The Life of Ken Uston — One of the Greats

Born in 1935 to Japanese and Austrian parents, Ken Uston’s life was relatively short, but he made a big impact on the world of gambling and casinos. Uston was a professional blackjack player, keen gambler and video game fanatic who made it his life’s goal to master all that he set his mind to.

Uston became obsessed with the game of blackjack during the 1980s, after meeting a professional gambler by the name of Al Francesco during a poker game. Francesco was one of the first gamblers to get involved with team blackjack play and had only recently put together a large team dedicated to counting cards in the casinos. The idea was that the individual players would all occupy different tables, counting cards with average sized bets. When the count was looking good they would get the attention of another member of the team, usually inactive at that point, who would then join the table and begin to bet big. This member of the team would rely almost entirely on the counters that had gone before him, playing blind with the knowledge that the game was good and that the cards would be in his favor.

Uston was invited to join these teams and when he picked up nearly $50.000 in earnings during his first week, his passion really took hold. After spending just a couple of weeks as one of the counters in this team, Uston himself was given the role of the big spender, seizing the game when the house’s advantage was at its weakest. This became a hobby and a job for Uston and his friends, and they hit all of the casinos in Atlantic City on a regular basis.

During this time Uston was also obsessed with arcade games, most notably Space Invaders and Pac Man, and would participate in competitions. He took his gambling ideals and his statistical thinking to the video game world and used it to analyze how the games were played and how best to beat them. He learned how to bypass levels that many people thought impossible. He wrote a book that explained his techniques and that went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

Uston wrote many other brooks throughout his lifetime, including three others on video games, four on blackjack and many on computers. He was a man who adored stats and a man who adored money and the pleasures that it brought. Uston spent a lot of his life on the edge, he was banned from many casinos and often wore disguises to get back in. Uston even filed a high profile lawsuit against a number of casinos, arguing that card-counting should not have gotten him banned, and the outcome was that casinos in New Jersey were themeless banned form banning people just because they were counting cards. In fact, it was because of this that the rules of blackjack changed, with more decks being introduced and the rules being tweaked so that the edge tipped back in the favor of the house and make it incredibly difficult for anyone to succeed at counting cards.

Uston died of heart failure in 1987 but his memory lives on in blackjack players and video game fanatics everywhere. He was someone who dedicated himself unreservedly to the things that he loved, making it his goal to study, understand and manipulate everything about those things. His legacy also remains in the rules of the game, the way card counters are treated and, of course, in the act of counting cards itself.