Ken Uston: Blackjack Champion and Author
The history of blackjack would not be complete without mentioning the life and contributions of Ken Uston, who primarily played the popular casino game during the 1970s and 1980s. Ken dedicated those years of his life to becoming one of the best blackjack players around. He mastered card counting methods that had never been used in casinos before and he even joined a very successful blackjack team.
He wrote extensively on the subject in the four books he published, which are still read by thousands of gambling enthusiasts today. For his impact on the game of blackjack and his advanced playing abilities, he was one of the first men to be inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. To learn more about Ken Uston and his award winning strategies, please continue reading this detailed biography.
Ken Uston, also known as Kenneth Senzo Usui, was born in New York City on January 12th, 1935 to a middle class family. He spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Long Island, eventually moving to the more timid town of New Haven, Connecticut. Ken's father was a businessman from Japan who came over to America just six years before Ken was born.
Eventually his father became a Foreign Language Teacher at Yale University, inspiring his son to set his career goals high. Ken's mother had travelled to the states from Austria; she spent the majority of her time volunteering at local children's hospitals and teaching children how to read. After Ken, the family had two daughters: Lynn and Nancy.
Just weeks after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the family got a knock on their door from American Soldiers who were there to take Ken's father to a concentration camp for Japanese Americans. They were suspicious that some of the Japanese Americans in the country had been involved with the horrible events of Pearl Harbor.
Ken's father was taken away from the family, with no promise of being returned home safely. This was a frightening experience for the whole family, and it made Ken resent the government for a while. Thankfully, Ken's father was released just a few months later and the family was able to return back to life as normal.
Education/ Early Career Choices
Ken, who was inspired by his parents, worked very hard in school, being accepted into Yale University just after his sixteenth birthday. Upon graduation, he moved on to Harvard University, where he earned his Master's degree.
Ken spent the next few years working various good paying jobs, eventually getting married to the woman of his dreams: Betty. They had two daughters and one son; Ken finally had the beautiful family he had always wanted. Out of the blue, Ken got an enticing job offer to be senior management consultant at Cresap, McCormick & Paget in San Francisco.
The entire family headed west for the beautiful state of California, but it seemed as if Ken was never content with a job for very long. He switched careers so often that his family could hardly keep up. It was clear that Ken felt like there was something missing in his life, but little did Ken know that what he was looking for was just around the corner.
Becoming a Blackjack Master
On the weekends, Ken would visit the nearby casinos and play blackjack to take away the pain from everyday stresses. He had a natural talent for the game, but he still had a lot of room for improvements. After several months of playing faithfully on the weekends, he was approached by the legendary Al Francesco, who recruited him to join his professional blackjack team.
Without hesitation or consulting his family, Ken decided to take Al Francesco up on his offer, even though it meant spending many hours on the road travelling to different casinos in the area. Ken was quickly introduced to all of the team members and spent the next several weeks learning their count down strategies and other mathematical card counting methods that made that team so profitable.
Ken eventually had to give up both his career and his family life to pursue his new passion of being a professional blackjack player. His marriage ended up crumbling and he had estranged relationships with his children. Even his parents were unhappy with his career choices; his mother once said, "I have never gambled and I was not happy that he was in blackjack. You don't spend a fortune at Yale and Harvard to become a blackjack player."
Al Francesco's team was known for using the "Big Player" strategy. This technique consisted of players that would play at various tables across the casino; their role was to wait for opportunities where the count was high and where they could easily gain a 1.5 to 2.5 percent edge over the house. When these situations came along, they would motion over a big player who would join the game and place extremely large bets. These big players were known for winning thousands of dollars in very short amounts of time, leaving the table as soon as the edge switched in favor of the dealer.
Ken was the main "Big Player,"for Al's blackjack team. His first time playing as a "Big Player" for the team was on their trip to the Fremont Casino of Las Vegas. After forty five minutes of play, Ken won over $27,000, which was very impressive for a first timer. The more Ken's skills at the tables improved, the more attention he would get from Casino personnel.
The first casino to pay close attention to him was the Sands Casino and Resort of Las Vegas; they threatened to arrest him after he won $200,000 in one night if he didn't leave the premises immediately. Ken and Al's team eventually were barred at other casinos including Castaway, the Desert Inn, the Frontier, Landmark, and the Silver Slipper. Keep in mind that this team didn't limit themselves to the casinos of Las Vegas, as they were known for venturing to Atlantic City and various countries in Europe too.
A New Phase of His Career
Some consider Ken a traitor and some consider him a hero for what he did next. In 1977, he co-authored a book with Roger Rapoport titled, "The Big Player: How a Team of Blackjack Players Made a Million Dollars," that exposed all Al Francesco's team secrets, making it nearly impossible for them to set foot in the casinos together again. Al and Ken's friendship was forever strained, and many other card counters resented Ken as well.
