Uston's real life '21' saga all that counts

Apr 1, 2008 7:00 PM

By David Stratton | Long before there was an MIT card counting team, let alone a fantasized movie about their exploits at the Las Vegas blackjack tables, there was Ken Uston.

Uston was a card-counter whose teams in the 1970s raked in millions from the casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and other gambling venues.

And Uston didnít need a Hollywood scriptwriter to embellish his escapades. His fantasy was real-life.

Ustonís storied career intertwined with GamingToday founder Chuck DiRocco, a personal friend and fellow high-stakes blackjack player.

One evening in the late 1970s, DiRocco received a somewhat frantic call from Uston, who implored DiRocco to pick him up in front of Circus Circus. "Just look for Fidel Castro," Uston told his friend.

When DiRocco pulled up in front of the casino, there was Uston, indeed dressed in a Fidel Castro disguise, accurate from the curly black beard down to the army fatigues.

After he slipped into the back seat of the car, Uston began pulling "bricks" of hundred dollar bills from his clothing Ė he had tens of thousands of dollars that he had just raked from the blackjack tables.

 In those days, casinos didnít like being beaten at their own games and their "enforcers" werenít shy about reminding players that card counting wasnít allowed.

 In addition to using a variety of disguises Ė he once dressed as a Hoover Dam construction worker on a drinking and betting "binge" Ė Uston employed teams of players who would be scattered among the pitís blackjack tables. Then, through a system of hand signals, he would be alerted to which tables were ripe for the taking.

His ventures earned millions of dollars and became the topic of articles in hundreds of newspapers, and magazines such as Time, Newsweek, Playboy and the Saturday Evening Post. His celebrity even catapulted him onto mainstream TV shows such as "Today" with Tom Brokaw, "Good Morning, America" and "60 Minutes."

In 1979, after winning hundreds of thousands of dollars from Resorts International in Atlantic City, Uston was banned from New Jersey casinos.

But Uston didnít fold his hand with the ban. He hired attorneys and challenged the ban through the courts and Casino Control Commission. And he won.

The New Jersey courts ruled that casinos couldnít ban a player simply for counting cards. In response, many of the casinos tightened up their rules and increased the number of decks to slant the house edge more in their favor.

Like the MIT students depicted in the recently-released film, "21," Uston was Ivy League educated.

He was accepted into Yale at the age of 16 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He then earned an MBA from Harvard University before taking a job as the district manager of Southern New England Telephone Company.

He soon relocated to California, where he became the senior vice president of the Pacific Stock Exchange.

On weekends, Uston would travel to Las Vegas, where he honed his skills playing blackjack and counting cards.

In 1975, Uston left his job to become a full-time blackjack player.

In addition to beating the tables, Uston wrote several books and dozens of articles about winning at blackjack.

His first book "The Big Player," was published in 1977 and chronicled the exploits of his team of card-counters. At the time, the book was considered ground-breaking and likely led to his ban from Las Vegas casinos.

In 1978, the year gambling was approved in New Jersey, Uston moved to Atlantic City. Two years later, he wrote "Million Dollar Blackjack," which was considered the Blackjack Bible at the time.

The book, by his own admission, contained everything he knew on the subject Ė basic strategy, simple and advanced counting, and how to bet effectively without drawing the casinosí attention.

In the early 1980s, Uston turned his attention to the burgeoning home computer technology, and wrote several books on the subject, as well as video games, including Pac-Man, which he eventually mastered on a world-class level.

In addition to tinkering with new technologies, Uston began to travel, taking jobs in foreign ports of call as if searching for something to pique his powerful intellect.

In 1987, Uston was found dead in his apartment in Paris, France. He was only 52 years old.

His official cause of death was listed as heart failure, but those who knew him well believe it was his devil-may-care lifestyle, seasoned with alcohol and drugs.

Regardless of the cause, the gambling world lost a true pioneer and one of its most colorful individuals.