Uston Advanced Card Counting

When it comes to card-counting geniuses, only a skilled novelist could invent a more charismatic, larger-than-life character than Ken Uston, inventor of the Uston Advanced Point Count System. From his beginnings with blackjack in the 1970s to his untimely death in 1987, Uston was a flamboyant individual, an authentic genius, a master of disguise, a jazz musician par excellence and a writer and consultant who drew the attention of many people to gambling, personal computers and video games.

The official Ken Uston website, operated by one of his daughters, says that Uston built his card-counting system on earlier work by Edward Thorp and one of Thorp's contemporaries, Lawrence Revere. Thorp invented the Hi-Lo method, while Revere developed his own Advanced Point Count system. Uston topped them both, designing not only the Uston Advanced Point Count System, but also the Uston Advanced Plus-Minus and Uston SS card-counting methods as well.

In each method, the winning advantage swings from the house to the player by about 1 percent whenever the count moves above zero, giving players an indication of when to place higher bets. Players should be aware that this general guideline depends on rule variations, so it may not hold true in every game. However, it generally works well in most playing situations. Players also should keep in mind while counting cards that they still need to apply basic Blackjack strategy to each hand as well.

The following information is provided solely for purposes of introducing each method. Players who wish to learn these methods should get them directly from the author's books.

Uston Advanced Point Count

Uston introduced the Advanced Point Count in his 1981 book, Million Dollar Blackjack. The APC is considered one of the most accurate card-counting systems for blackjack. It's also one of the game's most difficult systems to learn, and not something for beginners.

As with all card-counting systems, the Uston Advanced Point Count relies on a distribution of counting values, shown in the following table:

Uston Advanced Point Count

2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          10        A
+1        +2        +2        +3        +2        +2        +1        -1         -3         0

Over the years since it was introduced, experienced Blackjack players have found that the Uston Advanced Point Count system can be especially beneficial. Mathematically it has one of the highest correlations to an insurance bet at 90 percent accuracy. What's more, the Uston APC ranks well in correlated betting at 91 percent, which may be lower than other card-counting systems but well within an acceptable range of success over a long period of play. However, a major disadvantage to the Uston APC is the necessity of counting aces on the side, since the index gives them a value of 0 in the card count. TOP

Uston Advanced Plus-Minus Count

Aware that his Advanced Point Count was beyond the skill of many beginners, Uston also introduced a variation on the Hi-Lo Count in Million Dollar Blackjack that he called Uston's Advanced Plus-Minus System. The APM is a level-one strategy, since there are only three numbers that players have to track. This Uston method also is a balanced system, meaning that the point count starts and ends at zero.

Uston Advanced Plus-Minus System

2          3   4     5          6          7          8          9          10        J          Q         K         A
+1        +1        +1        +1        +1        0          0          -1         -1         -1         -1         -1

However, the APM method isn't used very often because it's designed to work mainly with hand-held games, something rarely found in casinos any longer precisely because of the work of expert card-counters like Uston and his teams. The Uston APM can be used with multi-deck games, but it requires a mental conversion to divide the running total by the number of decks being used in the game.TOP

Uston 'Strongest and Simplest' (SS)

Finally, Uston realized that his advanced systems required mental gymnastics that could tax a player's capacity and endurance, especially over long periods. At about the same time in the early 1980s, Uston, Arnold Snyder and Sam Case all independently hit upon a system that Ken called the Uston SS, for "Strongest and Simplest." Snyder and Case published their work in the Gambling Times, while Uston published his in another book, Ken Uston on Blackjack.

While this system may seem "strong and simple" to expert gamblers, this card-counting method is actually an advanced version involving a multilevel count. Seven numbers are assigned to cards in the deck, which are then added or subtracted mentally at the same time the player is watching others' play and calculating his or her bets. Uston's SS Count includes aces, so it isn't necessary to keep a side count on them. Finally, as an unbalanced system, the beginning and ending counts will be different.

Uston SS Card Counting System

2     3   4          5          6          7          8          9          10        J          Q         K         A
+2   +2 +2        +3        +2        +1        0          -1         -2         -2         -2         -2         -2

To get a starting count with this system, which is made for multi-deck play, multiply the number of decks by -2 (for example, a shoe with six decks would begin on a -12 count). TOP

The man behind the systems

Ken Uston was born in New York City in 1935 to a Japanese father and an Austrian mother. His birth name was Kenneth Senzo Usui. One of his first life traumas at age 6 was seeing his father taken away to a prison camp by FBI agents after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. After World War II his family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where his father taught at Yale University. With his genius-level IQ of 169, Ken entered Yale at age 16, and graduated from Harvard Business School in his early 20s. By the age of 32, Uston was vice president of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange, living in affluent Marin County with his wife Betty and their three children.

