Ken Uston – A True Team Player

Though he didn’t invent blackjack team play, Ken Uston is widely credited for popularizing the technique that would later help earn blackjack teams millions of dollars. Born in 1935 in New York to an Austrian mother and Japanese father, Ken – or Kenny when referred to by his friends – was an exceptionally gifted child, and he was admitted into Yale University when he was only 16. Shortly after graduating with the highest honors, Ken earned his master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from Harvard. By the age of 31 he was moving up in the corporate world, earning close to $50,000 a year as Senior Vice President of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange. But something was missing from his life, and Kenny decided to drop out of the corporate world and become a professional blackjack player.

One way to track Uston’s successful blackjack career is to take a look at the long, multi-national list of casinos he was banned from throughout the years. The more he played, the more Kenny’s skills were noticed. The Plain Dealer, a major daily newspaper out of Cleveland, Ohio, called him ‘a genius card counter’ after various Las Vegas casinos were hit hard by his techniques. Other people started taking notice, including professional gambler Al Francesco. The two met during a poker game, and Francesco invited Kenny to join his team. Francesco had recently established the first ever-recorded ‘big player’ type of blackjack card counting team, and he was looking for skilled card counters to help him out. Though they didn’t end up playing together for long, this experience would change Uston’s blackjack game forever.

The Big Player Strategy

The basic idea in blackjack card counting is to raise your bets whenever the deck is rich with high cards, since that’s when you have a greater chance of hitting a blackjack. On the other hand, you should lower your bets to a minimum (even a zero if possible) when the count is low, since that’s when the casino holds the advantage. But this strategy comes with a basic flaw called ‘bet variation’. One of the easiest ways for the casinos to spot card counters is to track their betting trends and behaviors. If a player consistently bets high when the count is high, and lowers his bets when the count is low, casino operators will detect his behavior and ask him to leave. Ken Uston was asked to leave so many times before, that at this point in his career he was in desperate need for a way to disguise his betting behavior. And that’s when team play came in to the rescue.

There are two positions in a ‘big player team’. The first are ‘spotters’, which are positioned at various tables around the casino. Their job is to keep track of the count, and signal to the ‘big player’ when the count is high and there is a player advantage. The ‘big player’ then joins the table and places big bets. When the count drops again, the spotter signals once more, and the big player leaves the table.

Using this strategy, a team of card counters may go unnoticed, since the counters (spotters) themselves never drastically change their bet sizes, and the big player is always betting big, while ‘randomly’ switching between tables. When carried out correctly, there is no noticeable betting variance. The only way for a casino to detect such a team is to notice their signals.

In the 1970’s Ken Uston published a book titled ‘The Big Player’, and became the first person to reveal big-player team tactics to the world. The book was based on his experience working as ‘big player’ on Al Francesco’s teams. After the secret was out and the book published, the team was barred from playing in Las Vegas. For the rest of his career, Ken Uston was forced to establish new teams and adopt a wide variety of physical disguises in order to continue to play blackjack. He died on September 19, 1987.