If you take the game of blackjack seriously like I do, chances are good you’ve stumbled across the name “Ken Uston” during your online sleuthing.
Simply put, Uston is one of blackjack’s most legendary figures – a successful high-stakes pro, a celebrity of the small screen, and a fearless advocate for a player’s right to beat the house at its own game.
But for all of Uston’s impact on the world of blackjack, as we know it today, many members of the younger generation don’t know his whole story. Maybe they’ve heard about the exploits of his infamous card counting team, or perhaps they know a bit about his landmark lawsuits in New Jersey – but they don’t know what made Uston tick.
I like to fancy myself as an advantage play historian of sorts, so I’ve put in hours upon hours of research learning about one of my heroes. With that in mind, I’d like to pass that knowledge on with this guide to who Ken Uston was, and more importantly, why blackjack players today should care.
So strap in and get ready to learn about one of the game’s most influential players, both on and off the felt.
Uston’s journey began, like so many American success stories do, as the child of immigrants living in New York City.
In 1935, an Austrian woman named Elsie Lubitz had her first of three children with Japanese businessman Senzo Usui. The boy was born Kenneth Senzo Usui, but following the custom of strict immigrant assimilation made popular at the time, he decided to go by Ken Uston instead.
Almost immediately, Uston displayed an uncanny intellect and a knack for numbers. By the age of just 16, while most of his peers were midway through high school, Uston was on his way to the prestigious Yale University. After graduating from Yale, Uston headed to Harvard to complete his Master of Business Administration (MBA), seemingly setting himself up for a successful career in the corporate boardroom.
And indeed, Uston did thrive in the world of big business, becoming a district manager for Southern New England Telephone Co. before moving on to a management position in San Francisco.
With his wife and two daughters by his side, Uston dove headlong into the corporate culture, eventually rising to the position of Senior Vice President at the Pacific Stock Exchange. But during his downtime, Uston began devouring the book which would ultimately change his life – Beat the Dealer by Edward O. Thorp.
You can learn more about Thorp and his incredible book by clicking that link, but let’s just say the term “Bible of Blackjack” is well-deserved. In the 1962 publication, Thorp devised the world’s first effective method of card counting at the blackjack table. His “Ten Count” points system for maintaining a running count provided players with the blueprint they needed to, as the title boldly claimed, beat the house.
Uston began spending his off days and weekends at local casinos and card clubs, dabbling in blackjack while trying to master Thorp’s advice on advantage play. Here’s how Uston described the situation later on in an interview with People magazine:
“I’d been earning $2,700 a month in this straitlaced job that was boring as hell, and then I made $2,000 in one weekend in Reno.
I cut the corporate umbilical cord and left the politics and the bullshit behind.
My only regret is that I didn’t do it 10 years before.”
Eventually, while sitting in a poker game in the early 1970s, Uston made the acquaintance of Al Francesco – a blackjack pro who was in the midst of putting together the first “Big Player” card counting team ever assembled.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Francesco realized early on that counting cards wasn’t enough to consistently beat the house – especially under the prying eyes of the pit boss.
A sharp pit boss, or even a dealer, is capable of spotting the casual card counter plying their trade. When somebody alternated between small and large bets seemingly at random, while winning the majority of their big bet hands, the casino staff obviously gets suspicious. Throw in the intense concentration required to use the Ten Count system, and a card counter working by their lonesome, surely stuck out like a sore thumb.
After gathering a group of like-minded associates – professional gamblers with no qualms about pressing their edges by any legal means necessary – Francesco took the Las Vegas casinos on quite the ride.
Using a team of “spotters,” or players who focused solely on counting through the deck, Francesco found a clever away around casino surveillance. While the spotters were dressed in ordinary clothing, betting in small increments and acting for all the world like casual gamblers, they surreptitiously relayed signs to a designated Big Player.
All it took was a slight scratch on the nose, or a wipe of the eyes, to let the Big Player know that the count was now in their favor. At this point, the Big Player – who played his part by placing large wagers throughout while looking like the table “whale” -would toss out even more chips per hand. And with a favorable count backing their bets, the Big Player would wind walking away a big winner more often than not – without the pit boss ever blinking an eye.
After the pair met playing poker, Francesco invited Uston to join the team. But as he later told the Blackjack Forum in a 2002 interview, Francesco didn’t see much talent in his raw rookie at first glance:
“He was not a winning player at that time. I taught him to count and he started off as a spotter.
I had another guy who was one of my best friends that I was using as a BP. I found out he was ripping us off, so I had to get rid of him.
I had to replace him, and I replaced him with Ken Uston.”
