Ken Uston

Ken Uston

(1935-1987, Yale University, Harvard University)

Ken Uston was born Kenneth Senzo Usui. His father was a Japanese businessman who taught in the foreign language department of Yale University. Despite the discrimination Uston suffered in America during WWII, he continued to excell at piano, sport, and school, entering high school at the age of 14 and Yale at the age of 16. After earning an MBA in Finance at Harvard he served in the U.S. Army reserve forces for eight years and rapidly ascended the corporate ladder. Starting out as a staff assistant at the Southern New England Phone Company, he became Senior Vice-President at the Pacific Stock Exchange, and then President and CEO of Pacific Clearing Corporation. Despite having started a family and moved then to a beautiful house in a wealthy neighbourhood, Uston felt there was something missing in his life.

As a Professional Blackjack Player

Disappointed with the ruthlessness of corporate culture and feeling the counter-cultural tug, Uston decided to “find himself”. He went out one evening and by chance met Al Francesco, who had just launched an innovative new type of blackjack card counting team which used a “Big Player” to mask their betting pattern. Uston was determined to master the game, and Francesco took him on as a counter first, and later as a big player. Ken UstonUston quickly gained fame as a card counter and team organizer in the 70s and 80s, and describes this period in his book The Big Player. Soon after the book was published, Francesco’s team was barred from many casinos. Uston himself was also frequently banned, and took on a number of disguises to keep on playing as well as filing a high-profile lawsuit against those casinos. The New Jersey court ruled that a person could not be banned for counting cards, and casinos had to change their strategy by changing the rules and increasing the number of decks to increase their edge. However, Uston played for large sums of money that casinos were loath to part with, and the was frequently assaulted and beaten.

The Cost of Winning

The Stock Exchange was also not at all pleased with Uston’s card counting career and the attention he was receiving because of it, and so he resigned his position in order to play blackjack full-time. After The Big Player, Uston wrote a number of other books on card counting. Since he was interested in game skills in other fields as well, he also wrote numerous guides on computers and video games in the early to mid 80s. Despite his successes he was still largely unhappy, having lost his family along his road to the top as the Blackjack Man. He moved to Kuwait to get away from it all, but moved to Paris a year later. On 19 September 1987, age 52, he was found dead in his apartment, the official cause of death attributed to heart failure.

Ken Uston is one of the original seven members of the Blackjack Hall of Fame.