By this time, Uston was becoming disenchanted with the corporate world despite his financial success. Looking for an outlet for his prodigious mental skills, he learned blackjack and began frequenting casinos. Soon he teamed up with a professional gambler who went by the name of Al Francesco. Uston was impressed that Francesco had organized a card-counting team to play blackjack in Las Vegas. Soon Uston joined Francesco's team and began racking up big wins and even bigger publicity. The stock exchange wasn't comfortable with one of its officers being portrayed in the media as a professional gambler, and Uston resigned to take on the casinos full time, a move that cost him his marriage.

The Francesco teams used mathematical methods and team play to make their big scores. One of their most successful strategies was that of "The Big Player," in which card-counting team members would signal the teammate designated to make large bets when the count was running in the high positive range. In this way, the teams operated under the casinos' security radar for some time. However, they soon became known to casino bosses and were barred from gambling houses. Uston began using a variety of disguises into order to get around these restrictions and became quite effective at remaking his physical appearance. He also sued several casinos, claiming that their restrictions of his playing violated his civil rights, since he wasn't cheating but using his own mental skills to win at Blackjack.

Uston Creates His Own MIT Team

Uston formed his own blackjack team in 1976 to take on casinos in Las Vegas and the newly opened gambling houses of Atlantic City. Having become fascinated with then-new personal computers (eventually he would write nine books about various models), he devised a communications system in which team members wore small computers in their shoes. They would tap card counts into the devices with their feet. Calculating probabilities using their card counts, the devices then signaled Uston team members whether to hit, stand, draw, double-down or fold. While Uston and his team considered these devices simply a way to keep track of counts, casinos deemed them a method for cheating. Personal computers of all kinds, including handheld calculators, are now barred from most casinos.

Over nine-and-a-half days in January 1979 in Atlantic City, Uston and his team beat Resorts International for $145,000. The spectacular win caused Resorts to bar Uston and his players from the blackjack tables, the first such ban in New Jersey gambling's brief history. Uston sued, and the case went eventually to the New Jersey State Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor in 1982. In response, Atlantic City casinos moved to multideck shoes for dealing Blackjack in an effort to thwart card counting by Uston and others.

By the early 1980s Ken Uston had become the "big player" in blackjack. Profiled on CBS' "60 Minutes" program in 1981, Huston told Harry Reasoner: "Basically I am just using skill in a casino. I'm not cheating, I'm not doing anything other than trying to use my brain. And the fact that I'm not allowed to play bothers me. It would be as if Bobby Fisher were not allowed to play chess, or Pete Rose not allowed to play baseball, or Charles Goren [not] allowed to play bridge. … Sort of against the American Way."

Uston and his teams continued to play blackjack in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and casinos around the world. The teams played for thousands of hours cumulatively, earning millions of dollars and developing a level of expertise unmatched by any gambler anywhere. They experimented with computer analyses and created new techniques and approaches to game. Based on their findings, they devised ways to bet in order to maximize their winnings. Uston himself taught these methods to eager students through Uston's Institute of Blackjack seminars.

Government consultant

After a major success helping the government of South Africa uncover the source of losses in its Sun City Casinos in 1985, Uston was invited by the government of Kuwait in 1986 to consult on creating a computer system to manage its worldwide investment portfolio estimated at $80 billion. After 25 years in business and high-stakes gambling, Uston said he was shocked by the lack of management controls on Kuwait's national finances. "There were billions of dollars dropping through the cracks," he said at one point, according to his official website. He demanded that the government institute changes before he proceeded to design its computer system. Uston also reported working under severe culture shock while in Kuwait, where the gambling, drinking alcoholic beverages and parties that Ken enjoyed were officially forbidden in the Islamic country.

With political tensions mounting in the Persian Gulf region between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Kuwait standing between them, Uston was released from his contract in August 1987. He went to Paris, where he found considerable respite from recent stresses, playing jazz in a club and enjoying life in the French capital. He and his "little Apple computer" spent most days in his favorite café writing his 15th book, An American in Kuwait.

However, as Uston told family and friends at the time, all that time he felt as if he were being watched. He was found dead in his Paris apartment on Sept. 19, 1987. The official cause of death was listed as heart failure and no further investigation was conducted. He was cremated in France and his ashes were scattered over San Francisco Bay.

In 2005 Ken Uston's life and exploits were the focus of a History Channel documentary. Its title: The Blackjack Man.