Ken Uston: The Full Story of the World’s Best Blackjack Player

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Ken Uston is one of the most famous blackjack players in history, but how did he become the best? Check out this article to find out all about this true blackjack legend, how he made his fortune, and even about how he met his untimely death as well!

How Ken Uston Became a True Blackjack Legend

Professional Gambler Ken Uston In the early 1970s, a blackjack prodigy played a major role in inventing team play. He almost single-handedly managed to win a massive fortune. The player was Ken Uston, and he made millions of dollars playing blackjack in casinos around the world.

Uston is famous for winning $12,000 per hand or even $60,000 in a day. Generally, most pros think of him as one of the top players of all time.

However, many of the world’s casinos kicked him out! In fact, Uston was forced to use disguises and costumes to avoid getting noticed in casinos, due to his wide notoriety. Plus, he once went to war with major Las Vegas casinos. He sued them for a sum of $85 million. He got severely beaten up by some mobsters as well!

Uston is undoubtedly a true legend of gambling history. But how did he manage to win so much? Why do people consider him to be among the greatest blackjack legends? Check out the full Ken Uston story below, so you can learn about one of the most famous people in the history of gambling!

Beating the Odds

First of all, if you’ve ever visited casinos, you know that they are full of colorful lights and a symphony of slot machine sounds. There are polite dealers, complimentary drinks and food, and a luxurious movie-like atmosphere. Best of all, there are opportunities to win an entire fortune. After all, big prizes are what gambling is all about. And if you increase the risks, the prizes are going to be a lot bigger too! Of course, all casinos are aware of this, and that’s why each game has a house edge.

For those who are not familiar with this term, it’s a percentage that reveals the casino’s mathematical advantage over the player as they gamble over time. It really represents an assured percentage of player bets that the establishment gets back over time. Plus, it’s a way to ensure the casino will make a profit. For most players, the house edge means that the casino will always win a percentage of their money. But is there a way to get around the house edge and improve your odds?

Actually, some famous players have managed to turn the odds in their favor by using unique skills and playing the right games. What’s more, if you know anything about blackjack, you know that it’s the best game for tipping the odds with a good strategy!

Blackjack

Overall, blackjack has some of the lowest house edges. If players use a specific strategy, it can even be lower than 1%. This is due to the fact that past moves have a significant impact on new rounds. And because of this, players have figured out a way to tip the odds in their favor. It’s all done with a simple technique — card counting!

That’s how Uston won millions, but there’s so much more to it. He was truly a pioneer. From his gifted beginnings to his rise to success and final days, a story of Uston is truly captivating.

The Road to Fame

Ken Uston’s full name was Kenneth Senzo Usui. He was born way back in January 1935. Ken’s family lived in New York City, and his father was a rather successful entrepreneur from Japan. As a child, Uston was incredibly gifted, and his father pushed him to be successful in many fields. He was massively talented at sports and playing the piano. However, the subject he truly excelled in was math.

Casino Game Balckjack Some sources say that in high school, Ken’s IQ was around 169. He was so intelligent that he skipped several grades. In fact, he received a University of Connecticut degree in his teens. Then, at age 16, Ken moved to study at Yale. That’s when he changed his last name. By the time he was 20, Ken had completed his studies at Yale and moved to Harvard. He finished with an MBA degree in finance.

After that, Uston got married, had three kids, and relocated to California. He worked in the stock market in San Francisco and had a decade-long career as one of the top number crunchers in his field. Actually, Uston had many jobs and ended up becoming the senior VP at the Pacific Stock Exchange.

Also, around this time, Uston managed to get a hold of the legendary “Beat the Dealer” book by Edward Thorp. That’s when his passion for gambling was born.

Beat the Dealer

The book taught him some essential blackjack techniques, and he was simply fascinated by the way he could use his knowledge of numbers to win. What’s more, Ken became a regular in various casinos, and in 1965, he had a chance to meet Al Francesco, a blackjack pro, at a poker game.

