LAS VEGAS -- Have there ever been two guys, from the top of the same creative profession, who were as different as Stuey Ungar and Barry Greenstein?
Ungar is poker's ultimate cautionary fable, the game's mythic answer to legendary pop culture flameouts like Jimi Hendrix and James Dean. He was a predator in a waif's body, an instinctive and hyper-aggressive card-playing genius, all id and cunning, who absolutely refused to go gentle into that good night. Like Hendrix and Dean, he was implacably faithful to his religious beliefs right up until his premature death: "Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse."
The other end of the spectrum is where Greenstein lives. One of the greatest players alive (no less an authority than Doyle Brunson rates him in his all-time Top 10), he is poker's answer to Albert Einstein, a restless truth seeker who has as much of a passion to know and understand everything as Ungar had a passion not to know. Greenstein, aka the Robin Hood of Poker, donates all his millions in tournament winnings to charities that help the poor children of the world. Though he is also faithful to his religion, his is a faith that preaches personal responsibility, social decency, respect for your work (even if your "work" is poker), and the primacy of rational thought in all things, from sex to lending money (Greenstein generally sides with Shakespeare, who wrote, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be") to how to raise your kids to how to play A-5 suited against Gus Hansen when there are only four players left in a tournament.
Want to know more? Then you'll want to pick up a couple of recently published books, both of which belong on the top shelf of every poker player's library:
1) "One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey 'The Kid' Ungar, the World's Greatest Poker Player," by Nolan Dalla and Peter Alson, is the biography of poker's ultimate self-destructive genius, the only real three-time winner of the game's ultimate prize -- the World Series of Poker main event. (Technically, Johnny Moss also won the WSOP three times, but his first victory -- over less than a full table of opponents -- was by vote of the competitors, and the other two were against tiny fields of fellow pros, almost all of them road warriors from Texas. That was back in poker's Paleolithic Era, when there were no Orient Expresses, no New York wise guys, no dot-com millionaires, no Internet kids with delusions of bulletproofness, let alone game theorists with Ph. D's and cowboy hats.)
2) Greenstein's "Ace on the River: An Advanced Poker Guide," the eagerly anticipated 21st century equivalent of Brunson's "Super/System," is a book that will change the way the game is played, especially at its highest levels, and, if Greenstein's fondest wish comes true, the way many of us live our lives.
The making -- and unmaking -- of "The Kid"
Raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan -- just like Jackpot Jay -- Ungar was the classic American outsider, tiny and fragile-looking, Jewish, son of a frequently absent, generally inattentive bookmaker father and a mentally unstable mother. He talked too fast and too much and too aggressively, and as my mother might have put it, he was "too clever by half." I knew a lot of guys like Ungar (of course, not as good card players, though some were world-class bridge and hearts players) in my neighborhood and also at Harpur College in Binghamton, N.Y., where a lot of the same Lower East Side wise guys wound up, at least for a while. In fact, I was a lot more like Ungar -- or at least, had a lot more in common with him -- than I'm comfortable admitting, even to myself.