Ken Uston is one of the best known blackjack card counters in the world more than 20 years after his death. He played blackjack professionally for ten years with great success. During a that time Uston wrote several books including The Big Player and One-Third of a Shoe.
In the early 1980’s he became intrigued with a new video game. After learning the game’s patterns, he authored a book titled “Mastering PAC-MAN”, which landed on the New York Time’s Best Seller’s List. He claimed later to have spent just four days writing the book. Two years later he moved overseas and wrote software programs for foreign governments after he was hired for a salary of $1 million.
Uston was born in 1935 and brought up in a typical middle-class neighborhood in New York. At sixteen he was awarded a scholarship to Yale and continued his college at Harvard Business School.
According to Uston, he badly wanted to major in music, but his father said, “Kenny, there’s only one Sammy Kay,” meaning the competition and future prospects for musicians was too tough. Instead, he majored in finance and was offered several top jobs upon graduation. He worked sixty-hour weeks and was successful at three companies before finding himself promoted to Senior Vice President of the Pacific Stock Exchange.
At a party one Friday night in San Francisco he had a chance encounter with a man named Al Francesco who played blackjack for a living. Uston read Thorp’s book Beat the Dealer years earlier and had been intrigued with its concepts.
Learning Team Play
Over the weekend Ken met with Al and some of his friends in El Cerrito and learned about what they all called “team play.” Instead of playing the game of 21 alone, they stationed team members at several blackjack tables around the casino to count down the decks of cards in the shoes and wait for the times when the odds swung into the player’s favor. When that happened, the counters signaled to the “Big Player,” who came in and bet the table maximum.
The system worked well, and Ken Uston couldn’t wait to be part of the team. Certainly his job at the stock market would make it easy to blend-in with the Las Vegas high rollers of the 1970’s. Ken learned basic strategy for blackjack and the concept of Revere’s plus-minus count and the aces/fives count.
Because the counters stationed at tables across the casino made small bets and the Big Player made large wagers when the count was 1.5 to 2 percent in the player’s favor, the team was able to make good money. While there were still frustrating ups and downs, over the course of four or five days the team usually doubled it’s $50,000 bankroll before heading back to San Francisco and dividing the winnings.
Uston proved to be a very competent student of card counting and was soon given a chance to show his stuff. In his book, Million Dollar Blackjack, he recalled that on his first counting trip, “my hands shook so much I spilled a drink, and the Big Player called off the play for fear of giving us all away.
Later he relaxed and became very proficient. He was promoted to Big Player after just three weeks. His most exciting experience that month was at the Fremont Casino in Downtown Las Vegas. He was called into a shoe that was so positive for the players that he signaled to the counter to leave the table and then spread to seven hands of $500 bets.
Forty-five minutes later he walked to the cashier’s cage with $27,600 in winnings. Over the next two years the team won over $500,000 in Las Vegas. Remember those are 1974 dollars!
During that long winning streak Uston quit his job at the Pacific Stock Exchange and the team played on. They were making so much money it never occurred to them that things might change, until Vegas got wise.
At the Sands casino alone they had won over $200,000 and Uston continued to bop from table to table as he was called into action by his team of counters. The pit bosses finally snapped to the play and Uston was pulled up from a 21 game and read the casino’s “Trespass Act” by the head of Security.
The language said the casino would arrest him if he remained on the premises or any of the other Hughes Corporation properties. At the time, those other casinos included the Frontier, Landmark, Desert Inn, Castaways and Silver Slipper.
Ken Uston had been playing the high roller playboy for two years when his fun was cut short by the casinos of Las Vegas. It was obvious that if he wanted to continue beating the casinos he had to make some changes.
He hired a Hollywood makeup artist to devise with several disguises and Uston put on an act each time he played to fool the pit bosses. The act included continual banter, disguises, and his favorite – the drunk gambler.
With new teams formed, Ken took a reduced role in playing 21, administering to the team’s needs for the next few years. He dispatched teams in Atlantic City, the Bahamas, Lake Tahoe, Reno, France, and even Panama. Never able to tone down his go-go party style completely, he did manage to find some down-time to write books, computer software, and buy real estate.
Playing blackjack for a living was the happiest time in Uston’s life, but he died in Paris in September of 1987, at the age of 52. Before his untimely death, he brought the skillful play of blackjack to the masses through his books. And, much like today’s poker players, Ken refused to see blackjack as gambling. He always said he was just a businessman, a very good businessman.