Great Blackjack Players: Interview with Ken Uston
Interview with Ken UstonBy Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum Volume III #2, June 1983)
© 1983, 2005 Blackjack Forum
(On the evening of February 21, 1983 I met with Ken Uston at his San Francisco apartment. This is a transcription of the interview, which was taped.)
Ken Uston on his Casino Lawsuits
Snyder: Some card counters feel you're personally responsible for ruining the blackjack conditions in Atlantic City. Many players think that card counters would have a better deal today had Ken Uston never arrived with his teams, and his publicity, and most especially his lawsuits against the casinos. Do you think your personal vendetta against the casinos has hurt card counters, and do you feel any responsibility for having made the game tougher for blackjack players?
Uston: I sort of expected you'd ask that question. To answer it, you've got to go back before Atlantic City. A lot of people who make that complaint are people who started playing in New Jersey. Not all of them, there are some Nevada people who feel I've ruined the game with all the publicity . . . but what they forget is that when we started playing back in '73, they treated us like criminals.
Sure, we were making a lot of money, and we were putting a lot of money on the tables, and we were making very high bets. But the point is we were treated like crooks. It wasn't some nice, polite atmosphere that exists today in Atlantic City and even in Nevada. We were trailed. We were hustled into backrooms. I got my face broken and went to the hospital, I guess because some pit boss noticed who I was . . . To this day I don't have feeling in part of my mouth. We were really treated with gross disrespect.
At the time, I guess I felt it was wrong, and probably there was some vindictiveness there, too. But, anyway, I started these lawsuits in Nevada. And then, we went to Atlantic City, and we ran into the same situation where, sure, the Commission made some mistakes I guess by, first of all, saying you can't have a hole card, and then saying you will have surrender, never realizing the implications of early surrender, until, I think, Julian Braun originally figured it out, then everyone else realized what it meant.
So, the Commission put themselves in a bind, and then Al Merck, who was one of the original commissioners, a very gentlemanly kind of a guy, was speaking up for the little guy. He insisted that the casinos deal down to two-thirds of a shoe. When you combine that with early surrender, and the fact that they couldn't throw people out, and the betting ratios that were allowed, it ended up with a terrible circus in January of '79.
It was a debacle. The card counters were some of the tackiest people that I've seen. They didn't tip a dime, they smirked, they laughed at the dealers, laughed at the pit bosses, they'd throw their money around, sit down and disrupt play, then jump up . . . It was terrible . . . Our guys were gentlemen. The Czech team was sort of disdainful at first, but we had a meeting with them and said, "Hey, the more these casino people hate you, the quicker you're going to end up ruining it for everybody."
Snyder: Do you feel that if you had not been in Atlantic City at all, the casinos would have come down on the counters anyway?
Uston: Yes. I had no great love for counters who acted that way. I talked about this in One Third Of A Shoe. Avarice vs. greed. Casino avarice vs. counter greed. That's really what it was - two very greedy bunches of people, on to the same thing. But, eventually, and I believe, unjustifiably so, we were barred . . . My first reaction, immediately, was: here we go again with this bullshit, and I am going to sue...
Snyder: Some people feel like these lawsuits are something you go through for the publicity value. How do you feel when you're single-handedly taking on the casino industry in court? Is it just a show?
Uston: Whenever I go into court, or whenever I'm before these commission hearings, I get this terrific feeling of being oppressed. At the surrender hearings in the summer of '81, I had that same feeling. All these lawyers for the casinos and all these casino representatives. There are these fairly unknowledgeable Commission people, and you never know if they're truly objective or not. You just get the feeling that you don't have a chance.
If you saw The Verdict or one of these movies where it's the little guy against these . . . you just don't have a chance . . . I lost the case with the Commission, then it was sent to the lower court, and they sent it back to the Commission again, and all this time the meter is running. I'm paying lots of money . . . But at that point I was pretty well committed, and I said, "Whatever it costs, I'm going to go through with it."
We lost at the Commission level, and I thought wrongly. I had a proposal that I really thought was fair, that is basically what they're doing today, by the way - except for the fact that my proposal didn't include shuffle-at-will. It was fair because it meant that the very good player, the exceedingly good player, who could get into the long run by playing 500 hours, is going to have an edge. But 99% of the counters, including those tacks that were in there in January of '79, chances are they're not going to make it.