Furthermore, Uston was amazed by Francesco’s knowledge of the game. He learned some tricks which helped him turn the odds in his favor. Namely, Francesco showed him all about blackjack card counting. Plus, he learned specific methods he could use to win the game every time. Due to Ken’s unbelievably high IQ and his love of numbers, he was able to master the technique. Thus, he became one of the most famous card counters in history.

Card Counting

As Edward Thorp proved in “Beat the Dealer,” there is a technique you can use to help you eliminate the house edge in a game of blackjack. Namely, players can count the cards to turn the odds to their benefit and thus beat the house.

While some think this is an unethical strategy, it is generally not illegal, and it’s a method of advantage gambling. Even though it’s legal, many casinos disapprove of it and even ban those who attempt it! Actually, if done correctly, card counting can completely eliminate the advantage of the house, meaning that a player can win quite a lot of money. It’s not an effortless strategy though, and it does take a lot of time and skill to master.

How Does it Work?

Here’s a rough guide on how it works, so you can get familiarized with why Ken Uston is such a legend. Firstly, when players get their cards, they have to either add or take away 1 point, depending on the card numbers. If the cards are 2 to 6, the players must add 1. But if they are from 7 to 9, the value is zero. If the cards range from 10 to Ace, the value is -1. That way, you can know how many low or high cards remain in a game. This is also called a running count; and if its value gets higher, the player has an advantage.

When the players know the running count, they can then form the true count and adjust their bets accordingly. Namely, with a high running count, the bet can be increased. If it’s low, the bet needs to be decreased. In a nutshell, this is the “hi-lo count” technique. Players can use it to win repeatedly and get huge winnings.

Legend has it that Uston only needed half a minute to find the true count in a standard single deck, which is unbelievably quick! Even though his mind was sharp, Francesco’s teachings were not easy. Ken even stated that some of the lessons were harder than his courses at Harvard. Not only did Uston learn card counting perfectly, but he also knew how to get rid of any distractions and conceal his true intentions on the gaming floor.

Ken Uston’s Key to Success

Uston learned a lot of things from Al Francesco, but things finally got real when the pro player created a team of card counters at the beginning of the 1970s.

The team would play blackjack at many tables in casinos, and “play callers” would count the cards while making low bets. If the card count was very high, a “big player” would suddenly join the table and make a very large bet. This was the best way to avoid getting busted by the pit boss and other casino staff. And with the right knowledge, it was incredibly simple to win big. In its first week, Francesco’s team had won over $44,000 in Las Vegas.

In fact, the team got so experienced at counting. Pretty quickly, everything started to depend on Uston. He was the one who had to count and avoid getting noticed by the casino staff. At the same time, the mob was in charge of running most Las Vegas casinos, which means that if Francesco’s team was to get caught, they would end up facing brutal Mafia-style revenge.

Nevertheless, Francesco promoted him to “big player.” That’s when Ken started to make more than $60,000 for the team every day. He generally placed bets between $100 and $1,000 in one hand, and his quick mind allowed him to win every time.

But Things Took an Unexpected Turn

Gambling cards in Casino BlackjackOver time, Uston’s dream team got very experienced, but the biggest problem remained, and that was trying not to get caught by the staff!

They managed to keep their operation running by frequently changing casinos. However, it was very tricky for one small team to keep doing this for a long time. To stay safe, Uston started to wear disguises in casinos. On some weekends, he would come in dressed up like a high roller to avoid suspicion. Even though the disguise had worked, it ended up consuming him.

Unfortunately, Uston got hooked on weekend trips to Las Vegas. He got used to the lifestyle of his high-roller alter ego. What was once a passion for numbers had actually turned into a full-blown blackjack addiction. He started to dress differently, wearing gold jewelry, fancy watches, expensive silk shirts, and costly tuxedos, much like the persona that once made up his disguise.

Uston would leave his wife and family as often as he could and frequent places in Vegas. Moreover, he still had a day job of a vice president, and his addiction impacted his career.

What’s more, the high-roller lifestyle led him to pursue another goal. Uston wanted to prove to everyone that he was the best blackjack player in the world. In his mind, he was the most intelligent player, but his ego got the better of him, and he became over-confident and sloppy.

