That was 10 years ago. Last January, after his daily half-hour session of Bible reading and prayer, Taft was back at the blackjack tables in Reno. Only this time he was a shark in turkey's guise. At one point, after bumping his bet from $50 to $200, he drew a pair of 4s and, ever so timidly, asked the female dealer if, er, he was allowed to split the pair—that is, play each card as an individual hand and double his bet to $400. "Yeah, sure," the dealer sniffed disdainfully, "but splitting 4s ain't smart."
It was in truth profound, for not only did Taft know the exact number and values of the cards remaining in the deck, he knew that the odds dictated that the dealer was all but predestined to lose. And so, when dealt another 4, he boldly resplit for a total bet of $600. In response to the dealer's mocking glare, Taft meekly pleaded, "My friend David told me that splitting was a good play."
He was only telling the truth. David, as in David vs. the casino Goliaths, is what Taft calls the space-age microcomputer and battery pack, each about the size of a deck of cards, that were hidden in pockets sewn into the high-waisted athletic supporter that he was wearing. All along, by using his big toes to manipulate a pair of switches that were connected to the computer by copper wires running down the insides of his pants legs, he had been "inputting" the value of each card as it was dealt. In turn, the computer, whirling through 100,000 calculations a second, "told" Taft the best possible play by means of a tapping device built into the instep of his left shoe.
In this instance, responding with a series of short and long taps similar to the dots and dashes of the Morse code, David directed him to: taaap-tap (quadruple his bet) and taaap-taaap-taaap (split) and tap (hit) and taaap (stand).
True to the law of probabilities—and Taft's adage that "one tap is worth a thousand words"—the dealer, drawing to a 13, pulled a 10 and busted. "Mister," she said, shoving a stack of $100 chips at Taft, "you may be dumb, but you sure are lucky." Taft beamed, patted the computer purring warmly against his stomach and gushed, "Gee, wow; I dunno, I just had this gut feeling."
Ken Uston first got that special feeling for the game of blackjack one glimmering afternoon while tooling his MG across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. At the time he was a senior vice-president of the Pacific Stock Exchange, and bored—so bored that he traversed the bridge each lunch hour to practice playing blackjack in a run-down bungalow with a team of "counters," professional gamblers who employ a card-counting system that attempts to do mentally what Taft's computer does electronically. It was no idle diversion; after weeks of intense practice, Uston planned to join the team for a full-scale assault on the Eldorado of gambling, Las Vegas.
On the afternoon in question, Uston recalls, "I'd just had a bad morning with the board of governors, done my usual sycophant number and was feeling down. But as I crossed the bridge that afternoon, I got to thinking about where I'd been and where I was going. And suddenly it hit me. Hey, this is just like Mission: Impossible. Six guys plotting to outwit the Vegas biggies at their own game. This could be my chance to bust out of my Brooks Brothers monkey suit!"
That was in 1974. Three months ago Uston strolled into the new Resorts International Hotel Casino in Atlantic City—but not so anyone would notice. As the mastermind of his own team of counters, "Mr. Blackjack" was playing it low profile. Or more precisely, new profile. His beard was sprayed gray, and he was wearing a matching wig, " Coke bottle" glasses and a staid business suit with a Shriner's pin in the lapel, the better to pass himself off as Dr. John Wasserman, a vacationing psychiatrist from Phoenix. "Taking off a casino gets into your blood," says Uston/Wasserman, "but you've got to have a cover act."
Thirteen days later, at 9:45 p.m. on Jan. 30, Uston finished a long round at the Resorts' tables and, weighted down with $43,000 in chips, went to cash in. At the cashier's cage he was stopped by six casino heavies, one of whom produced a piece of paper from which he read in an icy monotone:
"I represent the landlord of the premises, and I am informing you that you are considered to be a professional card counter and you are not allowed to gamble at any blackjack table in this casino. If you attempt to gamble at a blackjack table, you will be considered a disorderly person and evicted from the casino. If you are evicted and return, I will have you arrested for trespassing. If you refrain from gambling at any blackjack table, you are welcome to participate in any other game offered by the casino."