Although Francesco claims in the same interview that Uston was never more than a breakeven performer in the Big Player role, the latter stuck around for a few more years.
As told by Francesco, only when Uston made the fateful decision to reveal his secrets in public did their partnership come to an end:
“All the time Ken worked for me he broke even. All those trips we made, he didn’t win any money.
I don’t think he was dishonest. I think he spent so much time trying to put on an act that he lost his edge.
I probably should have stayed with the guy who was stealing. He wouldn’t have written a book about it.”
As Francesco alluded to, Uston decided to write a book about his time on the card counting team, and The Big Player: How a Team of Blackjack Players Made a Million Dollars was published in 1977.
Written in conjunction with journalist Roger Rapaport, “The Big Player” became one of the more popular gambling books of the ‘70s. But as Uston reveled in his newfound reputation, the book put the rest of his teammates under a glaring spotlight.
Uston detailed the Big Player card counting method in exacting detail, describing the team dynamics and various tricks of the trade used to evade detection. Of course, casino operators and pit bosses quickly got word, and within a year Francesco and the rest of Uston’s former teammates were largely banned from Las Vegas casinos and card rooms.
Francesco himself decided to let bygones be bygones, but as he recounted in the aforementioned interview, Uston left a trail of enemies in his wake:
“I think Ken wanted to get caught on the last trip we made, because the book was coming out.
We were playing at the Sands that particular time, and his publisher was there watching him play. Ken was putting on a big show for him. It was Ken’s play that ended it for us.
I should have held a grudge, but I didn’t. All the people on the team were pissed off at him … everyone else hated Ken with a passion.
They were having the time of their lives and making good money, and Ken ruined it for them.”
Uston, for his part, spoke to Arnold Snyder of Blackjack Forum in 1983 to defend the book’s publication:
“I put off publishing that information for three years, and when I finally came out with it, none of our group was using any of those techniques.
We were all onto other things – real estate, or whatever the hell.
I felt that since we developed the information – sure there’s probably some other team out there, I don’t know who they are other than this one guy that I met – but I felt totally justified in publishing it, especially since I waited so damn long.”
Which side of the story you choose to believe is up to you, but Francesco himself agrees that his band of professional advantage play specialists did move on to other techniques. Among them were “spooking” – or using the first base position at the table to watch for lazy dealers who inadvertently flashed their hole card.
In any event, the era of easy advantage play was coming to end, and once again the seismic shift in blackjack’s landscape could be largely attributed to Uston.
By 1978 – the year New Jersey legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City – Uston had made his way back to the Eastern Seaboard.
While the casinos in Las Vegas had years of experience spotting card counting teams under their collective belts, the new gambling industry in Atlantic City was ripe for the picking. Uston quickly formed a Big Player team of his own, before setting to work separating the house from its dough.
But his book’s revelations came back to bite Uston, as Atlantic City pit bosses had wised up to the team concept. He soon found himself banned from several casinos there, leading Uston to take his case to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. That initial challenge was eventually struck down, with the Commission ruling that casinos were within their rights to bar suspected card counters.
At some point, however, the casinos decided that barring players who bet big wasn’t good for the bottom line. They experimented with a more lenient “no-barring” policy, and predictably, Uston and his team pounced. According to him, they won more than $50,000 in just 10 days, all while competing teams from the West Coast and even Europe made similar moves.
Naturally, the Commission used these targeted wins as evidence that card counters should be banned, leading to reinstatement of the barring policy.
In January of 1979, Uston was rounded up by security staff at the Resorts International casino, a situation he later described as oppressive:
“Sure, we were making a lot of money, and we were putting a lot of money on the tables, and we were making very high bets. But the point is we were treated like crooks.
It wasn’t some nice, polite atmosphere that exists today in Atlantic City and even in Nevada. We were trailed. We were hustled into backrooms.
I got my face broken and went to the hospital; I guess because some pit boss noticed who I was… To this day I don’t have feeling in part of my mouth. We were really treated with gross disrespect.”
Insulted by the ill-treatment – and still convinced that casinos have no right to ban winning players who aren’t cheating the game – Uston decided to make the biggest bet of his life.
After losing yet another Commission ruling, a fed up Uston challenged the decision in front of a New Jersey appellate court.
That case – officially known as Uston v. Resorts International Hotel Inc., 445 A.2d 370 (N.J. 1982) – went in Uston’s favor, prompting an appeal by the casinos. The appeal wound up being heard in 1982 by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1982, which found that Uston’s use of a strategy to excel at blackjack didn’t constitute grounds for punishment or exclusion:
“In sum, absent a valid Commission regulation excluding card counters, respondent Uston will be free to employ his card-counting strategy at Resorts’ blackjack tables.
