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Ken Uston

When it comes to the legends of blackjack, Ken Uston stands heads and shoulders above the rest. While there were many who preceded Uston in the development of card counting, Ken Uston was the first blackjack player to consistently apply his knowledge and techniques to make millions at the blackjack tables. His understanding of card counting and his incredible insights into the game of blackjack continue to influence players of all skill levels today.

Uston’s real name was Kenneth Senzo Usui. He was of mixed heritage. Uston’s mother was Austrian and his father was a Japanese businessman. Uston was the oldest of the couple’s three children, and highly intelligent. Uston’s father set a high intellectual standard for his children, pushing them to learn and develop at a rate faster than other children their age. As a result, Uston was accepted to Yale at the tender age of 16. This was a major accomplishment, but Uston took it a step farther by becoming a member of the Phi Betta Kappa fraternity and honor society. After his time at Yale, Uston obtained his MBA from Harvard. Not many people, blackjack players or otherwise, can claim to be an alumnus of two Ivy League schools.

This kind of intelligence and academic superiority is found among many blackjack experts. Most of them display an amazing aptitude for mathematics. Uston was no exception. His college experience landed him jobs in the telephone industry and as a highly-paid consultant for various firms. Ultimately, Uston became a Senior Vice President of the Pacific Stock Exchange.

While Uston was making a name for himself in the stock market he began to read Edward O. Thorp’s Beat The Dealer. Reading on the weekends, Uston became convinced that it was possible to make large amounts of money playing blackjack. His affinity for numbers provided the foundation that would turn him into an excellent card counter, and it wasn’t long before Uston was making regular weekend trips to Las Vegas.

A chance meeting with professional gambler Al Francesco proved to be a pivotal moment for Ken Uston. Francesco was one of the first blackjack players to explore the team concept. He assembled expert players who would attack the casinos as a group. A hallmark of Francesco’s team was the inclusion of a “Big Player.” The Big Player was the team member funneled to the hottest tables to make the biggest bets. It didn’t take long for Uston to assume the role of Big Player in the Francesco team because of his remarkable card counting skills.

Things were going well with the Francesco team until Uston published his first book, appropriately titled The Big Player. It wasn’t uncommon for blackjack experts to write books about card counting, but Uston had made a serious mistake. His book effectively identified the members of Francesco’s team. The result was that Francesco’s team was banned from the Las Vegas casinos. In one fell swoop, Uston had killed the golden goose.

Separated from Francesco, and with no place to play blackjack, Uston’s skills at card counting were of little use until 1978. In that year casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, New Jersey. A whole new frontier was opened up for card counters, and Ken Uston joined the exodus of blackjack players to the east. This time around, Uston formed his own team of professional card counters. The men descended on Atlantic City like a whirlwind and began to rake in huge profits.

For all of his expertise at card counting, Uston did a very poor job of concealing the efforts of his team. In a relatively short period of time they were caught and banned from the Atlantic City casinos. Uston’s response was to begin a lengthy legal battle in which he became the first card counter to seriously challenge the actions of the casinos in a court of law. After Resorts International barred Uston and his team in 1979, Uston filed a lawsuit in which he asserted that card counting was a skill and therefore players should not be barred. The end result of the lawsuit was a victory for Uston, but it was a hollow one. Despite the fact that casinos in Atlantic City cannot ban card counters from play to this very day, other measures were taken to prevent card counting. These included multiple decks, automatic shuffling machines, and various other changes to the game.

Uston went on the author many popular books on blackjack, including Million Dollar Blackjack. As a player, however, his career never recovered from Uston being barred multiple times. He was eventually forced to don a variety of disguises in order to enter a casino, and with the advent of facial recognition systems this also failed. Uston finally wound up in Paris, France where he died of heart failure at the age of 52. Visit http://www.uston.com


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