Stu Ungar was no joker in the poker world; he was a king, and this 2003 film proves that.
2003 was a seminal year for poker in general; Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker, which sparked the initial poker boom. The story of Ungar, one of poker’s greats, served as a warning to those chasing the dollars, but it didn’t make the splash it should have done. Instead, the aspirational Matt Damon movie Rounders became the flick of choice for the new generation, and High Roller dropped off the radar.
Online poker is on the way back, and there’s no shortage of reasons why. The World Series of Poker is being widely televised, restrictions on providers are being relaxed around the US, and the pandemic has seen an increase in online poker players and revenue. There’s a film pushing this new boom, Molly’s Game, but the discerning poker player should take the time to watch High Roller, for better or for worse.
The film’s subject is Stu’ The Kid’ Ungar, and make no mistake; he is a poker legend. He might not feature on the list of the greatest poker players of all time, but he is one of the most recognizable names of his generation. He played poker around the world and became one of its very first global stars. High Roller takes a look at his highs and his lows. It is told in flashbacks, with Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos, Bad Boys) playing Ungar.
The film seeks to show both sides of the poker game, a valuable insight into some of the less wholesome aspects of the industry. Ungar had his demons; he’d been playing poker since the age of 10, and that leads to a rather disjointed personality. He rose to the top of the poker world, and his ascent is depicted incredibly well; there’s no glorification of his motives, but you want him to succeed anyway.
Alongside the success and fame, there is a darker undercurrent to Ungar’s life, and the low-budget film brings that to light sympathetically and without pulling punches. Our hero is an anti-hero, a man troubled by his demons who often falls to the temptation around him. Make no mistake; this isn’t a happy-ending Hollywood style feel-good film. There’s nothing here that should inspire a second poker boom, rather a cautionary tale of the pitfalls one might face when enjoying the tables of Las Vegas.
The supporting cast is excellent; Pat Morita (Love Boat, Karate Kid) is particularly impressive as Mr Leo, and the performances often mask what is essentially a low-budget production. There’s clever use of real footage from Vegas, too; one scene shows the old Sands Hotel being demolished and acts as perfect imagery for the rise and fall of Ungar.
The narrative weaves its way towards the inevitable ending, all tinged with an ultimate sadness, as we know Ungar doesn’t survive long afterwards. Watch out for the particularly poignant final scene, which again uses implied imagery to bring Ungar’s tragic biopic to a close.
Online poker is booming, and the going is good; the players become stars. Dan Negreanu is known for his veganism and health kicks; Phil Ivey gives mountains of money to charity. They’re the poker stars of today, but to understand where the game has come from, you need to see the story of Stu Ungar, a pioneer of the game who burned bright and burned quick.
If you enjoyed High Roller or have seen it and want an additional poker fix, check out our review of Poker Queens from 2019.