Writer and directed by A.W. Vidmer, High Roller tells the compelling true story of Stu Ungar (Michael Imperioli). The 2003 smash hit won many awards and was a box office sensation. It is a biographical film based off of the amazing book “One of a Kind.” Ungar is a gifted card player, and he has an addiction to the tables at the local casinos. The movie follows him through flashbacks and is a heavy hitter from the start. He was nicknamed “Stewie,” and it seemed like he had everything going for him though the calls from the underworld were just too strong for the teen.
He developed a taste for poker and gin rummy during his early years. His father was a booker at the local night club that he owned. It was his father that inadvertently helped him nurture his love for cards. His father had mob connections that intrigued the child. The mob and his father were duly impressed with Ungar’s unique ability. Like any parent, his father was concerned where this talent would take him. Having mob ties himself, he knew the grave danger his son would be waiting for him.
It doesn’t take long for Ungar’s gambling problems to begin. He lost all of his money from his bar mitzvah at a local racetrack, much to the dismay of his father. While he seemed to be splendid at playing cards, he just didn’t have any luck betting on the ponies. In debt up to his eyeballs by the time he was only 20 years old, the mob’s loan sharks were ready to pounce. Vincent, played by (Michael Nouri), offers him a once in a lifetime deal to get the mob off his back and have his debts paid in full. As a favor to his father, he would wipe the slate clean if Ungar entered a local tournament in Las Vegas. The tournament was for gin rummy players and not only does he clean up, but this is where his real addiction to the casino takes off. Having the sensation of winning was like adding fuel to a fire. He was unstoppable. This is the point where his life takes a drastic turn downhill too.
Some of the flashbacks relived pleasant times. Amidst all the drinking, drugs and gambling he did find time to fall in love. There were some pleasant parts to the movie. His marriage to wife, Flo, was good for just a short period. Together they had his only child, daughter Stephanie. His wife and daughter meant the world to him, but he was unable to overcome his addictions enough to enjoy what he had. The drugs and gambling would be the demise to him both emotionally and physically. Due to his severe problems, his marriage crumbled. His wife took his daughter, which only further fed his gambling addictions. Not having his child left a large hole in his heart, which he filled with his passions.
Ungar ascended deeper into his addictions, and he lost all sense of boundaries. His friends became those in the local casinos. He spiraled downhill pretty quickly after the loss of his family. Though he received prestige in Vegas, it didn’t change the fact that the personal demons didn’t allow him to find peace in this life. He was known as a local celebrity in Vegas, and he cleaned cleans house at the World Series of Poker in both 1980-1981. With most gambling comes an addiction to other things too. Ungar soon found that he loved to bet on the ponies, even though he wasn’t that good at it. On a rocky road, he hit rock bottom and had no choice but to rebuild his life. He rebounded in 1996 long enough to win the World Series of Poker Tournament yet again. Though he came back a winner, his win was short lived.
Like most with severe addictions, his life met a tragic end. On the last night of Ungar’s life, it shows him in a motel room. He had just won the Poker Tournament and was reeling from the victory. Though he had been down and out over and over again, this time he seemed to be on a high. The movie ends with a stranger coming to his hotel room to get him. The stranger is a figurative representation of death. The rise and fall of a great man with an addiction moved audiences and touched many hearts. Though it doesn’t show him dying, it just leaves enough for the audience to know that his habits lead him to his death. Like so many people, when addictions are so powerful, and they can be difficult to overcome.
It is a compelling storyline for many who fight or know someone who fights similar habits. The movie received rave reviews for tackling difficult subject matter and talking about one of the great Vegas legends. It won the Best Feature in 2003 at the Nashville Film Festival Audience Choice Award, and in the same year the Best Director award at the San Diego Film Festival. There were appearances by sports enthusiasts like Al Bernstein and Vince Van Patten.