Obituary of blackjack great Ken Uston.
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Ken Uston Dies at 52

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In Memory of Ken Uston: A Summer Afternoon at the Blackjack Tables

By Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum Volume VII #4, December 1987)
© 1987 Blackjack Forum

On September 19, 1987, in his rented vacation apartment in Paris, France, Ken Uston was found dead of an apparent heart attack. French authorities reported that no foul play was suspected. His death was attributed to natural causes. His long-time friend and business manager, Jerry Fuerle, was quoted in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, as commenting, "His lifestyle just caught up with him."

His body was cremated, and his ashes were flown back to the U.S. At the time of his death, Uston was working as a computer consultant for the Kuwaiti government, and writing a book about his experiences in the Middle-East.

The blackjack world has lost its most flamboyant, most famous, and most controversial character.

Three weeks prior to Uston's death, I had the pleasure of meeting attorney and author I. Nelson Rose (Gambling and the Law, Gambling Times, 1986), at the Seventh International Conference on Gambling and Risk-Taking in Reno. Rose revealed to me that he had helped Ken in his futile legal battle to prohibit the Nevada casinos from barring card counters.

Rose worked for Uston's cause anonymously and without pay. "I did it," Rose said, "because I believed in what he was doing. The only 'pay' I asked from him was an afternoon of his time, so that we could go around to different Las Vegas casinos and play blackjack together. That was worth it to me. I wanted to be able to tell my grandchildren that I'd played blackjack with Ken Uston. He's a legend."

In 1986, I myself spent a summer afternoon playing blackjack with Ken Uston. I was staying at the Circus Circus in Las Vegas and Uston was at his home away from his San Francisco home at the Vegas Jockey Club. I had been doing consulting work for Ken on a number of projects and he'd told me to call him when I was in Vegas because he wanted to show me his new "big player" act.

"I want you to see this, Arnold," he said, "but you can't write about it."

So I called him when I got to town. I told him I was at the Circus Circus.

"Great," he said. "I'll be there in an hour. I'll be down in the blackjack pit. When you find me, call me 'Tommy.' That's the name I'm using. Tommy Thompson. Circus Circus is one of my favorite casinos these days. Nobody knows me there. I took thirty-five hundred bucks out of there last week."

I couldn't imagine Ken Uston playing for big money in Circus Circus. High rollers were such a rare sight at their mostly $2 tables. But then, I'd never seen Ken Uston in action.

It took me half an hour just to find him. I'd known him personally for years, but I had never seen him before without his beard. The only way I did find him was by hearing his voice. He had a very distinctive voice. He was yelling far a cocktail, ". . . and make it a double!"

He was a sight to behold, this man who held degrees from both Harvard and Yale, one time Vice President of the Pacific Stock Exchange. It was Uston's voice, but it was coming from a pathetic looking bum -- a clown of a figure with a two-day growth of stubble, a rumpled plaid shirt, dirt under his finger nails.

I approached the table hesitantly.

He jumped out of his seat when he saw me. "Arnold," he beamed. "Sit down! I'll buy you dinner if I can just get my damn money back. Shit, this always happens on payday. These bastards take everything I make!"

I sat down at the half-full table and put a nickel chip in my betting circle. Uston was playing two hands, at $200 each. "How are you doing, Tommy?" I asked.

"Man, it was hot down there today," Ken went on. "No matter what the temperature is here in Vegas, it's twenty degrees hotter down in them sump pits at the Hoover Dam. I gotta find a better job, man. I hear they're hiring busboys down at the El Cortez, but the pay is shit. Man, it's gotta be better than cleaning out them smelly sump pits."

I had no idea what a sump pit was. I wondered where this otherwise meticulous man - who had never done a day's hard labor to my knowledge - had found dirt to put under his fingernails. In the potted plants at the Jockey Club? It was difficult for me to contain my laughter. He went on like this for half-an-hour, complaining about his demeaning job and his gambling losses, belting down drinks, spreading his bets from $5 to two hands of $200 each.

There was no heat. He was scaring tourists away from the table almost as soon as they'd sit down, but the pit boss didn't seem to mind - not the way this seemingly foolhardy loser was throwing his rent money on the table. Well, Kenny, you were one-of-a-kind. I number myself among those who are honored to have played at the same table with you. There are few who lived life as fully as you did. You were always David fighting innumerable Goliaths. And more often than not, you won. We'll miss you, Ken. ♠

For Ken Uston's amusing account of his blackjack team play, see his book The Big Player. For more stories about great professional gamblers, see The Big Book of Blackjack by Arnold Snyder.

For more information on Ken Uston, see the Blackjack Forum Interview with Darryl Purpose, and Interview with Al Francesco, by RWM.

For information on other great professional blackjack players, see the Blackjack Forum Professional Gambling Library

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