From his best-selling books to his flamboyance at the card table, Kenneth Senzo Uston (1935-1987) was for many years one of the biggest names in Blackjack. Where other players sought secrecy and anonymity, Uston seemed to revel in the spotlight, taunting those who decried his techniques and teaching an entire generation the brilliance of card counting.
Born That Way
Good genes must have played a key role in Ken Uston’s talented life. His birth name, Kenneth Senzo Usui, was given to him by his father, Senzo Usui, who was a Japanese immigrant and businessman living in New York City. The boy’s mother, Elsie Lubitz, was a native of Austria, and she bore two more children as her son was growing up.
By the time Uston reached his mid-teens, his towering intellect was obvious. At 16, he was accepted for admission to Yale University, where he was inducted into the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa. After graduation, he went to Harvard University to earn his MBA, which set him up for a career in business that would include management positions with Southern New England Telephone Co. and the Big Three consulting firm known as Cresap, McCormick & Paget in San Francisco.
While living in California with his wife and two daughters, Uston read Edward O. Thorp’s “Beat the Dealer” and began spending time in casinos. He quickly took to card counting at the Blackjack tables and at one point joined a team organized by professional gambler Al Francesco. That’s how he learned the intricacies of being “The Big Player,” which would be the title of his first book, published in 1977.
Unfortunately, Uston’s book alerted casinos to the ploys being used to beat the odds at their tables, which in turn led to Francesco and his crew being barred from the floors of Las Vegas. But in 1978, gambling became legal in Atlantic City, so Uston started a team of his own there and it met with considerable success.
Taking Down the House
When Resorts International tried to bar Uston from its tables in 1979, he took the mighty hotelier to court. The case dragged on for years, but in 1982 the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that “Atlantic City casinos did not have the authority to decide whether skilled players could be barred.” To this day, New Jersey casinos—by statute—are no longer allowed to bar card counters. As a countermeasure, however, they began adding decks, moving shuffle points up and frequently changing dealers to impede the ability of skilled players to gain an advantage.
In the meantime, Uston’s second book, “Million Dollar Blackjack,” was published in 1981. It describes in detail how professional gamblers gain an advantage at the Blackjack tables. Not surprisingly, casinos began looking out for Uston and doing their best to thwart his techniques. That’s when the master card counter evidenced another of his many talents, as a master of disguise. He would dress up in costumes, as a blue collar worker or a musician, for example, to evade surveillance systems and get seated at the tables. He became an expert at disguising his card counting, too.
In September 1987, the news that Ken Uston had passed away in a rented apartment in Paris, France truly shook the world of gambling. The cause of death was said to be heart failure. He was only 52 at the time. When the Blackjack Hall of Fame made its debut in 2003 at the Barona Casino in San Diego, nobody was surprised to hear Uston’s name among the seven inaugural inductees. He would no doubt be proud to know that his influence on the game of Blackjack has extended long after his time at the tables.