Movie Review – High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story

It's often insisted that Stu Ungar, aka 'The Kid' was ahead of his time, a misunderstood genius if you will. He had three WSOP main event titles and three Amarillo Slim's Super Bowl of Poker trophies under his belt – there's no denying it takes a genius to do that! But that's not the whole story - it is just one side of the coin for the talented gambler. His life was anything but enjoyable, and for the most part, he was the one to bring pain and suffering in it. People would put down Ungar's self-destructive behaviour to mis-parenting and the tragedies he had encountered in life. The image of shattered dreams, death and despair resurfaces over and over, each time stronger than before... So who was he after all?
The Story of Professional Card Player Stuart Ungar Share on Pinterest

Stuart Errol Ungar – How Did He Live?

Born and raised in a Jewish family, Stuart Ungar was exposed to gambling in all its forms at an early age despite his father’s earnest effort to keep him at arm’s length from such activities. This wasn’t the easiest thing to do for Stuey’s father Isidore Ungar though. Being a bookmaker and the owner of the Foxes Corner bar, which later became a gambling facility, you could say that Isidore’s professional background is what pushed young Stu to start playing for money.

He exchanged school classes for playing underground gin runny and before long became, in his own right, a force to be reckoned with. Isidore Ungar died on July 25, 1967, leaving son and wife Faye with practically no source of income. Because of this, Stuart had little choice but to stick to his guns and try to monetise his penchant for gambling. Although he was only five feet four, he thought and played like a giant and quickly made a name for himself in the New York poker circles.

What’s ‘High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story’ About?

With this film, the producer F.A Miller takes on the difficult task to describe the life of gin and poker world champion Stu Ungar. The movie was distributed by New Line Cinema in 2003 and appeared on cable television as ‘High Roller’. It doesn’t simply flag up the issue of gambling addiction, but it deals with the problem in its purest form – by looking at it from the lens of the three-times WSOP main event winner. Designed initially as a biographical film, High Roller portrays the descent of young Stuart Ungar into problem gambling.

Leading actor Michael Imperioli gives a believable account of a life marked by mistrust and high-stakes drama. The movie depicts the incredible intellectual stature of Ungar correctly, but it looks as though his cocaine addiction has been under-represented. The plot reaches its climax at the very end of the movie, at what seems to be a motel room where reportedly Stu Ungar was found dead by a cleaning lady.

A Divisive Movie Based on a True Story

There is a documentary about Stu Ungar’s life that more or less confirms the scenario we outlined above, so what is it about the movie that provoked the negative response from the public? Well, don’t forget this is a biographic movie and should reflect the actual life of Stu Ungar, but that just isn’t quite so. For instance, as dramatic and dark as the film is, Michael Imperioli just looks far too healthy for the ardent drug addict Stu was. Even in the final scene, when supposedly his mysterious guest takes his life, Ungar’s physical condition doesn’t even hint at persistent drug abuse, nor the reported heart condition that caused his death.

Details like this make the line between a biopic and a whatever movie that much murkier. The unsuspecting viewer might get the impression that drug addiction could be the least likely cause of Ungar’s death, while the opposite is true. Keep in mind that the movie was released in the wake of the online poker boom and maybe the dazzling career with a fatal ending portrayed therein just wasn’t what the young poker aspirants expected. So that’s another angle to look at it when trying to explain why so many people share that High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story fell short of their expectations.

Close but No Cigar

The movie didn’t provide a perspective from the right angle to the viewer. Stu wasn’t the kind of player that treats others with respect nor did he abode by the unwritten fair play table rules. And this is a big no-no in the underground gambling world. After all, why do you think he needed the protection of friend and mentor Victor Romano? Ungar’s notorious edginess wasn’t adequately shown and didn’t evolve fully in the movie. Though well-acted by Michael Imperioli, the role of Stuart Ungar doesn’t tell us much about his bad poker manners aside from a single blow-up scene where he abuses the dealer verbally.

