Aces and Kings: Inside Stories and Million-Dollar Strategies from Poker’s Greatest Players, by Michael Kaplan and Brad Reagan is a collection of revealing vignettes and candid portraits documenting some of poker’s most fascinating figures.
Chasing Aces and Kings
By Michael Kaplan and Brad Reagan
Back in the spring of 1998, a now defunct magazine called Icon sent me to Las Vegas with what seemed like a novel assignment: write about poker. More specifically, tell the story of the rise, fall, and then rise again of Stu ‘the Kid’ Ungar. After winning back-to-back World Series championships in the early 1980s, Ungar became immersed in drugs and blew millions of dollars recklessly betting on sports. Then, in 1997, he came back from the depths of degeneracy to win the World Series for a stunning third time.
My job was to write about The Comeback Kid’s attempt to win his fourth championship bracelet, but Ungar was completely strung out on drugs again and he refused to come down from his room to play. As the Series went on without the defending champ, I still needed a story and finally convinced him to let me come upstairs to room 1258 in Binion’s Horseshoe for a preliminary conversation. Looking like he was on the verge of death - grey skinned, jumpy, emaciated - Ungar vowed that he would speak to me the next morning. Over the course of the
ensuing few days, I made countless calls to his room and each time he demanded that I call back later. Between the endless brush-offs, I interviewed dozens of Ungar’s friends and poker rivals and filled a couple notebooks with tales of his genius and self-destructive behavior.
When the World Series ended, however, Ungar slipped out of the Horseshoe and seemed to vaporize into the Las Vegas night.
A few weeks passed before I returned to Vegas to resume the hunt. With the assistance of Suzie Weiss (who ran the Mirage poker room at the time, and is now married to the famed Howard Lederer), I tracked down a friend who got a message to Ungar. Early the next morning, I was sitting in my room at the Rio when the telephone rang. He was on the other line, sounding completely lucid. “I knew you were gonna find me,” he said. “I told people,‘That Michael Kaplan is an aggressive f*cking guy. He’s gonna track me down.’”
I managed to catch Ungar during a brief moment in which the poker legend was off drugs and thinking clearly. We met later that afternoon for a long interview that provided a mesmerizing look into his remarkable life and deeply troubled mind. Countless phone conversations followed before he succumbed once again to the lures of cocaine and faded back into the Vegas netherworld. Just several months later Stu Ungar met his untimely - but hardly unexpected - death on November 22, 1998.
The story that came out of that experience has been updated and reconfigured as a chapter in
the book. My co-writer, Brad Reagan, applied the same shoeleather reporting to other titans of
high-stakes poker when researching the book. As I did with Ungar, we tried to show not only their scary talents at the table but their remarkable lives beyond the felt as well. And, by starting with backroom bully Puggy Pearson and ending with young superstars like Daniel Negreanu and Erick Lindgren, we hoped to create a loose history of modern poker.
During the 2004 World Series of Poker, we set up base-camp at the Las Vegas Club, across the street from Binion’s Horseshoe, and doggedly pursued cardroom demigods such as Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson, and Phil Hellmuth. Some were elusive, many were willing to talk but needed to be prodded to provide the juicy, inside stories, and others were wonderfully chatty. In order to build the sort of fully developed portraits we needed, we talked to everyone we could find: the players, their friends and – in some cases – their critics.
Brad, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, flew to Los Angeles and toured Barry Greenstein’s palatial home before tagging along as Greenstein played $2,000/$4,000 Seven-Card Stud against the likes of Phil Ivey and Larry Flynt. Brad also spent a day at Amarillo Slim Preston’s sprawling Texas ranch, where he got bucked off of a horse – much to Slim’s never-ending amusement. I caught up with David ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott in Paris’s posh Aviation Club, and watched the Devil mix it up with a table full of French pot-limit specialists. In Los Angeles, I spent several days with Men ‘The Master’ Nguyen and his cartel of Vietnamese poker pros. No longer confined to the casinos of Las Vegas, poker is now truly an international game – and our airline mileage statements bear that out.
As we completed Aces and Kings, during the fall and winter of 2004, poker’s boom continued unabated. Players like Negreanu, Chris Ferguson and Annie Duke blossomed into true pop-culture celebrities, spending as much time on TV as some of the world’s best-known actors. Coming up for air, we realized that our timing for doing this book could not have been better. Top players are suddenly guarded by teams of managers, agents, and PR gurus, and not always accessible. That summer of 2004, when we did the bulk of our reporting, may stand as the last time it was possible to get the kind of deep access required to produce a detailed, unvarnished look at what it’s like to be among the world’s greatest poker players.