Snyder: In December of '79, the Atlantic City casinos experimented again with a no barring policy, and your team won a lot of money. The casinos used the successful experience of your team as part of their ammunition to reinstate a barring policy. Wasn't this fair from the casino's perspective?
Uston: That's the period we won a total of 50 grand in ten days. We were way the hell on the right side of the curve. We didn't deserve to be there. Mark Estes, who was doing our runs on the calculator, estimated we were three sigma to the right or something. It was just absurd how lucky we were. . . It was great. It was a dream. But all the other guys only won about $300.
We used to have meetings with these guys because I wanted this experiment to continue. It was interesting. There were very few card counters there compared to January, and that's because the game was tougher. There were some teams that went back and actually lost their banks. Howie Grossman's team lost about 30 or 40 grand. The Czechs were in the hole. They were stuck a 100 grand at first, but they dug out and finally ended up with about 100, or 150. . .
But the casinos blatantly lied to the Commission. They told them that we had been responsible for losses over $4 million. They had a special task force at Caesars, and one of the girls on the task force - I know her to this day; she's a floorperson over at the Claridge now - she told me that she was instructed that "If anybody walks out of here with a lot of bucks, put them down as a counter." They were told to absolutely and blatantly lie to the Commission.
Snyder: How did you finally win your case?
Uston: We appealed to the Appelate Court. A year and six months later, we won. And then they (the casinos) took it to the Supreme Court in New Jersey, and we won that . . . After the Supreme Court decision, we had another hearing, and you should have seen the casino people there. They were there in droves. They had a half-a-million dollar, maybe a one million dollar show.
They had helicopters and limousines; they had ECON people; they had a guy they flew in from, I think, Sweden or Amsterdam or someplace, to testify. All these casino people there, and there was nobody to testify for the counters. It was so funny. They had this vast report, and here I'd stayed up all night the night before - I was out partying - and I took a look at this thing and I said, "If they're going to have limousines I'm going to have a limousine, too." It was so ridiculous. I took a little portable typewriter that just about types, and I went to a Howard Johnson's about a half a mile from the Commission hearing, just before the thing, 'cause I didn't know what I was going to say . . .
Snyder: Did it ever occur to you that you might be hurting card counters with your fight to eliminate barring? Did you feel you were acting with the counters' best interests in mind?
Uston: I was not trying to get it where the Commission would set up a set of rules whereby a bunch of counters could go in and just take out a lot of money. On the other hand, I felt that, gee whiz, it would be awfully exciting if they set it up where a really good player, or a group of players, could come in and in the long run win.
That might have been naive because there were some huge banks floating around in those days. I mean the Czechs were talking 400,000. I didn't really have any surreptitious plan of raising a half-a-million dollars and going in with 300 players and trying to do it that way - I'm not saying that I wouldn't have done it if the opportunity was there. I guess I would have tried, especially if everybody else was acting crazy . . .
Every time I walked into a Commission hearing, I'd get mad because I'd see Joel Sterns, who was so full of it - I mean he is such a bullshitter, and he's so effectively a bullshitter, that he could get these Commission people to believe his absurdities. He will attack me personally if he has to--he's called me a carpetbagger and names like that--and at the end of the meeting he'll come over and say, "Nothing personal, Ken. It was just part of the case."
He's a very charming man, and that's why he's one of the best lawyers in New Jersey. So anyway, my point was that basically I suggested that what the casinos do is what they're doing today - with the exception that they not be allowed to shuffle at will. I felt that if they followed my suggestions then a really good player could have an edge over the house. I really went to bat for the fact that they shouldn't change the rules.
Snyder: Are you planning to pursue your Nevada lawsuits? Is the Nevada casino scene much different from Atlantic City on this level?
Uston: A lot of people don't remember the days back in Nevada when we were criminals, and we were chased and hit and beat, and Mark Estes was grabbed into the back room and he has bruises on his arm--in fact, he won a decision from Hilton--Coombs handled the case. They just don't remember that, and I do.
