We won’t forget our colorful pals

Apr 22, 2003 7:11 AM

GamingToday is currently assembling a series of gaming books, based on the volumes of material that have appeared in our newspaper over the past 27 years.

In the process, I’ve had the chance to review some of the classic work produced by the gaming industry’s legendary columnists, such as Huey Mahl and Lenny Frome.

Perhaps one of our most colorful, if not famous writers, was Ken Uston. Ken was always a personal favorite with me, and seeing his articles always brings back fond remembrances.

Down through the years, the pages of this newspaper told many episodes about one of the most unforgettable characters I ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Uston was a master at beating the game of blackjack. He was a mathematical genius. He was also a character. He loved the ladies. They loved him. He tossed around $100 bills like confetti. It was difficult not to like Ken Uston. Beyond any doubt, his greatest love was that of a challenge.

At an early age, he held a seat on the Pacific Stock Exchange. But risk-taking on the floor of the exchange wasn’t enough action to satisfy his whims. On weekends he regularly motored from the Bay Area to the casinos at Lake Tahoe. That’s where he discovered the game of blackjack. It intrigued him so much that he soon sold his seat on the exchange and took up the chase of beating the house at their own game.

  It took him at least a year, maybe a few days more, at the tables to master his skills. He had a razor-sharp mind. It was highlighted by a photographic memory that never failed to amaze me. I watched in awe as he spent hours playing blackjack with himself to hone his skills, keeping an accurate account of what cards had been played and what cards remained in the deck. He used to carry around a little briefcase. He could have easily passed himself off as a lawyer. But once the briefcase was opened, his cover was blown. Inside were decks of cards he used to practice whenever he had the opportunity.

At the same time Uston developed a money management system. He said it was almost as strong (and in some cases stronger) than his card-counting skills. I believed it. I still do.

I met Uston in the late 1970s. He was living in a suite high atop the Jockey Club on the Las Vegas Strip. He agreed to an interview. We began publishing a series on the life of Ken Uston. At the outset, I figured it was good for at least three installments. It ran 15. Our readers went wild waiting for each new issue. They loved to read about someone who could beat the casinos at their own game.

Ken Uston had a great love for music and played the piano with the best of them. Often he would invite me to come by the lounge at the Jockey Club and listen to him play his version of Duke Ellington. It was magnificent. And he closed every set with Ellington’s classic "Sophisticated Lady." There weren’t many people hanging out in the lounge at the Jockey Club most nights, but those who were there always gave him a standing ovation. He loved it.

What he really loved was mastering the game he could beat on the fair and square. Casinos made every effort to bar him. And nearly all of them in Nevada did. One of the holdouts was Caesars Palace. They let him play, but there were strict limits on how much he could win.

When Atlantic City opened, Uston headed East. New Jersey casinos were forced to deal to card counters. Uston was in seventh heaven. He spent a great deal of time at the seashore beating the casinos out of very large sums of money. He told me on several occasions how the Atlantic City casinos didn’t take kindly to him beating them up. And, according to Uston, they returned the favor with some rough stuff in the parking lots outside the casinos. Lawsuits followed. At the same time, Uston invested large sums of money in real estate ventures at the seashore.

Somewhere along the way Uston decided he was so well known and easy to recognize that he had no chance to play undetected in casinos. In typical Ken Uston fashion, he turned to Hollywood for help. He made contact with several of the silver screen’s makeup artists. They transformed him into a Fidel Castro look-alike — an old man with gray hair or a ruddy-faced drunk with babes on his arms and $100 bills to tip casino help. If there were fallback, perhaps it was because his disguises worked so well. It encouraged him to go above and beyond.

Ken Uston liked to challenge the Las Vegas casinos to blackjack "match games," in which he put up, say $50,000 and would play until either he or the casino won. He even did it in front of the TV cameras.

Of course, the spotlight always seemed to be on Ken. He past away in 1987, at the far too early age of 52, while traveling in Paris. The rumor was that Ken had been in Kuwait, working as a computer consultant, earning $1,600 a day.

Maybe so. But I suspect he was in the Middle East trying to develop a winning system for the aged-old game of Backgammon. If you thought he was good with cards, you should have seen him with dice!