Ken Uston was not only a prolific card counter and blackjack team manager, but his actions also secured certain rights for card counters in New Jersey, and changed the way casinos would deal with them.
Born in New York in 1935 in, Ken was living a normal life up until his early 30s, working at various levels of corporate management and doing well for himself.
It was when he read Edward Thorp’s, Beat the Dealer, that things changed. Like so many others who had read Thorp’s book, Uston was inspired to try his hand at card counting, and began spending time at weekends in the casinos developing his skills.
However, it was while playing poker that Uston would get his chance to enter the world of professional gambling, when he met a man named Al Francesco.
He became so transfixed with the game that he was even willing to sideline his family commitments so that he could hit the road and use the knowledge he would learn to win money. This would forever damage his relationship with his parents and his own family.
Playing as Part of a Blackjack Team
Al was a blackjack strategist who had recently launched his own blackjack team, and Ken was fascinated by his approach and the things he had to say.
Ken was soon working as a member of Al’s team, although only as a counter initially. The team would play at various different tables in the casino betting smaller amounts and counting cards, and when the count got to a certain point (i.e highly positive) they would signal the ‘big player’.
The big player would then join that table and make large bets while the shoe was in their favour, until the shoe was changed or reshuffled and the count reset. This also had the benefit of making betting patterns difficult to spot because the big player wasn’t sticking to a single table.
Uston’s team made over $44,000 during their first 5 day run, and after around 2 months of being a counter he was promoted to being a big player. He won over $27,000 in his first outing as a big player, and later in his career once won over $200,000 in a single night.
Ken eventually became barred from many casinos, and his time with Al Francesco came to an ugly end after he published a book called “The Big Player: How a Team of Blackjack Players Made a Million Dollars”.
This book essentially ended Al’s career as he was too well known and his secrets were exposed, and the two men never reconciled.
Taking the Casino to Court
As well as writing a series of books on blackjack, Ken started his own blackjack team using some of the same techniques as before as well as coming up with new ones.
The team was instantly successful, but began facing the same old problems as before; being recognised and asked to leave, barred completely, or having their stakes capped.
To get around this, Ken and his team would disguise themselves by wearing different outfits, growing or removing facial hair, and even disguising their bets by deliberately throwing hands a card counter would win to throw the casino off the scent.
However, this only worked for so long, and with the team regularly taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the casinos they were soon finding it difficult to locate anywhere that would let them play.
When Resorts International barred him in 1979, Ken decided he had had enough and filed a lawsuit against them. His argument was that a casino had no right to ban a player for being skilled, so long as they were not interfering with the game in any way or cheating.
The law agreed, and to this day, casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, are not allowed to ban card counters.
They did of course come up with other ways to reduce the damage of card counting, such as increasing shuffle points, adding more decks, and no doubt trying some more questionable methods like distractions and hostility too.
Life After Blackjack
Apart from writing another book on the subject, this was the last stage of Ken’s blackjack career.
Tired of battling the new obstacles the casinos were putting in place, and still unable to play in many casinos outside of New Jersey, he instead became fascinated with video games, specifically Pac-Man, on which he wrote another best selling book.
This new passion didn’t last as long though, and eventually he did some travelling and then moved to Kuwait in search of a change of pace and greater meaning to his life.
He had also closed the rift between him and members of his family after he had put them second to blackjack all those years ago.
His time in Kuwait didn’t bring him the peace he was hoping for, instead he found it difficult to come to terms with the difference in lifestyle between him and the poor people he was living side by side with. He turned to jazz music in his loneliness, played the piano each day, and of course ended up writing another book about his time there.
By 1987 and aged just 52, he had left Kuwait, visited London where had met a lady named Margaret, and invited her to travel to Paris with him.
It was Margaret who found Ken’s body after he had a heart attack in his residence; he was sat at his piano and apparently, he was smiling.