There is currently no Commission rule banning Uston, and Resorts has no authority to exclude him for card counting. However, it is not clear whether the Commission would have adopted regulations involving card counters had it known that Resorts could not exclude Uston.
The Court, therefore, continues the temporary order banning Uston from Resorts’ blackjack tables for 90 days from the date of this opinion. After that time, respondent is free to play blackjack at Resorts’ casino absent a valid Commission rule excluding him.”
As the ruling made clear, casinos can only bar players for violating the stated rules of a game. Given the lack of rules and regulations regarding card counting put in place by the Commission, the Court found that Resorts International had no standing to exclude Uston – or any other card counter for that matter.
When the Commission failed to find legal precedent justifying the prohibition of card counting as a strategy, Uston’s win was complete. With that, a widespread precedent had been set, and while counting is still “frowned upon” by casinos, they have no legal recourse to ban advantage players from the premises.
Interestingly enough, Uston predicted his court victory four years earlier while speaking to People magazine:
“Barring me for winning is like the major leagues saying they won’t play ball with anyone but minor league players.
Somebody has got to show these guys that it’s not unconstitutional to win.”
Uston did indeed “show these guys,” but as millions of blackjack players would come to understand later, the victory was fleeting.
Chastened by the court case, Atlantic City casinos soon set to work safeguarding their blackjack games from proficient counters like Uston.
Whereas players once were faced with single-deck ken uston games for the most part, along with the occasional double-deck table, the casinos went all-in on multiple decks. Soon enough, single-deck tables largely disappeared from the floor, replaced by six- and eight-deck “shoes” that have become ubiquitous today.
By adding so many decks to a card counter’s mental equation, the casinos knew exactly how to fend off their nemesis. Throw in the addition of frequent shuffle points, along with hole card scanners to prevent spooking, and blackjack as Uston and Francesco ken uston had known the game had come to an end.
Asked by Blackjack Forum about the unintended consequences of his court battle, Uston revealed that he never really thought about his impact on fellow counters – just beating the Commission:
“Remember also that I can’t ever say that from day one I knew exactly what I was doing.
I follow trends and things; I make errors sometimes; I make mistakes; I change my way of thinking; I react to what’s around me.
I can’t really say that I was really trying to represent the best interests of counters necessarily. I was merely fighting this battle that pissed me off.”
Ironically, in winning that battle, Uston managed to “piss off” generations of blackjack players to come. To this day, counting cards in the way that Uston and his teammates once did has been rendered nearly impossible – but that didn’t stop him from trying.
With his name making headlines from coast to coast thanks to the court case, Uston published his second book, titled Million Dollar Blackjack, in 1982. The work includes several new systems for counting developed by Uston and his peers, including the Advanced Plus Minus and the Advanced Point Count.
The book also instructed aspiring advantage players to take preventative measures, such as alternating their betting patterns – even making low bets on favorable counts – to hide their counting activity.
At the same time, Uston’s celebrity status and penchant for challenging casino authority put him on so-called watchlists passed around the gambling industry. Casinos couldn’t bar him from playing, but they were well within their rights to make Uston’s life difficult at the tables.
As a result, Uston spent the early 1980s donning a series of disguises to conceal his identity. One memorable story recounted by gaming industry author and attorney I. Nelson Rose saw Uston dress up as a “sump pit” worker at the Hoover Dam. With days-old stubble, a rumpled flannel shirt, and grease under his fingernails, Uston could be found grinding the low-stakes tables at the Circus Circus on The Strip.
Uston later became interested in computers and video games, writing more than a dozen books like Mastering Pac-Man (1981) and Ken Uston’s Guide to Home Computers (1983).
Sadly, Uston was found dead in a Paris apartment in 1987, succumbing to natural causes.
Obituaries published in major worldwide newspapers celebrated the famed card counter’s impact – for better or worse – on the game of blackjack.
In 2002, Uston posthumously became one of the seven members inducted into the inaugural class of the Blackjack Hall of Fame. The original class also included Uston’s former teacher Francesco, Beat the Dealer author Thorp, and longtime friend and interviewer Snyder.
Snyder wrote an obituary of his own for Blackjack Forum, one which managed to capture Uston’s indomitable spirit perfectly, as only a friend and peer can:
“Well, Kenny, you were one-of-a-kind.
I number myself among those who are honored to have played at the same table with you. There are few who lived life as fully as you did.
You were always David fighting innumerable Goliaths. And more often than not, you won.
We’ll miss you, Ken.”