Poker on Screen: High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003) –

Poker on Screen: High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story (2003) –

One to miss as the master of the game sees his skills posthumously reduced to Hollywood pastiche like watered-down whisky.

Few poker legends have inspired players of all levels like Stu Ungar. To high rollers, Ungar is both an inspiration and a warning sign, a walking, talking advertisement about the perils of mismanaging your bankroll.

Or at least, he was.

When Stu Ungar died in 1998, it was obvious that his legacy would eventually include movies made about his life. He was made for the silver screen, his quick wit and dark, brooding looks acting as a magnet to poker fans across the world.

From Ungar’s legendary prop-betting and card-counting skills that led to him being barred from gambling in many Las Vegas casinos to tales of him spinning up modest tournament buy-ins into six figures in a matter of days, Ungar is a poker legend. Surely it couldn’t be that hard to bring that magnetic personality to life on the big screen, or even a modest DVD-turned-Netflix sleeper-hit release?

It turns out that it is pretty much impossible.

Ungar’s life was so entertaining and the tales so far-fetched that, in reality, bringing him to dramatic life is a task fraught with danger, and to date, one that has beaten every director tasked with that ambition.

People frequently said of Ungar that no-one would believe some of the things that happened in his life, and the film suffers from that hugely. Scenes that are played out with believable acting and decent, if uninspiring, script don’t crackle with the same energy and vitality Ungar’s play demonstrated because it’s not him on screen.

The genius of Ungar’s personality, what made it a winning one if you like, was that it was unscripted. No-one could have told Ungar what to say, nor how to act. He frequently frustrated those closest to him. He was a gin rummy genius, perhaps the best there ever was. He cracked poker more than its even possible for modern day millionaire players to do so. But he died virtually broke.

The raw truth of Stu Ungar is that his life was both a startlingly hilarious comedy coupled with a tragedy of such woe that no-one could come close to capturing and maintaining a narrative with so much as an arc. Ungar’s life followed no pattern. It broke lines of narrative like it bulldozed through bad taste, big drama and periods of drug abuse.

High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story falls so short of bringing the two-time WSOP Main Event winner’s incredible yet tragically abbreviated career to life that it comes across instead as an affront. That sounds harsh, and is little fault of the actors on screen than the simple fact: recreating what Stu Ungar did, as poker players of all types have proved since, has been and will forever be impossible.

Some movies weren’t meant to be made. Sadly, 5 years after the poker legend’s death, High Roller: The Stu Ungar Story was one of them.

The trailer for the 2003 movie is below. Maybe you’ll see what we mean and head for footage from those Main Event wins instead. We’d recommend it.


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