Without a doubt it can be said that Ken Uston was a fascinating figure - a Jazz pianist, a genius with an IQ of 169, an excellent writer and above all - a hack of a blackjack player that was into the game for the challenge before the money. For Ken Uston blackjack wasn't a game of chance - it was a way of life and a business too. When one talks about the history of blackjack he cannot go on without mentioning Ken Uston, the hero of blackjack.
During the 70's and 80's Ken Uston and a team of blackjack card counters emptied casinos in Las Vegas and in Atlantic City as well. They made hundreds of thousands of dollars from playing professional blackjack with innovational card counting systems. They were not the first to use such methods in blackjack tables, but they were the ones that used teamwork professionally, thus making money out of blackjack tables.
Ken Uston was born in 1935 to a middle-class family in New-York. When he was only sixteen he attended Yale on scholarship. He soon moved on to Harvard Business School where he majored in finance. From early days Ken wanted to major in music, but following his dad's advice he decided to let go of his inclination to this idea.
After finishing his degree Ken moved up the corporation ladder: when he was merely 31 years old he earned more than $45,000 a year working at Pacific Coast Stock Exchange as Vice President in San Francisco. He continued to improve his skills: he learned computer languages and programming, he kept playing the piano and so on, but in his penthouse that viewed the bay area of San Francisco there was something missing, Ken needed a challenge.
The challenge came during a dinner with friends in the mid 70's and Ken's life turned upside down when he heard about a professional blackjack player that played on a full time basis. Ken, who was familiar with gambling theories' mathematical aspects, was keen to meet this player. And so few days passed and Ken managed to make an appointment with this man and his team of blackjack players. The next weekend Ken learnt the basic foundations of their work.
The team used mathematical systems at blackjack tables with few card decks in order to determine if the player has a 'positive' or 'negative' condition for winning. The team used the Reverse System, but later on they decided to use the Hi Opt I system, which was devised by Lance Humble in 1976.
The teamwork was simple - 'counters' were placing small bets, waiting for a 'favorable' time (which was compute by their mathematical system). When such time came they signaled to the 'big players" that were ranked higher inside the team's people.
The big players moved into the blackjack table with a large bankroll and played until the trend ("favorable time") was over or the card decks were shuffled. 'Counters' waited for the edge to turn into their favor - when there was a 1.5%-2.5% odd for winning.
The 70's were easy time for them and Ken and his blackjack mates made profits by fooling pits bosses all across Las Vegas. Ken's first trip to Las Vegas was to Fremont Casino; there he made $27,000 with seven hands of $500 in a 45 minutes game. Ken was a special kind of person that plays blackjack - he surprised the team with his win and he moved up the ranks of the team.
Ken found the challenge he was searching for in blackjack tables. He quit his 'day job' and become a full-time blackjack player, a devoted member of the team, but the ride wasn't always smooth as Ken found out in the late years of the 70's.
Ken and the team whacked the Sands Casino, where they made little less than $200,000 and there the shift boss of the Sands Casino told him to leave the casino's grounds or to be arrested. Ken was banned from other casinos hold by the Hughes Corporation such as the Desert Inn, Castaways, Silver Slipper and the Frontier.
Ken tried to fight the casinos' ban in court but gained little success while consuming his bankroll. Ken learned to be more alert - Uston grew a beard and long hair, a new team was assembled and they moved to hit Las Vegas once again.
Around 1977 the team gained a superb advantage when they put to use small computers that were tapped to the insole of the team's shoes. The computer was in the size of a cigarette pack. It had four buttons to input information, it worked on a binary-basis and the buttons had binary values from 0 to 15, which indicated cards that had been played. The output was transmitted by two vibrations which singled players whether they have favorable odds or not. The device told players to hit, stand, double down or split.
The inventor of the device was Keith Taft, a Scientist from California, who called Uston and told him about his 'perfect blackjack player' which was nicknamed George. George had a stored program packed in a small plastic case, memory and a small microprocessor. George had a battery pack as well and all of his parts were concealed in different intimate parts of the player's body.
On 1/2/77 Ken Uston and his team took George for a test ride at the Golden Gate Casino in downtown Lad Vegas. There Ken played for few hours hands of $5-$50 and by the end of that night he was ahead by two hundred dollars – a relatively small amount but it proved George's ability high as Keith stated.
Keith devised a radio-transmitter that would send information to George, a device which was operated by the 'Counters'. They calculated the odds and then send it by radio waves to the Big Player, who had a received it by a 'Morse tapper' hidden in his shoe.
The team was upgraded to 16 members - 8 Counters and 8 Big Players. They rented apartments in Las Vegas and they trained operating George. Ken Uston and his team built fake blackjack tables to simulate the 'casino environment' so no mistakes would be made during their game.
Ken Uston had spoken on the first day they went out to test George: "One Monday morning at 2AM. I took $50,000 out of my safety deposit box and we embarked for the casinos. We had determined to play the "graveyard" shift since there would be less players at the tables, giving us the opportunity to play more hands per hour, thus earn at a higher rate…That night we took home over $20,000. During the next 3 weeks we won about 80% of the time".
The computers were a huge success and the team cleaned blackjack tables - one after the other - but they were not careful enough. Ken and his team decided to stop playing at Vegas for a while since pits bosses started to wonder about their miraculous wins time after time. And so the team decided to move to a quieter location – Lake Tahoe.
In Lake Tahoe they lost they advantage as Ken and his team played $1000 hands which the casinos' employee weren't used to. One team member was arrested by security guards at Harrah's Casino. Soon after Harrah's contacted other casinos in Lake Tahoe and seven players from the team were arrested. Their computers were confiscated by the police. Ken, which wasn't arrested, bailed them out from the Zephyr Cove jail and the operation was stopped.
In 1978 while Uston was writing The Big Player (his first book) he was contacted by David Harman, the famous host of the Good Morning America show. Harman was working on a gambling article for his show and he wanted Ken to participate in it. Ken decided to join forces with Harman and they arranged a blackjack game at the Horseshoe Casino. The game's rules were set by Jack Binion and on they went.
Ken played for less than five hours and made about $10,000 - exactly the material Harman needed for his article. Later on Harman asked Binion if Ken Uston was a cheater, to that he replied by:" Hell, no - it's a science. He used his intelligence, he deserves his win."
In the next few years Ken wrote more books (such as Million Dollar Blackjack in 1982) and turned to take legal actions against casinos that barred blackjack players. The case was covered by the media and eventually the casinos were forced to open their gates to blackjack players after the Supreme Court of New Jersey had ruled against them.
Ken gathered the team and they returned beating the casinos at their blackjack tables, but eventually Ken got tired and moved on to new areas. He moved to Europe to continue his work with computers. Ken wrote many books such as "Mastering Pac-Man", "Ken Uston's to Buying and Beating the Home Video Games" and many others. We can assume that if Ken Uston was alive today he would have enjoyed the age of Internet blackjack since he was interested both in computers and blackjack as well.
On the 19th of September, 1987, Ken Uston was found dead in his rented apartment in Paris. The cause of death is believed to be a heart attack. Ken Uston left behind him a legacy of blackjack etiquettes and conduct. Many blackjack players admire his figure and he would continue to be a true blackjack hero for many decades.
Although the days of card counting are practically over, there's a large amount of online blackjack rooms to choose from and a wide variety of strategies to implement. Go on and read our strategies to improve your odds at the online casinos and who knows.. maybe you will be the next Ken Uston.
By David Hackman, Editorial Staff. 8th of January, 2006.