Whereas, Jan Fisher, a poker dealer at the time, describes Stu as ‘one of the worst’ in that regard, which suggests, again, that the picture we’re getting from the movie is incomplete. Instead, we’re being shown in a very selective manner the good side of Ungar: the generous tips, the good friend he was etc. This creates the uneasy feeling that something is missing, coupled with the impression of cherry-picking facts in order to support a particular view that was meant to be imposed.

Not a Single Professional Card Player Starred in the Movie

Sadly, no real-life poker players took part in High Roller. This is a big miss because it would have lent more credence to the alleged biographical inspiration the movie was grounded on. On a different note, the problem raises up the issue of budget. The minimalistic setting and static camera shots betray a somewhat low-budget production made for television. That’s not to say that Michael Imperioli and the rest of the cast didn’t do their part of the job. The movie is well-acted, it just needs more authenticity to substantiate on the claim that it’s based on historical events.

What gives more weight to titles like Rounders and Lucky You, for example, is the appearance of poker pros, albeit brief. Titans like Johny Chan, Barry Greenstein and Sammy Farha can make any poker movie come to life. You see where we’re going with this, right? These familiar faces give the said movies more depth, and the feel of legitimacy and those are not even based on a real story.

Remake It or Take It As Is?

Although not hugely acclaimed, High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story is a movie liked by many. The screenplay definitely has merit, though it’s not 100% conforming to the facts. We tried our hardest to glean whether the positive comments outweigh the outpouring of negative feedback and it seems they are offset against each other. In short, while some think the movie is extraordinary, there are also those who believe it’s the other way around.

If anything, we can firmly say that High Roller has touched movie critics and regular viewers in many different ways, which is the whole point of making a movie. If you’re an unbiased poker fan with no particular interest in Stu Ungar’s past, you might be interested in buying and watching the DVD, just don’t expect to find a piece of history in there. Still, Stu Ungar made it to the ‘poker hall of fame’ and is still remembered as one of the best poker players that the tables have seen.

Frequently Asked Questions

We tried to cover the topic as good as possible but, still, we are sure that many of you would like to have the info synthesised and easily accessible. That is why we created the following section filled with the questions that people asked most frequently about Stu Ungar. We hope that you will enjoy them and don’t forget that our blog is filled with hundreds of topics that can spike the interest of any gambler!

🤵 Who is Stu Ungar?

Stuart Errol Ungar was one of the most famous poker players in its times. He was born and raised in a Jewish family and his father, Isidore Ungar, was a bookmaker and a bar-owner. In 1967, Isidore died and left his son and his mother, Faye, with no income, which was what pushed Stu towards the poker tables professionally.

🃏 Why was Stu Ungar so good?

That is a question that no one can answer for sure, unfortunately. As a starter, Stu was exposed to gambling from a very early age, because of his father. But more importantly, he was extremely intelligent and this was his 'superpower' that led him to win three WSOP titles.

📆 What year was the movie 'High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story' launched?

The movie was distributed in 2003 by New Line Cinema. Later on, it was launched also on cable television but with a different name. On the TV, it was called just 'High Roller'. The film was produced by F.A. Miller and his team, which took upon themselves the hard task to describe the turbulent life of Stu Ungar.

⚱️ How did Stu Ungar die?

Stu Ungar was found dead in the Oasis Motel in Vegas. He was fully clothed without any traumas visible. No drugs were found in the room but the following examination proved the presence of substances in Stu's blood. Still, they were not enough to cause an OD. The medical examiner's report stated that Stu Ungar died from a heart condition, caused by long years of drug abuse.

⛪ When did Stu Ungar die?

The dead body of Stu Ungar was found on November 22, 1998, in a motel room in Las Vegas. Even though his winnings were estimated to be over $30 million, only $800 were found in him. He was buried with nothing on his name at the Palm Valley View Memorial Park in Vegas. Stupak, who was financing the tournaments of Ungar at that time, raised funds in order to pay for the funeral.

🙋 How tall was Stu Ungar?

Strangely enough, this question is asked by many. Stu was barely five feet four but, as we said in our article, his manners and his way of playing made him appear as a true titan in the eyes of his opponents.

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