Ken Uston

Ken Uston

Ken Uston (January 12, 1935 – September 19, 1987) was a famous blackjack player, strategist, and author, credited with popularizing the concept of team play at blackjack. [cite book|title="Basic Blackjack"|author=Stanford Wong|date=1982|pages=17] During the early to mid 1970s he gained widespread notoriety for perfecting techniques to do team card counting in numerous casinos worldwide, earning millions of dollars from the casinos, with some bets as high as $12,000 on a single hand. He then became famous for being banned from casinos around the world, and became a master of disguise as he would adopt various costumes to conceal his identity and still play. He is also known for filing a high-profile lawsuit against the casinos, and successfully received a ruling from the New Jersey courts that casinos could not bar someone simply for counting cards. Many casinos changed their systems in response, increasing the number of decks in games, or changing rules to increase the house edge. In the early 1980s, Uston also authored several popular books on video games and personal computers. He was the subject of a 1981 segment on "60 Minutes", and in 2005, he was the subject of the History Channel documentary, "The Black Jack Man".cite news|date=May 5, 2005|title=History Channel gives a hand to late local card counter|publisher="The Plain Dealer"|author=Sarah Crump]


Uston was born Kenneth Senzo Usui in New York City, the oldest of three children to Elsie Lubitz, a native of Austria, and Senzo Usui, a Japanese immigrant and businessman.cite web|author=Uston, Kathleen|url=|title= Bio||accessdate=2006-11-20] . At the age of 16, Uston was accepted to and henceforth began attending Yale University, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Shortly after graduating from Yale, he went on to earn an MBA from Harvard University. He became district manager of the Southern New England Telephone Co., then corporate planning manager for American Cement. He subsequently relocated to San Francisco, California, quickly climbing the corporate ladder to become a Senior Vice-President at the Pacific Stock Exchange. On weekends, he spent time in the casinos, becoming what the Cleveland "Plain Dealer" called "a genius card-counter".


In a 1983 "Blackjack Forum" interview, [cite web|url= |title=Interview with Ken Uston|author=Arnold Snyder|publisher="Blackjack Forum"|date=June 1983|accessdate=2007-06-28] Uston related that he became fascinated by blackjack and its inherent strategies after meeting professional gambler Al Francesco in a poker game. Francesco had recently launched the first "big player" type of blackjack card counting team, and he recruited Uston to be one of his main team players. Their system was that members of the team would play different games around a casino, counting cards. When a count became extremely positive, they would flag the "big player" member of the team who would come in and place large bets. This technique would prevent the increased bet spread from being noticed by the pit bosses. On his first five-day run, the team won $44,100, of which Uston's share was $2,100. After two months of being a counter, Uston was promoted to big player.

Although Al Francesco and other team members have recounted in subsequent "Blackjack Forum" interviews that Uston made very little money for "their" team, Uston co-authored with Roger Rapoport a book entitled "The Big Player" in which he shared credit for many of his card-counting successes with his fellow team members, including noted Blackjack master-strategist Bill Erb. Soon after the publication of Uston's book, it is reported that Al Francesco's team found itself effectively barred from playing in Las Vegas.fact|date=June 2007

In 1978, the year gambling began in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Uston moved to the area and formed a profitable blackjack team of his own (discussed at length in a 2005 "Blackjack Forum" interview with team member Darryl Purpose). As with most other casinos around the globe, Uston was soon barred from playing at those locations within Atlantic City as well.cite news|author=Eddie Olsen|date=April 18, 1981|publisher="Philadelphia Inquirer"|title=Ken Uston: Big Player Without a Game] After he was barred in January 1979 by Resorts International, he filed a lawsuit, claiming that casinos did not have the right to bar "skilled players". In "Uston v. Resorts International Hotel Inc.", 445 A.2d 370 (N.J. 1982), the New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled that Atlantic City casinos did not have the authority to decide whether skilled players could be barred. To date, Atlantic City casinos -- by statute -- are not allowed to bar card counters. In response to Uston's legal victory, Atlantic City casinos began adding decks, moving up shuffle points, and taking other measures to decrease the "skilled player's" potential advantage.

After his numerous casino barrings -- now on his own and without a team -- Uston adopted a wide variety of physical disguises in order to continue to play blackjack. He was also known for his aggressive approach along with his flamboyant playing style. In an article in "Blackjack Forum", Arnold Snyder describes playing with Ken Uston at Circus Circus in Las Vegas near the end of Uston's life. He states that Uston was disguised as a worker from Hoover Dam and got away with spreading his bets from "table minimum" to "table maximum" on a single-deck game. Since this took place at a time when card counting was well understood by casino executives and managers, and since the primary clue by which casinos detect card counting is a card counter's "bet spread" pattern, most card counters would also consider Uston a genius of disguise, and/or "card counting camouflage".

