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Blackjack Aces Series: Ken Uston

by Craig Edwards
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Ken Uston Playing Blackjack

At Joe Wager, in this installment of our Blackjack Aces Series, we discuss the life and times of Ken Uston, who is thought of as one of the pioneers for team play in the casino game of blackjack. 

The Blackjack strategist and author gained a reputation in the mid-1970s for perfecting card counting using the team concept worldwide, accumulating millions of dollars in the process. On occasion when the time demanded it, he and the team were known to place single bets as high as $12,000, which was a very substantial amount in those days!

How It All Began

Born in New York just before the Second World War, to a Japanese father and Austrian mother, Uston had a keen interest in mathematics from an early age. He attended Yale University, after which followed further education at Harvard where he earned an MBA.

Uston then read Ed Thorp’s Beat the Dealer book (1962) that we’ve discussed in this series with reference to Standford Wong and Thorp himself. That book was pioneering in seeding the Blackjack strategy of card counting, and upon reading it, Uston took the method to market as he played the casinos profitably, earning himself the nickname of a “genius card counter”.

Teaming up With Al Francesco for Card Counting

Al Francesco was a recognized and respected gambler up and down America’s casinos and the two met, forming a formidable team. The team of players they captained would sit at a variety of tables around the casino floor and when the card counting found a profitable tally being reached, the signal would be sent, and a “big player” would come over and bet with increased stakes.

During the team’s initial expedition, they earned approximately $45,000, of which Uston’s share was said to be just over $2,000. Not long after, he was to become one of the “big players” of the team.

The Author of The Big Player

Not long after, Uston recounted their team adventures in the book, The Big Player (1977) but this meant the team was no longer allowed in Las Vegas, which subsequently brought Uston much criticism from his teammates.

The book meant team play became monitored closely in “Sin City” but luckily the other gambling mecca of the United States, Atlantic City, was on the rise after passing legalization in 1978. Uston was quick to spot this and based himself accordingly close to AC, at which point, he formed his own team.

Like all gaming houses once the casinos caught on, the players became marked men, and they were forced to move on.

Ken Uston Challenged the Casinos in Court

Upon being barred in Atlantic City in 1979, Uston issued the lawsuit – Uston v. Resorts International Hotel Inc., 445 A.2d 370 (N.J. 1982) and the Supreme Court of New Jersey found in his favor, declaring that, “Atlantic City casinos did not have the authority to decide whether card counters could be barred without any valid New Jersey Casino Commission regulation excluding card counters”.

To this day, that is a statute that stands in New Jersey where the casinos are not allowed to bar card counters. To circumvent the problem, the Casinos in Atlantic City, added further decks, changed shuffle points and generally took any legal measures possible to negate the player’s edge.

A Master of Disguise

Ken Uston still wanted to play in Las Vegas and to achieve this, he took great care to disguise his appearance, and the tales of him being disguised as different Hoover Dam employees are legendary.

Sixty Minutes and History Channel Documentaries

In 1981, Ken Uston was a subject of the popular Sixty Minutes Documentary that featured him in one of their segments and in 2005, he was posthumously featured on the History Channel in a documentary called The Blackjack Man.

Ken Uston’s Legacy

Sadly, Ken Uston’s legendary Blackjack career was cut short early at the age of fifty-two when he was found dead in his Paris rented apartment in 1987. Undoubtedly, Uston was a pioneer of card counting and particularly its function within a team strategy.

He chose to chart his success in the popular book The Big Player, which spread the word of how profitable card counting could be, much to the chagrin of his team members. Interestingly, Ken Uston never stopped fighting his battle with casinos, and in 1982 he won a lawsuit that is still set in the New Jersey statute that card counting is not deemed cheating, and players cannot be refused entry. Among his many achievements, that was possibly the most important one.

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Craig Edwards
Craig Edwards, an online tipster in golf and snooker for over four years, boasts a track record of 7800 bets with a 28% return on investment. A snooker professional from 1988 to 1996, he was once a single-figure handicap golfer. Achieving the 282nd position in the WSOP MAIN EVENT in 2007, Craig possesses a unique insight into the psychological shifts of professional sportsmen, anticipating their mindset week by week.

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