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The Blackjack Man – Ken Uston

Ken Uston was the best known blackjack player of the 1970’s and early ‘80’s. His claim to fame wasn’t just blackjack, he worked his way up from an MBA in Finance from Harvard to President and Chief Executive Officer of Pacific Clearing House – the Pacific Stock Exchange – during a 15-year business career before taking-on the casinos of the world and winning millions of dollars in the process. He was also an entertaining and successful author.

Kenneth Senzo Usui (he changed his last name to Uston years later) was born January 12, 1935 in New York, NY and lived in Long Island as well as New Haven, Connecticut. He played the usual games of youth, but picked-up on piano by himself before taking lessons that proved he was a true child prodigy. His IQ was very high, and mathematics seemed to come easily to him.

During World War II his father, Senzo, was taken away to an American-Japanese camp at Ellis Island, and after his return, the family moved to New Haven and Senzo worked in the foreign language department at Yale University. Kenneth began high school at 14 and entered the University of Connecticut at 17. He transferred to Yale and graduated in 1955 at the age of 20 before continuing his education at Harvard.

While still at Harvard, Uston met his future wife, Betty, and they later had three children together. Over the next 20 years he finished his education, worked on computer systems, and wound-up in California in 1969 where he and his family found a house overlooking the San Francisco Bay from a hill in Tiburon. The family had it all, but Ken wasn’t happy.

From the Stock Market to the Blackjack Tables

He began looking for himself, looking for more out of life, and at a party in San Francisco a chance meeting with Al Francesco turned his life into a decade of gambling, drugs and women that he could hardly have ever imagined. Al Francesco is credited with taking the idea of card counting to the next level by implementing team play. His success at the tables alone was very good, but pitting his skills against the casinos with a team of players made him very dangerous, and having new blood in the group always helped.

Uston’s go-go-go attitude and natural charisma was perfect for the team, and he learned blackjack basic strategy quickly and progressed to lessons on how to count cards. When he was proficient he joined the team for trips to the casinos of Lake Tahoe and then made a trip to Las Vegas where the team turned $40,000 into $84,000. That was a lot of bread in the early ‘70’s. Uston’s cut was just $2,100, but he kept practicing and was promoted to the position of Big Player on subsequent trips and that boosted his take to $5,000 for each bankroll doubled.

His cover as a Pacific Stock Exchange Vice President was perfect for the Sands, Tropicana and Caesars Palace casinos. He played the wild gambler well, drinking, asking cute dealers to his room, jumping from table to table and firing away with big bets in a manner that no card counter could. Each table had a team player that was doing the actual counting, betting just $5 per hand. When the deck was heavily in the team’s favor, the counter’s called in the Big Player, who popped in, played a few hands for $500 or $1000 each (as long as the count stayed positive), and then looked for another hot table to make more big bets. The Pit Bosses loved him. They got him girls, they sent him to valet to find the right guy to score drugs, and they took tips (oops). All along they were certain Uston would soon self-destruct as his luck ran out.

Instead, Uston kept winning, doubling bank after bank, and the only heat he got was from his bosses at the Pacific Stock Exchange as news of his big blackjack wins hit the newspapers, so he quit the market. His relationship with Al Francesco and his teammates also hit the rocks over team management and money issues, so Uston quit them all too, and quickly formed his own team of players. He acted as manager and Big Player with a tiny bankroll to start, but things got good quickly.

His ability to recruit new players and counters was a true gift, and his friendly-engaging personality kept the Pit Bosses in Las Vegas baffled. Uston was a master of the act necessary to extend his playing time at the tables through cover play and avoiding detection. It was more than two years before the decks started getting shuffled-up and the bans on play began. When the heat came down, Uston hired a Hollywood makeup artist who worked with him to design several excellent disguises. The new looks helped, but Uston still liked the limelight, and he didn’t shy away from publicity.

The Money Rolls in and then Stops

Uston’s teams continued to be successful as he hired and trained more Big Players and reduced his on-site role, staying in the background and administering the team. Their playing bankroll climbed to $100,000, then $200,000 and then $300,000. He bought a condo at the Jockey Club, across the street from the Aladdin casino on the Las Vegas Strip and kept right on going. Doing coke seemed to keep him both high and busy, and he wrote the books One Third of a Shoe and The Big Player, which told of his exploits and the team wins from the casinos. Instead of investing the income from the books in more blackjack, he bought real estate and initiated lawsuits against several of the casinos that had barred him in Las Vegas.

Next, Uston booked flights for his team to Panama and then later to the Bahamas where they pushed their luck a little too far. After a steady week of wins, he was taken physically off a blackjack game, thrown into a back-room and beaten. He lost his bankroll and had to sip his meals through a straw while his wired jaw healed for six weeks.

A similar incident happened on an early trip to Reno where he was a special guest of the casino and the managers fawned over him for months, always waiting for him to start losing. At the Mapes casino he would plant two card counters early in the afternoon and then join his favorite game and start his act, drinking the wine they brought-in just for him, and bantering with the dealers and Pit Bosses. One evening the wine didn’t’ arrive, and when he pressed his wagers the first time he was grabbed from behind and removed from the casino and tossed onto Virginia Street. When he stood and exchanged verbal jabs with a security officer, a furious right jab left his cheek crumpled, leading to another lawsuit.

When Resorts International opened on the Jersey Shore, card counters flocked to the beach-side destination of Atlantic City. The table limits were high, the room rates were high, and the restaurant meals were high, but so were the Uston team’s wins. When they decided to call it quits for the time being they tossed all of their chips on a hotel-room bed and pawed through them, figuring out their win (over $100,000) and adjusting the numbers over and over until all members had the right cut. When the club tried to bar counters from playing, Uston bankrolled a lawsuit to stop the practice. The suits were semi-successful, but by then he was too well-known to get any real action in the casinos himself.

Beginning of the End

His children remember many happy times at Disneyland and watching him tape TV guest appearances, but he was a continent hopper by the 1980’s, playing in casinos around the world, and while they knew him as a businessman, pianist, and father, he was also a true gambler.

He took time off, decompressed, and wrote a book on beating the game of Pac-man, before going back to the casinos in a smaller fashion, playing small stakes in disguise and administering a new team of young players and then finishing a series of books about personal computers for Prentice-Hall.

In 1986 Uston worked for the Government of Kuwait to create a computer program to track the countries investments and finances. The job was grueling and he looked forward to taking a break in Paris after the summer of ‘87.

According to Uston’s family, he was nervous and jumpy on the night of September 17th, planning a party for some friends and also some new acquaintances he had met at a jazz club the night before. His nervousness may have been well-founded. His friend, Margaret, who saw him at the party, couldn’t reach him for two days afterward and went to his apartment on the 19th with the apartment manager. They found the door open, Ken motionless, his portable keyboard in his lap.

The US Embassy was called and the apartment was sealed off. The family was notified of his death via telegram. When they arrived from the states they found personal belonging missing, valuables had been taken – foul play was obviously suspected – but nothing came of it.

Thousands of successful players from the 80’s and 90’s owe their success to the books Uston wrote about card counting and today, Uston is still considered the Blackjack Man. He died young at the age of 52, but his stories and legend live on.

 

 

 

 

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