I remember those guys, and there are still some real thugs down there, these old line antediluvian casino types . . . They just assume you're a piece of shit. If they don't want you in there, out you go. You've made your last bet. They don't even explain. they just hustle you out the door. I react real negatively to that because I believe it's wrong. Now the big issue is, what's the story in Nevada. And I'm really wondering. A lot of people are saying that this (the lawsuit) shouldn't be pursued in Nevada . . . and I sort of have set it up, but I haven't followed through, and I think I'm going to, but I'm, sort of . . . I just don't know. . . .
Ken Uston on his Books
Snyder: Some knowledgeable players get upset when inside information is published, which has not previously been published. You probably ran into some flak when Million Dollar Blackjack came out with the big front loading chapter.
Uston: Oh, I sure did . . .
Snyder: As a writer who is presenting new information to the public, what are your feelings about accusations that you're betraying the secrets of professional blackjack players?
Uston: A lot of my information on front loading and spooking came from my closest friends, who developed a lot of these techniques. These were techniques that we developed ourselves. Now, I'm not saying that other people haven't used other methods of beating the house. But when you talk about front loading and spooking and first-basing, this is stuff that our original team, basically, plus team two, team three, and some of the other people developed, or Val, my friend, developed.
Val had made a lot of money at blackjack with hole card play. He likes hole card play. He doesn't like to play on the square. I've never really been into hole card play. I've done it on occasion, and it's a beautiful thing to know what that card is underneath there every time, to be able to bet $500, $1000 a hand right off the top and know you've got a 2% edge or whatever, depending on the hole cards you see. But all the stuff about the relays, and training with the pips, and cutting the cards off - that's all personal stuff that either Val or I or our teammates developed and worked with.
Now, I knew that there were some other people out there that were front loading. There's one big team that is still doing it, that I wasn't associated with. I knew the guy a little bit, a casual acquaintance; I didn't particularly like him and he didn't particularly like me. But I felt absolutely no allegiance to him. The only people I felt allegiance to were our group.
And the point was that I put off publishing that information for three years, and when I finally came out with it, none of our group was using any of those techniques. We were all onto other things - real estate, or whatever the hell. I felt that since we developed the information - sure there's probably some other team out there, I don't know who they are other than this one guy that I met - but I felt totally justified in publishing it, especially since I waited so damn long.
However, one of the guys who used to be on one of my teams wrote something to Wong, and Wong wrote about first basing the first time I ever saw it in print, about a year before Million Dollar Blackjack came out. I felt that that shouldn't be written about, because the guys were making money on it. I didn't address that subject. As it turns out now, it's fairly common knowledge. It's been written about a number of places, and it's becoming almost impossible to do because they (the casinos) are going to no-hole-card.
Snyder: Most knowledgeable card counters, including other authors on the subject, are unanimous in praise of Million Dollar Blackjack as an important work on the subject. The one portion of your book which has received the most criticism, in my estimation, is your final recommendations of other authors' books and systems. For example, you highly recommend Stanley Roberts (aka Sludikoff's) book, Winning Blackiack. Do you feel your recommendations in Million Dollar Blackjack are your objective opinions of the books listed, or were you in some way influenced by your publisher's biases and prejudices?
Uston: When I first made up the list, I only had about 4 or 5 books on it. I had Thorp 's. I had Humble 's. I had Revere's, and, I think, Julian Braun's. Maybe one other . . . I can't remember. There weren't that many books on the list. There was pressure put on me by Stanley to put on some other names.
For example, I left off the Rouge et Noir book, which I thought was okay, but not one of the top five. Stan said, "You've got to put it on there. After all, he's going to sell the book, and blah blah blah. He talked me into it. He didn't force anything, and he wouldn't have put anything on there if I hadn't agreed, if I was absolutely adamant about something. And, obviously I had to put his . . . Oh, I put Stanley Roberts' book on. I did. Because I figured, hey, he's going to cream me if I don't. Why make him mad?
