Ken Uston was arguably the most famous blackjack player ever. His innovative blackjack team play techniques took millions off the Las Vegas blackjack tables before they were detected by the casinos. Player, Author, Instructor, Jazz Musician, and gambling raconteur, Kenny was a great guy to hang out with. This article contains a few of my remembrances.
Brought up in a middle-class New York City household, Ken Uston graduated from Yale with the highest honors. At the age of 31 he was earning $42,500 a year plus many fringe benefits as a Senior Vice President of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange. But he gave it all up and dropped out of the corporate world to play professional blackjack.
Although Kenny didn't invent team blackjack, Ed Thorp gets the credit for that, he was the key member of the first blackjack team organized in the mid-1970s by a professional blackjack player in the San Francisco Bay Area. The fascinating story of this team is told in Kenny's out-of-print book, The Big Player.
The first time I saw Kenny, he was sitting at a blackjack table at Resorts International in Atlantic City ... shortly after the AC casinos opened in the late 1970s in the days of early surrender and when the casinos were required by regulation to deal at least two-thirds of the shoe with no shuffle-up allowed. Uston was by himself with the familiar curly hair and beard. Kenny, betting stacks of green, was losing heavily. "You don't want any part of this holocaust," he said to a friend.
I was a budding professional blackjack player at the time, having just published my first blackjack book - the first edition of Blackjack: A Winner's Handbook. I was also proud of a weekly gambling column that I was writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer. I decided I wanted to meet Kenny.
My wife Nancy, much more assertive than I, had no problem in accosting Kenny at the table, talking to him and arranging a dinner meeting with Kenny and his sister Lynn at the old historic, Knife & Fork Restaurant. Over dinner, the conversation was a jumble of Kenny's plans to form teams, his plans for a new book and his sister Lynn's attempts to pin him down for promotional appearances.
Kenny's huge ego didn't prevent him from expressing genuine interest in my blackjack theories and plans for teaching and writing. He talked about teaching a seminar in Washington, DC and I, a blackjack instructor as well, decided I wanted to learn from the master. I wrangled an invitation from Kenny, attended the seminar and learned a tremendous amount about teaching the game. Among Kenny's many talents, teaching was near the top of the list.
Kenny wanted me to play on his blackjack teams. I admit I was dazzled by all the prospects of quick money. But I turned him down, preferring instead to maintain a longer blackjack career. Kenny burned out team members very quickly. In those days, once you became known to the casinos, it was difficult to make money playing the game.
Kenny and I had many discussions about going into the teaching business together. Nancy (my business partner as well as my wife) and I listened to Kenny's offer one evening. He would lend his name to the business and make special appearances for selling and teaching. But when we proposed dividing the profits by three instead of two, as Kenny wanted, he balked, and our discussions went up in smoke.
This didn't affect our friendship. For a six-month period, while he was writing his book, One-Third of a Shoe (half of what became known as Two Books On Blackjack), we saw Kenny and his girlfriend, Suzy, at least once a week. We were asked to offer advice on the book and helped Kenny with his self-publishing activities.
Kenny needed some quick cash in the early 1980s and came to me for a loan. He offered collateral. So I lent him about $10K. The collateral? His collection of $500, $1,000 and $10,000 bills he didn't want to convert. He paid me back within just a few weeks. I met him inside the safety deposit room of an Atlantic City bank and Kenny repaid the loan in casino chips from Resorts International. One of his teams had just doubled a bank.
I have vivid memories of the last three times I saw Kenny. I had dinner with Uston the night before his win in the New Jersey Supreme Court was announced. He had beaten the casinos in a long and costly battle to earn the right to play blackjack without getting barred because of his card-counting skills. However, the casinos were given countermeasures that would make it difficult (if not impossible) for him to win. But this didn't matter. Kenny had made his point. He felt great that night and we both had too many drinks. "Nobody but me could have pulled this off," he said. And he was right.
In 1985, Kenny formed his last blackjack team in Las Vegas. He shaved his beard and straightened his hair. He looked like he did in his pictures when he was Vice-President of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange. When I saw him at the Jockey Club, I knew him right away. But apparently the casinos didn't recognize him, because he played right alongside his team members all summer. I was teaching a class at the time and one day I remember the sounds of his piano filtering into my classroom there at the Jockey Club. Of course, the students were excited when I told them who was playing ... and we didn't get much done that afternoon. Kenny was a tremendous jazz pianist. He emulated Errol Garner - his favorite jazz pianist.
The last time I saw Kenny was at a gourmet restaurant at Resorts in Atlantic City. We discussed another joint venture over a fantastic dinner. As always, the talk turned to blackjack and Kenny reminisced about his teams and big wins. He told me how he once got a 100:1 betting spread in a single-deck game at Lake Tahoe, betting from $10 to $1,000 a hand without the deck being shuffled. Words are not enough to describe the drunk act he simulated that night, staggering around the floor of the restaurant in front of our table and others nearby, to show how he made the whole caper possible. It was a masterful lesson in the art of fooling the casino bosses, but could I or anyone else have pulled it off? I doubt it.
Make the decision and then commit to do it well and do it right. This was the greatest blackjack lesson that Kenny Uston taught me. If you decide to excel at blackjack, do it well and do it right. Learn your method so well that your error level approaches zero in your practice sessions and then in casino play. This is why Kenny's teams were so successful. He demanded excellence and he got it.
Kenny excelled in everything he did, whether it was blackjack, Pac Man, teaching, playing a piano, writing, programming a computer, or whatever he undertook. Ken Uston passed away in 1987 from unknown causes.
Jerry Patterson, a gambling instructor, author and player for 25 years, is author of Casino Gambling: A Winner's Guide to Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, Baccarat and Casino Poker, the #1 selling gambling book on amazon.com and bn.com since shortly after publication in February 2000.
[Article submitted June 2002]
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