Poker Evolution Part 2: Stu Ungar

Poker Evolution Part 2: Stu Ungar

Monday, 19 May 2014

Back for the second article in his series looking at the evolution of strategy over time is RankingHero Ambassador Nicolas Levi, continuing with 'The Kid' himself - Stu Ungar.

Poker is adaptation. The top players are the ones who find the best style against their opponents. As poker has evolved, so have the weapons of the poker players. In this series, we will analyse how poker strategy got to where it is today, and where it will go tomorrow. Follow me on this journey and you’ll know how to adapt to new conditions, table textures, and what to do in delicate unknown spots. Here we learn to ask ourselves “Why?” rather than just “How?”

Stu Ungar. A Legend. Whether you like the talented degenerate kid or not, there is much to be learned from analysing his play. Stu taught himself the game by watching and by playing the older pros. He quickly moved up, playing various games against a range of different opponents, and some how always seemed to come out on top. Soon he was widely recognised as the most talented player of his generation (not only for poker, but also for gin rummy, among other things!). His fearless style and loose bankroll management took its toll on him, however. In 1997, after years of fighting with various addictions, he took a break from the drugs to make his infamous comeback at the World Series. Yes kids, this was pre-“Mike McDermott and TeddyKGB poker”! The anticipation when he made the final as the chip leader was extraordinary. The final table ended up having to be held outside the Horseshoe Casino in Fremont Street in order to accommodate the huge crowd that wanted to see him play!

Fortunately for the poker community, all of the action was recorded by Tom Sims using a cassette recorder. Jessica Welmann from the WSOP found these tapes 10 years later, and inspired Clayton Newman (owner of the best avatar on 2+2) to write a fascinating article with his analysis of Stu’s play. I can’t recommend it enough. Thanks to these three we have invaluable data and insight into the style of Ungar and his opponents, and the state of high stakes poker in 1997. I take my hat off to them; this article wouldn’t exist without their effort.

Six players remain, and there is a million at stake. Here is the situation at the beginning of the Final Table.

Ungar 2


The blinds are 5k/10k with a 2k ante, meaning that Stu, the chip leader, has a comfortable 110 big blinds. The short stacks range between 20 and 30 big blinds. Walker and Strzemp have enough to play deep stack poker – but will they?

Let’s review each opponent and their tendencies, and see how we would approach this 1997 WSOP final table if we were in Stu’s shoes.

From our left (along with their winnings for information):

Peter Bao ($127,200)
Peter has 20 big blinds. He is a small stakes pro and will feel compelled to play tight unless he doubles up. Given that it’s 1997, he probably doesn’t know that he should move all in a lot against weak opens.

Bob Walker ($416 847)
With 60 big blinds and two to our left, Bob is one of the players that can make our break our destiny on this final table. In this case we expect this serious pro to play rather tight.

John Strzemp ($990 448)
John Strzemp is the wild card on the final table. He plays pretty loose and is capable of bluffing. Still, light three-bets haven’t been “discovered” yet, so he will smooth call pre-flop a lot with medium to strong hands. Watch out for him if he doubles up.

Mel Judah ($3,545,958)
Mel Judah is another professional. He’s not in a great position with 25 bigs right now, but he will open up a bit if he gets some chips. Given his position and our reputation (we are Stu Ungar, remember) he will probably avoid playing big pots against us if he can.

Ron Stanley ($1 620 883)
With 70 big blinds and a natural loose tendency, pro poker player Ron Stanley is one of the possible dangers at the table.

Note that the style of the day is very different from 2014:
- Limping is not yet considered an unfashionable mistake
- 3.5x is the standard opening raise (and these guys are fairly typical for their day)
- No continuation bets, contrasted with many donk bets for information
- No light three-bets, no squeezes, no New York Back Raises or Hong Kong Kung Fu Bends!
One more thing – the payouts are extremely top heavy, and your reputation as a baller who never makes deals has preceded you:
1st: One cool million
2nd: $583,000
3rd: $371,000
4th: $212,000
5th: $161,120
6th: $127,200

Ungar 3

Pro Tip: Review Your Game Plan

Whenever you hit at new table sit back mentally and check that your style fits the table texture. Make a conscious effort every hour to review the situation. Is your game adjusted to your opponents? What is your image? What mistakes are they making, and are you taking advantage?

Finally, are you in the right shape physically and mentally to play your A-game? If not get up, or, if you are in a tournament, play a safe B-game until you feel better.

So you are Stu Ungar. What is your game plan? You want to maximise the reward and minimise the risk. The first question you should ask is 'What type of mistakes are my opponents making?' This is the final table of the WSOP and you are the chip leader, with a formidable reputation as perhaps the best poker player that ever lived. Yup, you guessed it: they will be folding too much!

