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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So they struck a bargain. Taft agreed to play until he either won $10,000 or lost $4,000. At that stage his record was 12 winning weekends out of 13 and, picking up on the lingo, he decided to "chunk 'em real good"—increase his bet level from $10 to $200. He got clobbered instead, losing $2,600 and $1,800 over two extended weekends. "Statistically, the odds against my losing that consistently over that period of time were more than a million to 1," says Taft. "So you have to look to an outside force. To me it was clear that God didn't want me to become a millionaire through gambling."

The machine had, in fact, won many more times than it had lost, and if Taft had bet at the $200 level throughout, he would have netted a tidy sum. "So the computer was a winner," he says, "but God made me a loser." And thus on New Year's Day 1974, the Fastest Toes in the West retired, limping, and peace settled once again upon Silicon Valley.

Like Taft, Uston does not go by his given name. He was born Kenneth Senzo Usui. His father, a retired Yale language professor, is Japanese-American and his mother is of Austrian extraction. Uston became enamored of mathematics as a boy when he kept his own set of elaborate major league baseball statistics. After Harvard Business School he became a typical statistic himself: married to airline stewardess; three children: split-level in New London, Conn.; Director, Chamber of Commerce; Chairman, United Fund; Vice-President, YMCA.

In 1968, Uston left his job as an economic forecaster for Southern New England Bell and followed one of his population-mobility curves to California, where he served as a financial consultant before joining the Pacific Stock Exchange in 1969. Though upwardly mobile, he wanted to get out from under. "I just couldn't stand the office politics that existed in every place I worked," he says. Divorced in 1973, he sought therapy by playing jazz piano in the manner of Erroll Garner, "my absolute alltime favorite musical idol." But the squares at the stock exchange harrumphed when he was discovered playing riffs in wee-hour bistros in the financial district. Undignified.

Blackjack was another occasional escape, and it was through a friend that Uston heard about a legendary counter—call him Big Al—who had reputedly won such a bundle at a small casino in Dieppe, France that he put the club out of business. Uston found his first meeting with the old pro in the tumbledown house across the Bay Bridge "transcendent." Not only was he impressed by Big Al's drill-sergeant training routines, but he also saw in the marvelous "Big Player" cover scam—about which more later—a role for which he felt predestined.

Uston was rarely without a deck of cards thereafter. He practiced at stoplights, in elevators and behind the locked door of his office while his secretary put the outside world on hold. The transformation, gradual at first, became more pronounced with each succeeding weekend that he joined Big Al's team for raids on the Nevada casinos. Finally, one Friday afternoon when Uston was rushing to catch the next jet to Vegas, his secretary said, "Mr. Uston. you look very lumpy." Uston recalls, "And suddenly I realized, 85 grand in cash does look lumpy, you know."

A lot lumpier than the $42,500 a year he was earning at the exchange. Uston's resignation in 1974 to pursue a "model business" completed the reincarnation and soon the word was around Vegas that a new and awesome superflake was loose in their midst. He had to be seen to be disbelieved. The getup—green patent-leather shoes with three-inch stack heels, iridescent slacks, diamond-studded watch, pinkie ring and matching bimbos on each arm—was diverting enough.

But the moves! Saint Vitus preserve us, the moves looked like triple-reverse minuets. His nicknames—the Phantom, the Mad Bomber, the Roadrunner—did not do him justice. Yahooing and knocking back double Scotches-on-the-rocks, he rarely sat down but seemed to carom off the blackjack tables like a pinball, placing a $1,000 bet here, a $700 stack of chips there, and then skipping off to play six hands simultaneously while nibbling the neck of a cocktail waitress.

Vegas had seen its share of outrageous high rollers, but this dude was special. He was winning. All the time. Once, in a flashy display of splitting, resplitting and doubling down at the Fremont Hotel, the Mad Bomber had 12 hands going at two tables at the same time—and won them all when both dealers busted. Forty-five minutes later—yahoo!—he boogied off with a $27,600 killing.

Naturally all the casinos were eager to have him on hand when his win streak disintegrated. No potentate was ever more lavishly accommodated. Everything, including $100-a-night call girls, was complimentary. Caesars Palace offered to jet him and his entourage to and fro in its private 707. In his capacity as Caesars casino executive, Al Rosen, now the president of the New York Yankees, personally attended to his every need. Uston was put up in $800-a-day suites with white baby grand pianos and private bars stocked with $35 bottles of Mumm's Ren� Lalou.

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