I put his book on, but I really don't feel it belongs there. Now, as far as Wong, when I search my motivations. . . Winning Without Counting, I really don't feel that's a professionally based kind of a book. There's a lot in there that is done for commercial purposes. The idea of making so much about the warps, which we tried and find just doesn't work. I know that in our case, any time we tried screwing around with the warps, you make two errors an hour, and we've lost more than we've gained by making the correct guesses. Except for that one venture in Seoul that I mentioned in the book (Million Dollar Blackjack), where it was so obviously warped - they were using single-deck, didn't want to change the cards for the whole day - and the guys pulled out 65 grand or 35 grand, whatever it was.
Snyder: Then it didn't have to do with pressure from your publisher.
Uston: No. Although, I imagine that had I included it, Stan would have hit the roof. You know how Stanley is. He gets really emotional about things. And you can print that, too, because I told him, "Stanley, why don't you run your business out of love and friendship, rather than on suspicion and lawsuits. You'd do much better." But he just likes to combat. He's a tough guy to do business with.
Ken Uston on the Coin Flipping Scam
Snyder: I've heard a couple of different versions of a curious story about you. I wonder if you could give me the facts, assuming there are any. I think blackjack players tell Ken Uston stories the way pool players tell Minnesota Fats stories.
Uston: I get an awful lot of them. I can't tell you how many people have said they're former teammates! People I've never heard of!
Snyder: The story goes like this: In an elevator, sometimes a parking lot, you got into a coin flipping, or a coin tossing contest with someone, and lost a lot of money. You then tried to get your blackjack team to pay for the money you lost out of the team bankroll, because had you won, you allegedly assured your teammates, you would have put your winnings into the team bankroll.
Uston: That's absolutely true.
Snyder: Well, maybe you can fill in some of the details. You've said that you never gamble, that you are an investor, and that you only risk money on positive expectation ventures. How do you justify a contest like this as a positive expectation gamble?
Uston:I was playing at the Holiday Inn. I remember driving down the Strip thinking, "Where the hell am I going to play?" I was feeling very paranoid at the time about the fact that I wasn't contributing to the team the way I should be, because of the fact that I couldn't play very many places.
Somehow, I sauntered into the Holiday, and I got a game at the single deck table there. You know the one--the one that's colored red instead of green. And, I'm sitting at the table and playing--I don't remember if I was winning or losing but there was this crazy guy at third base, a big fat guy. He's talking and playing, and obviously recognizes me, but the people in the pit don't. At some point he comes over and sits next to me. He flipped a coin and he put it underneath a dollar bill. He said to me if I can guess what it is he'll give me . . . I think $500 - I can't remember the numbers - but if I guess wrong, I give him $100.
He's a crazy guy. He just lost about $2000 over the third base. He's a terrible player, just throwing his goddamn money around. And I'm saying to myself, "Here I am playing through all this shit it was a full table--waiting through all this shit, waiting for a 2% edge. And this guy gives me an edge of . . . whatever the figure was. And I looked at him at first and said, "What?" And he meant it. So, I said "Okay, Heads." And I lost and I gave him a hundred bucks. He's a very good con. He does this for a living. His problem is he's an inveterate gambler. He's told me, and I fully believe him, that he's made two or three hundred thousand dollars doing this at various places around - race tracks is one place that he particularly does this.
So what he does the next time, he has it where these people sitting around the Jockey Club bar are all my friends. We came at the last minute. There could be nobody there he knew. There couldn't have been any way he knew we were going there. And he says to someone in the bar, "Why don't you flip the coin, and you call it. And if you're right, I'll give Kenny $800. But if you're wrong, Kenny's got to give me $100." And I'm thinking, "This guy's crazy." And I want to get my hundred bucks back. There's some con in me, too, sure. And I go along with it. And I lose. And then he offers me greater odds, to the extent that I finally end up losing just under $10,000 to him. I think it was $9,400.
And he turns to the clerk at the desk. May God be my witness, all this is totally true. He says to the clerk at the desk, "You flip the coin, and if the bellman calls it right, I'll call off the S9,400. And if he doesn't call it right, Kenny, you pay me $9,400. He's giving me a $9,400 to 0 bet. And I lost. And I gave him the money. I told the team about this, that I lost a total of $9,400.
The first thing I did, I ran up to one of our rooms, and I said, "You would not believe I got a 90% edge over this guy!" And I explained what was going on, and they were all very suspicious. I'm saying, "No, you've got to see this!" But what happened was, to make a long story short, we had a meeting to determine whether or not it should come out of the team money, and the net result was that it didn't.
