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THE ODDS COUPLE
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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By that measure, even the casinos' most common defense against counters—shuffling early, or "breaking the deck"—has its shortcomings. Because a counter's knowledge of the deck, and hence his potential advantage, increases in proportion to the number of cards that are played, many dealers shuffle at the slightest hint that there is a pro in their midst, sometimes after every hand. But that is dully time-consuming, reduces the desired number of 100 hands an hour by half or more, annoys other customers and violates what one dealer calls the first commandment of the pits: "Thou shalt not prolong the natural transfer of cash from the player to the house."

Regardless, the fast shuffle is so prevalent that the New Jersey Casino Control Commission imposed a pair of new rulings on Jan. 4 that not only thwarted the practice but also precipitated the Tuesday Night Massacre. First, the commission decreed that the dealers had to deal a minimum of two-thirds of the way into the "shoe," a dealing device that holds two or more decks, before shuffling. And second, it directed that dealers could only be changed at the end of their hour-long shifts, thus preventing the practice of arbitrarily switching dealers as a pretext for shuffling.

Word that Atlantic City would be staging the "best game in the world" all but short-circuited the counter grapevine, and Resorts suddenly found itself hosting what amounted to a counters' convention. But from its "eye in the sky," the overhead network of catwalks and closed-circuit TV "chase cameras" that look down on the gaming tables through a ceiling of one-way mirrors, the casino's security force was doing some counting of its own. "We had 60 to 75 counters in the month of January," says Norton, "and the effect on our business was substantial."

When Resorts reported the invasion of counters to the gaming commission, Chairman Joseph Lordi allowed that "the commission does not have any standards on the subject at this time. The casino, therefore, is free to develop its own standards." Within hours, Uston & Co. were persona non grata and the casino was busily posting signs that read: WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO EXCLUDE PROFESSIONAL CARD COUNTERS FROM PLAY AT OUR BLACKJACK TABLES. "Basically," countered Uston, "it means, we reserve the right to exclude winners."

In a quandary, the gaming commission A scheduled hearings in an attempt to work out a definition of the term "professional counter." They might just as well try for a tidy legal definition of pornography. As Commissioner Albert Merck observes, "We have to balance a lot of things. We want the casinos to make profits, but at the same time I don't think any level of skill should be banned." Citing the example of baseball teams that shift their fences to accommodate the strengths of their hitters, Merck suggests that there might be some way to tinker with the blackjack rules to satisfy all parties concerned.

Adding insult to incursion, throughout the controversy Uston maintained a base camp in Room 1022 at Resorts and, on an electric typewriter provided by the hotel, pounded out lengthy memos to the commission, charging the casino with price gouging, "harassment techniques" and other offenses, such as forcing the crowds of average players to bet above their heads by making "fully 85% of the blackjack tables $25 minimum."

In his crusader's robes, Uston also pushed for "an open environment in which skillful play is viewed in a positive way rather than being judged as a furtive, even quasi-criminal pursuit." He realized how refreshing it was to play "out in the open," he says, after he failed the Wasserman test. Seems that on Uston's very first day in the casino one of the pit bosses saw through his psychiatrist's guise and let it be known that Mr. Blackjack was in town. No great loss, says Uston. Not only was the "wig too itchy anyway" but the unveiling gave him the chance to play the most thrilling role of all: himself.

If nothing else, the Massacre focused attention on a shadowy subculture, one that gives rise to two key questions: How many professional counters are there, and how much do they win? The counters themselves claim that there are no more than 50 or so of their number who win serious money with any consistency. But Bob Griffin, president of Griffin Investigations, a detective agency that services 30 casinos and maintains an infamous "black book" of some 1,500 photographic dossiers on cheats and counters, estimates that there are "100 known major-league counters and probably another 100 who are undetected. The ones that get greedy come to our attention. The ones that are content to win $300 to $400 a day might go undetected for years."

As for "how much?" Resorts says that in January its blackjack wins were cut in half, or some $80,000 to $100,000 a day. How much of that decrease was caused by the postholiday lull and how much by the skills of the counters is indeterminable. However, Uston offers one yardstick; he says that he and his five teammates won $145,000 in their 13-day fling before the boom was lowered. Unbeknownst to Resorts, two of Uston's confederates escaped detection and played on until the team broke camp on Feb. 22, netting an additional $30,000. Overall, Uston estimates that counters win up to $1 million annually in the U.S. For the five years he has been on the circuit, playing in the U.S., the Bahamas, Aruba, Panama, Macao and in the major clubs in Europe, Uston claims that he and the 40 or so top players that he has teamed with have won $3.4 million.

Even allowing for the penchant of gamblers to exaggerate, the figures are the kind that compel casino spokesmen like Norton, engaging in a little hyperbole of his own, to say, "If counters are allowed to play in Atlantic City, it will be economic suicide." The fact that Resorts has somehow managed to scrape along on average daily revenues of $663,000, or triple the take of the largest Nevada casinos, calls to mind another gambler's maxim: never bet on anything that talks.

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