SI Vault
Ray Hennedy
April 16, 1979
Keith Taft, a devout Baptist, and Ken Uston, a high-living ex-stockbroker, blackjacked Vegas casinos for a small fortune with the help of a computer
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April 16, 1979

The Odds Couple

Keith Taft, a devout Baptist, and Ken Uston, a high-living ex-stockbroker, blackjacked Vegas casinos for a small fortune with the help of a computer

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Jody, 22, Marty, 25, and his wife Rosie, 25, quit their jobs, and Dana, 20, left his premed studies to join the team. They practiced at home while Dorothy looked on fretfully and Renee searched the Bible for redeeming passages. Then, telling their friends that they were going to build a cabin at Lake Tahoe, they left for Nevada. "Wealth from gambling quickly disappears," said Renee.

At a team meeting at Lake Tahoe, the Taft clan and the five Big Players who had signed on decided on their code names and rehearsed their special team knock—rap, rap...rap!—the computer's way of saying 21, or blackjack. "The secrecy is fun," said Jody. In her diary, she also noted a change in her father, who had grown a beard and tried wearing a racy cowboy hat until everyone laughed him out of it. "I think my father is rather taken in by the Big Player's lifestyle," she wrote. "He has a habit of telling cruder jokes than usual and even swearing occasionally."

On April 19, 1977, five two-man teams fanned out through the Las Vegas casinos, playing off a joint bank of $50,000. On the very first day, Marty and his partner relieved Harrah's of $17,600, and the team doubled its bank to $100,000 in less than a week. During a break, Dana, who whispered "Praise the Lord" every time his partner won, went to visit Renee in Dallas, where she is a music student at the University of Texas. And when he returned he announced that he had seen the ruin of his ways. "Gambling is such a gray area," he says, "but basically you're taking the money from somebody else, and some Christians think that is wrong." He took his $2,650 share, bought a used car for $650 and returned to his premed studies.

And none too soon. On May 11 a casino official at Harvey's Club circled Marty with a radio receiver and told him to step into a back room. There, he says, five strong-arm types forcibly stripped him, confiscated his computer and told him, "We're going to bash your brains in with a two-by-four." His playing partner, an attractive young woman, was also detained, but though she was searched and stripped, they could not find her radio equipment. Finally, she says, under threats that they were going to manhandle Marty if she did not cooperate, she showed them the shoe. After being grilled for four hours, Marty and the young woman were turned over to the police, fingerprinted, booked for swindling and bunco steering, and released on $2,000 bail each.

The computer gear was sent to Washington, D.C. for analysis by FBI technicians, who concluded that it was not a cheating device. Arguing that the team was only making use of information available to all blackjack players, Oscar Goodman, the Tafts' Las Vegas lawyer, says. "There's nothing illegal about using computers. It's no different than the guys who make notations at the roulette wheels on pads provided by the casinos. The computer is merely a more sophisticated method." Harvey's Club and the Nevada gaming commission apparently agreed. Charges were never pressed.

"The bust was my fault," says Uston. "We knew the heat was on but I got greedy." There were compensations; in 22 days of play the Taft-Uston team won—praise the Lord—$130,000.

The game has since toughened up in every way, as Uston will attest. Last August, after being banned from the Mapes Moneytree in Reno, he exchanged a few words with a security guard in an alley and was punched out, his cheek and temple bones broken. The left side of his face required extensive plastic surgery. Uston is suing Mapes for $9 million.

Of late, Uston says that when he feels that someone is tailing him, which is often, he races away in a cold sweat. "I keep telling myself, 'Naw, they wouldn't bump me off.' But Jimmy Hoffa said that, too. Not long ago I started up my car, heard a funny noise, leaped out and hid behind a pillar."

More often Uston likes to reflect on the positive aspects of his unlikely career—the $100,000 he earns annually from his $2 million real-estate holdings, the $5.6 million movie version of The Big Player that will start shooting this fall. "I enjoy being a celebrity," he says. "It just blows me out. I don't know, maybe I'll become a kind of Nick the Greek character for a while. One thing for sure, when this gambling stuff is all over, I'm going to sit down and play jazz piano � la Erroll Garner in some sleepy little jazz joint in San Francisco.

"As for the moment, well, it sure beats drawing charts at the stock exchange. For the first time in my life, I can tell the world to go to hell. And that, my friend, has a value you cannot compute."

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