Snyder: That was just the way I heard it. They refused to cover your loss.
Uston: I took a polygraph on it. They were worried about the whole issue, why I'm out there flipping coins, and that the extent of the loss was exactly $9,400. We had a big team meeting, and a discussion, and they said, "No, it can't come out of the team money. It's got to come out of your money."
Snyder: Do you know how the con worked?
Uston: Yes, I met the guy. He came back a little later. He stayed away from me for a while because, he thought, with me being a big gambler and all that, I was going to get the mob after him. But he finally came back about 3 or 4 months later. To that day, 3 or 4 months later, I was convinced I'd had an edge over this man. There was no way - I wasn't flipping the coin, he wasn't flipping the coin, I wasn't calling it, somebody else was . . . Two totally different people!
Well, he came back and he explained the way it worked. First of all, he said that he has very quick eyes, and he can flip a coin to land any way he wants--which is totally irrelevant because he wasn't flipping the coin. But because of his ability to see coins, he knew what the coins were when they were flipped by another person. And he said he was uncannily lucky that night. Eight out of ten times he won the bet legitimately. There were a couple times when he didn't, and what he did was somehow talk the person out of it.
The way he did it, if this guy said "Heads," he'd say, "You sure you want to make it heads? You don't want to make it tails?" In other words, after the other guy guessed it, he would engage in a little rap for a while, and either he'd talk the person out of it, or increase the odds and have another flip. Somehow, by doing that, and being able to know whether the person was right or wrong, plus having the correct thing going for him 8 out of 10 times anyway, he totally pulled the wool over my eyes. That's how he did it. It's so funny, because later in Atlantic City he lured another team member of mine. I won't tell you his name, but it was December of '79. Anyway, the story's true.
Snyder: What's happening with your movie?
Uston: The final script just came through a month ago. Frank Capra, Jr., the producer, called me about two weeks ago. He claims that the president of Warner Bros.,., after hearing the story, and seeing some of the material said, "We have another Rocky," and "This is a man about whom a film has to be made."
Then, he said he's meeting with the president of Columbia, and then with the owner of 20th Century Fox, and then with Caesars production company. I do know that Caesars wants the movie to be filmed there. I've seen that letter from Caesars, so I know that's not bullshit. The budget's $7.9 million - not including the star and the director. So, this is what I hear. But it's been so damn long. The first screenwriter they picked, I felt he was wrong for the job. He turned out a piece of junk.
Snyder: Do they now have a screenplay that they're satisfied with? I know in your last newsletter (Dec. '81.), you said that the third screen play had been scrapped and it was back to the drawing board. That was the last I've heard of the movie.
Uston: It's a finished screenplay. I think it was the seventh draft.
Snyder: Do you like it?
Uston: I think it's average. But everybody else I talked to likes it. I'm too damn close to it. I wrote one. I'm so sick of the language in it . . . You know, after you read a book 5 or 7 times, it's got to be awfully good to like it the next time, even if it's a little different. The last time I just skimmed through it. It didn't turn me on, but maybe I'm too close to it. It might be really good.
Snyder: But it does look like the film will happen eventually?
Uston: If somebody said to me, "Ken, put $10,000 on whether the movie's going to be made or not," I'd put $10,000 on "No." That's how I usually assess things, in terms of yes or no. I'll be absolutely delighted it if happens, and, frankly, surprised.
Snyder: Before I publish this interview, Ken, I'll transcribe it, and send you a copy. If there are any portions you have second thoughts on making public statements about, you'll have the option of deleting statements, if you choose.
Uston: You may print anything we've said here tonight, because that's just the way it is. ♠
For more information on Ken Uston, see Gambling Wizards: Interview with Darryl Purpose, by RWM. Darryl is well-known among professional gamblers for both the extraordinary aggression of his play and his extraordinary success, and began his career on Ken Uston's blackjack team. In his interview, he discusses those years with Ken Uston at length.
Also see Interview with Al Francesco by RWM. Al Francesco is the Blackjack Hall of Fame professional gambler who taught Ken Uston to play blackjack and used him as a Big Player on the first-ever big-player blackjack teams.
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