Despite some negative attention, Ken was asked to appear on Good Morning America to talk about his book and his impact on the world of blackjack. Prior to his guest appearance, a camera crew followed him around the Horseshoe Casino and Resort, filming his Big Player techniques while staying incognito. While they were filming, Ken won over $10,000. As Good Morning America aired that footage, people grew fond of Ken Uston and encouraged him to keep writing about blackjack.
Ken wrote several other books about blackjack including One Third of a Shoe in 1979, Million Dollar Blackjack in 1981, and Ken Uston on Blackjack in 1986. He dedicated One Third of a Shoe to his father writing, "Senzo Usui. The man who made it all possible and who I deeply disappointed when I changed my name. I am proud to be a Usui. I love you Dad."
Million Dollar Blackjack would probably be considered his most popular book; it describes some of the card counting methods he invented such as the Uston Advanced Point Count, Uston Advance Plus-Minus Count, and the Uston SS Card Counting System.
His Own Blackjack Team
In between writing, Ken formed his own team of professional card counters who used a variety of techniques to win millions from the casinos. The team would wear different disguises to each place they went, so that no one knew who they were. They would even use fake ids to help keep their true identity a mystery.
The main difference between Al's old team and Ken's new team was the use of electronics to gain an edge over the casinos. Ken used a small computer the size of a cigarette; it was often referred to as "George." It processed information through four buttons, using a unique binary code that a player would enter to tell the computer what cards were in their hand. The computer responded with either a long or short vibration to inform the player if they should hit or stay.
Rumor has it that his team once made over $350,000 in profit by using these devices in one weekend in Atlantic City. The computers worked for his team the majority of the time, but they weren't without their flaws. The battery pack in the machine was known to overheat and cause mild burns on the people who were using them.
Eventually Ken and his team started being barred from the casinos, which subsequently made them very upset. He chose to take one casino in particular, Resorts International, to court for barring them for unjustifiable reasons. Ken understood why casinos would ban his team if they were using the computers, but in this particular instant, they were using only basic card counting methods that involved them performing mathematical equations in their head. Ken won his case against the casino, explaining that the money they had won was merely a result of intelligent players.
Since Atlantic City casinos couldn't ban card counters from the casinos anymore, they found other ways to stop card counters from winning. They increased the number of times they shuffled a deck during a game and they increased the number of decks they used in a game to hinder card counters from being profitable. Although some people were able to overcome these new obstacles, Ken wasn't willing to dedicate the time needed to do so.
Moving on from Blackjack
His passion for blackjack had faded and he was ready for the next phase of life. Ken was determined to mend the broken relationships he had with his family by showing them that he had finally turned his life around. He took his children on a weeklong trip to Disneyland, trying to reconnect with them once more. He also took several trips to Japan to visit his parents who had returned to their home country several years prior. His father died at age 79, before telling Ken that he had forgiven him for the pain he caused the family.
Since repairing family strains wasn't as easy as Ken was hoping it would be and in order to cope with the loss of his father, he filled his emotional gap by playing classic video games such as Breakout, Pong, and Space Invaders. He became obsessed with playing, once renting a house in California with a bunch of friends to play Space Invaders three consecutive days in a row without sleep.
It wasn't until PAC-MAN hit the market that Ken started to compete in video game tournaments. He would travel across the country, often winning thousands of dollars by placing first place in these competitions. He claims he played for the love of the game, not for the possible financial rewards he could gain from it. Ken actually published the book called, "Mastering PAC-MAN," which made it in to the New York Times Best Seller List just a few months later.
After playing video games no longer excited him, Ken moved to Kuwait for a new lifestyle with a different change of pace. In Kuwait gambling is illegal, so that was never a temptation for him. There were actually no video games to distract him either. "I had culture shock the whole time that I was there," Ken said. He had to adjust to a more simplistic lifestyle, and it was truly a humbling experience for him.
He stayed in a Hilton Hotel during his stay, but he was surrounded by impoverished villages that had little to no resources to work with. He found it hard to relate with these people, feeling very alone during his entire stay. He turned to Jazz music for comfort, playing the piano on a daily basis. Ken faithfully wrote his experience in a diary that eventually got published into an online book called, "An American in Kuwait." This book helps readers understand the emotional difficulties Ken went through while living in Kuwait.
Ken spent the finals month of his life in Paris, France with a women named Margaret who he met on an afternoon visit to London. Margaret came to Ken's home to find him dead in a chair, holding his piano and smiling. He was found on September 19th, 1987, but an autopsy showed that he died two days prior. He was only 52 years old, dying from a combination of drug overdose and heart failure.
His family flew to Paris to identify the body and claim his belongings. Unfortunately, many of his personal belongings had been stolen before they arrived. He was cremated a few days later, as that was his dying wish. Nearly fifteen years after Ken passed away, his family got a call saying he would be one of the original seven members inducted into the Blackjack Hall of Fame. His family went to the inaugural ceremony where they were greeted by a community of blackjack enthusiasts who had grown to respect Ken for his accomplishments.
Author: Nicole Miller
Updated: January 2016