Lagtard Solution

Stu’s reputation is that of a very loose aggressive player, seemingly reckless, but so good at making reads that he can make successful plays with the worst hand. If opponents fold too much, we could choose to open roughly 40% to 55% of the hands. To support this strategy, we would reraise pre-flop with medium or weak hands, and fire multiple barrels post-flop. To be a successful lagtard, we must show suspicious opponents that in order to keep us honest they will have to play for all their chips. It’s not a bad strategy, as the three short stacks might try to gain one spot in the payouts, and the three-bets will take everyone by surprise. Still, there are a few pitfalls:

- This is what everyone expects of you. Short stacks may see you as the best person to gamble against, or simply tilt shove if you abuse them too much. Big stacks may call you down unpredictably and increase variance massively.
- The payouts are top heavy. As a result, short stacks may be more willing to gamble, making it more difficult for us.
- Opening to 3.5x makes it difficult to three-bet cheaply without getting committed. Without this move at our disposal, a lagtard strategy is much harder to put in place.

Smallball Solution

Controlled aggression post-flop suddenly seems a much better plan. In today’s world, this is the favoured style. Frequent aggressive lines, small bet sizing, constant threats. Basically summed up as: “if they check, you bet”. Against players that are too tight or passive, this is a great plan: you will simply win many small pots uncontested. When the pots get big, you tighten up a lot to diminish variance; by then, nobody gives you credit anymore anyway, so you get action. We will study this modern style of play in the next episode of these Poker Evolution articles, taking inspiration from the Great Dane, Gus Hansen.

If this was your first instinct, it’s not a bad choice, but there are a few caveats:

- If you open to 3.5x like everyone else, you risk a lot to win a little. If you open smaller than everyone else, you will get called multiple times because you’re getting on their nerves and it’s “cheap”. Multi-way pots are harder to bluff at, and even more so against a mix of big and small stacks.
- By auto-betting most flops, you take small edges and become predictable. If you bet small on the flop, you will get a lot of people peeling one card, and will have to take big decisions on the turn with little info.

Stu Ungar’s solution: decide on the turn.
A simplistic title for a well thought out plan. Stu knows that he is the post-flop king at this (or any) table. His opponents play very face-up, often defining their hands quickly on the flop. This plan seems very sensible in 1997 for a few reasons. It helps you protect your hand, build bigger pots when you have it, avoid losing unnecessary chips when you don’t, and increase your chances of seeing free cards when you need them. Unfortunately, it only works if your opponents are playing the same game, and the “Comeback Kid” is not from this breed. Betting the hands you “like” and only bluffing sometimes on the turn or river when you miss your draw (typically) makes you very predictable.

Stu’s plan seemed to be the following:
- Pre-flop: Steal often when first to act, but not as much as one might expect (raising around 25% of the time). See many flops, but not always as the aggressor: flat call and limp along routinely.
- Flop: Be very passive whenever possible, checking back or calling bets.
- Turn and River: Soul read everyone with all the information they give away.

By defining his hand late, Stu leverages the fact that his ranges are more balanced than that of his opponents. Why bet in the dark beforehand when the success rate is so much lower? The edge on the turn is so huge than Stu is willing to let people in; for example, by checking his option on the big blind after two weak limpers.

There is an exception to this rule, and his name is Strzemp. Against an aggressive opponent Stu defines his hand quickly, and bets much bigger (closer to pot) than against the rest of the table. I will take a good guess that Stu saw Strzemp as the most difficult player to read. He reduced the odds of going far in a hand with him by betting early and big.

Ungar 4

Pro tip: Define your hand at the right time

Defining your hand late is recommended when your opponent is more likely to make a mistake as a result. For example: if you are in position, they play badly, or your draw is very unlikely.

The opposite is also true: define and protect your hand quickly when it’s what they suspect you have, you are out of position, and the opponent is a good player.


Stu went on to win the tournament, making a huge impression on everyone with what seemed like the most aggressive, suffocating poker at the time. So many novel ideas put together show that Ungar was more than “an aggressive kid with great reads”; indeed, he was a strategic expert. Would Stu Ungar still be the best today? Possibly, but his playing style would have to be massively different to fit today's games. Stu adapted to the conditions of his day, but passed too early to participate in the big strategic revolution that came next with the advent of internet poker. With today’s knowledge against such a table, the perfect strategy might be to play like Stu while mixing in some “click back” three-bets to exploit large openings… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves: this move won’t be discovered until 2008!

Next stop: internet poker, and the rise of smallball poker. See you next month!

Ungar 5

Tags: Nicolas Levi, Stu Ungar, strategy