an instinct for “reading” other players—for sniffing out the vanities and fears that make them vulnerable, and for figuring out the cards they are holding. It is a formidable combination that would probably bring them success in the straight world, yet, until very recently, when poker became an international craze, even the finest players seemed uneasy about the social status of their chosen profession.

The most conspicuous exception was Stuey Ungar, who is generally reckoned to have been the most gifted card player of all time. In One of a Kind, his biographers, Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson, make it clear that Ungar was never bothered by the opinion of the straight world for the simple reason that he had very little contact with it. His father was a bookie and loan-shark who owned a Lower East Side bar called Fox’s Corner on Second Avenue and 7th Street. The place was popular with gangsters, so Stuey, who went there with his older sister, Judith, every day after school from first grade on, spent what passed for his childhood hanging around “wiseguys.” As he told Nolan Dalla,

I always tried to make excuses to hustle up to the bar where all the guys were talking. I wanted to see what was going on. The first thing I can remember, the first conscious memory that I have, was learning how to work the soda gun. I musta drunk ten Cokes a day trying to weasel my way up to the bar to hear their conversations. I just wanted to be part of it.

Stuey was hyperactive and extremely smart, a fiercely competitive kid who loved taking risks, but he was also undersized, skinny, and fragile; he got his kicks from indoor games, starting with checkers and …

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