After "The Big Player", Uston went on to write "Million Dollar Blackjack". This book includes details about professional gamblers' techniques for gaining an advantage at the game. Uston also authored a companion piece, "Ken Uston On Blackjack".

Video games and computers

In an interview published in "Video Games",cite news |first=Roger |last=Dionne |title=Video Games Interview: Ken Uston |work=Video Games |publisher=Pumpkin Press |date=December 1982 |id=ISSN|0733-6780 ] Uston revealed he got hooked on the games "Pong" and then "Breakout". In 1979 "Space Invaders" became his video game of choice and, after his blackjack team made $350,000 in Atlantic City, they rented a house in California and bought a "Space Invaders" machine. The game appealed to him in part because of the trick of counting one's shots to get the maximum number of points for the spaceship at the top of the screen.

In 1981, Uston began frequenting the Easy Street Pub near the Playboy Casino in Atlantic City. It was there he began a competition with some other regulars for having the high score on the bar's "Pac-Man" arcade game. He realized the game had patterns and, in order to gain an advantage, he began experimenting and writing them down on diagrams of the maze he had created, but he was unable to go beyond a certain level. On a trip back to San Francisco, he came across two Chinese-American boys by the name of "Tommy" and "Raymond" who taught him how to go further in the game. People had been telling Uston he should write a book about "Pac-Man", but he had felt he didn't have enough knowledge. After receiving lessons from the two boys, Uston decided to go ahead with the book, titled "Mastering PAC-MAN", and wrote it in four days. It went on to appear in the New York Times Best Seller list. [cite news | title=Pac-Man Fever |work=Time |date=April 5, 1982 |url=,9171,921174,00.html |accessdate=2006-11-20]

Uston went on to write several more books about video games and home computers during the 1980s. He also licensed his name to Coleco for the ColecoVision game, "Ken Uston's Blackjack/Poker". Around 1983, Screenplay published software titled "Ken Uston's Profe$$ional Blackjack" for the Apple II series, Atari 8-bit family, Commodore 64, and IBM PC to help learn and practice Uston's card-counting techniques.

He was also credited with the idea for the 1984 game "Puzzle Panic".


On the morning of September 19, 1987, Ken Uston, age 52, was found dead in his rented apartment in Paris, France. His official cause of death was listed as heart failure. [ [ Obituary from Blackjack Forum Magazine -- 1 December 1987] ]


"This bibliography is thus far incomplete."


*"The Big Player", 1977 (ISBN 0-03-016921-6)
*"One Third of a Shoe"
*"Million Dollar Blackjack", 1981, Carol Publishing Group. (ISBN 0-89746-068-5)
*"Ken Uston on Blackjack" (ISBN 0-942637-56-9)

Video games

*"Mastering PAC-MAN", 1981 (ISBN 0-451-11899-5)
*"Ken Uston's Guide to Buying and Beating the Home Video Games", 1982 (ISBN 0-451-11901-0)
*"Ken Uston's Home Video '83", 1982 (ISBN 0-451-12010-8)
*"Score! Beating the Top 16 Video Games", 1982 (ISBN 0-451-11813-8)


*"Ken Uston's Guide to Home Computers", 1983 (ISBN 0-451-12597-5)
*"Ken Uston's Illustrated Guide to the Adam", 1984 (ISBN 0-13-514647-X)
*"Ken Uston's Illustrated Guide to the Apple IIe", 1984 (ISBN 0-13-514688-7)
*"Ken Uston's Illustrated Guide to the Commodore 64", 1984 (ISBN 0-13-514621-6)
*"Ken Uston's Illustrated Guide to the Compaq", 1984 (ISBN 0-13-514696-8)
*"Ken Uston's Illustrated Guide to the IBM PC", 1984 (ISBN 0-13-514704-2)
*"Ken Uston's Illustrated Guide to the Kaypro", 1984 (ISBN 0-13-514795-6)
*"Ken Uston's Illustrated Guide to the Macintosh", 1984 (ISBN 0-13-514829-4)
*"Ken Uston's Illustrated Guide to Today's Most Popular Computers", 1984 (ISBN 0-317-13333-0)
*"Ken Uston's Illustrated Guide to the IBM PCjr", 1985 (ISBN 0-13-514720-4)


External links

* [ Official Uston Website ]
* [ Ken Uston biopic]
* [ Lucky Blackjack feature]
* [ Blackjack Forum interview with Uston teammate Darryl Purpose]
* [ Poker News Bio by acquaintance, Al Moe -- 26 April 2005]

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