The blackjack pro started to make ridiculously high bets and even asked pit bosses to place his chips for him, which was dangerous since it could reveal his whole team. It was only a matter of time until the casinos caught them. On top of all that, Uston started to drink a lot while playing. His arrogant and careless behavior attracted a lot of attention in casinos.

Outlawed

During the decade, Uston and his team won over $1 million from various casinos. If compared to today’s money, the amount would be a little under $5 million, which is incredibly high for a small team.

Most of the casinos caught on, and the group was soon found in the “Griffin Book,” which was a sort of a list of unwanted players in casinos. The list was shared between major casinos, meaning that Uston and his team were outlawed in most Vegas establishments. Ultimately, Uston’s team dissolved at the end of the decade, but he did not want to stop.

His obsession led him to quit working in the stock market and dedicate himself solely to gambling. Uston still believed he was the best and thought it was not fair for the casinos to kick him out due to his skills. After all, card counting was not illegal.

Things took an interesting turn when Ken sued several casino establishments which had banned him. In total, he wanted to get 85 million dollars from those casinos, which mean that he was proclaiming an all-out war on Vegas. The lawsuit was featured all over the media, and Upton became quite famous. However, his lawsuit failed, and he didn’t win anything.

Beaten Bloody

The pro’s next step was to train and create a new blackjack team that would operate much like his business model back when he had worked in the stock market. Uston aimed for high profits, but he knew that the financial losses were going to be quite big. He started to use his savings, and pretty soon, the money ran out. Plus, the gambler ignored the fact that some casinos had banned him, and he still played in those establishments anyway. Ultimately, he went too far and ended up being brutally beaten in Reno. However, a bloodied face and a few fractures was not going to stop him!

Atlantic City

Eventually, the blackjack pro gave up on Las Vegas and got the idea of moving his activities to New Jersey. This is because, in 1979, Uston discovered that there was a new rule regarding card games in Atlantic City casinos. The decks for most games were going to be played for a slightly longer time before being shuffled, which provided the perfect opportunity for Uston to get back to his card counting schemes.

He formed yet another team to count cards, and he was sure that nothing bad would happen this time. The new rules made card counting fully legal, and his team was not going to be kicked out. They started to play on a weekly basis, and Upton estimated a $25,000 yearly profit. Unfortunately, the plan did not pan out as well as he had hoped, as the casinos quickly found out about their mistake and changed the rules to ban all card counters.

Most Wanted

Ken Uston: The Full Story of the World’s Best Blackjack PlayerNevertheless, Uston did not back down and moved his activities to other countries. In the 1970s, he traveled around the globe and visited most of the major world-famous casinos. In the end, he ran out of casinos. He simply couldn’t find a place to play where he hadn’t been banned already.

Even though Uston had to retire, he found a job as a casino consultant. In the 1980s, the player published some books about blackjack strategies. Plus, his love of numbers and patterns led him towards another hobby — video games. Uston got obsessed with Pac-Man, and he memorized the winning patterns for the whole game. As a fun fact, he is the writer of a book called Mastering Pac-Man, which turned out to be a bestseller on the NY Times list.

Plus, he created a few more books about video games along with some computer software and an actual video game called Puzzle Panic. Interestingly, he also became a consultant for the Kuwait government in 1986. In total, he published 16 books.

Tragic End

Unfortunately, Ken Uston passed away from a heart attack in 1987 while he was staying in Paris, France. He was only 52, and paramedics found him alone in a hotel room. The details surrounding his death have spawned numerous conspiracy theories. Some claim that he was assassinated for planning to uncover some major money laundering schemes in Las Vegas casinos. But according to his autopsy, the medical examiner did not discover anything unusual. Still, he died of heart failure at a relatively young age, and his death was quite unfortunate.

Blackjack Legend

Many players consider Ken Uston to be one of the biggest geniuses in gambling. He was a deeply intelligent man and an incredibly quick card counter. Furthermore, Ken Uston’s blackjack skills are famous around the world. Depending on how you look at it, the ways in which he made his fortune could be either unfair or perfectly legal. Nevertheless, his knowledge has inspired thousands of other gamblers, and he will forever be known as one of the greatest and most intelligent players the game has known!

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