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PLAYING WITH BLACKJACK TEAMS-Part 1: The Big Player

by Frank Scoblete

Note: This series is excerpted from Frank Scoblete’s book I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage Play Blackjack. The book is available in the BJI Store.

Certainly the casinos can still be beaten in blackjack by individuals playing alone but you have to really know what you are doing and do something different than what the casinos expect. The old counting systems such as Hi-Lo are not as easy to get away with as they used to be and the games being offered are nowhere near as good as the games I played in the 1990’s. Most of today’s single-deck games only pay 6-to-5 on a blackjack – whereas the traditional games paid 3-to-2.

Most games now have the dealer hit soft 17; some restrict doubling and splitting. The casinos are looking to squeeze every last penny from non-advantage players. Their new rules are not good for card counters either. And casino paranoia reigns supreme in many places. Blackjack is beatable but it does take astute dedication and a rejection of playing any-old-game because that game is the only one you can find.

The new counting system, Speed Count (see my book Beat Blackjack Now: The Easiest Way to Get the Edge), is unique in many of its aspects and I would recommend that to anyone just starting out in the blackjack card counting arena. It plays a lot differently than the traditional counts, although it is not quite as strong. This is a count system that you can probably get away with easier than with other traditional counts.

One aspect of blackjack play that has become extremely popular in the modern media is the idea of playing with teams of players, either pooling the bankroll and dividing that into shares, or paying others to play for you by giving them an hourly wage.

Many readers and movie patrons have become familiar with the great MIT blackjack teams of the 1990’s and early 2000’s composed of college and graduate students which descended on Vegas and supposedly won millions of dollars. Their stories chronicle fun adventures of intrigue and high living; the stuff of which Vegas dreams are made – those Ken Uston type of dreams. In reality these "college teams" go all the way back to the late 1970’s. Team play might be just as old as any other type of advantage blackjack play.

Certainly playing on blackjack teams is an entirely different type of animal than playing singly or with just one partner as I did with my wife. Team play has all the problems of any team activity jointly engaged in by people with a strong agenda – in blackjack play, that agenda being the making of money.

Check out sporting teams, research teams, community little-league teams and you’ll find one certain thing, where there are people there can be problems. I’ve been involved in team play as well – play separate and apart from my play with the Beautiful A.P. – and while I have found them to be (generally) good investments, the "people problems" sometime overwhelm the money-making potential. Yes, hell certainly can be "other people."

There are generally two types of teams; those who call in a "big player" when the count gets positive and those that spread out and play individually at different tables and/or casinos. I guess you could say there is a third type which is merely a combination of the first two types.

The "big player" model had its first public exposure in 1977 when the book The Big Player: How a Team of Blackjack Players Made a Million Dollars by Ken Uston and Roger Rapoport was published (new edition published by Ishi Press International, 2011). This book recounted the amazing adventures of blackjack’s most famous and flamboyant player, the late, great Ken Uston. It is a book that is still exciting and fun to read and I recommend it highly. Although a word of caution here; don’t try to imitate Ken Uston. He was the one and only Ken Uston.

A team of players spreads out in a casino at different tables and counts down the decks. When the count gets positive – positive enough that the good cards should last a round or two or more – a signal is given to the "big player" who is lounging around, usually at the bar, and this player comes rushing over to the table to put down a substantial wager. By betting in this way, the casino is not aware that this big player is actually a card counter and a member of a card counting team. He merely appears to be a typical (perhaps tipsy) high roller playing his hunches and betting up a storm.

Ken Uston was that big player. Some think he was the ultimate big player much as folks think of Babe Ruth as the ultimate baseball player.

Born Kenneth Senzo Usui in 1935, Uston went to college at the tender age of 16 – Yale University no less. He then received an MBA from Harvard University. He was a gifted musician as well and often played jazz clubs in California. So add him up and the result was a smart and talented man.

But the mundane life was not for him. He just couldn’t settle down. He desired excitement, challenge and adventure. He desired the high life of beautiful women, free-flowing booze and wild travels. He could be considered a Don Quixote, looking for Dragons to slay and finding such in the world of the casinos.

Uston, a restless guy with a strong drive, read about blackjack card counting and how to beat the casinos from Edward O. Thorp’s ground-breaking book Beat the Dealer (Vintage, 1966) and that set him on the road to becoming the most popular card counter in American lore. Uston even developed his own counting systems which were actually superior to Thorp’s first attempts, although both Thorp’s and Uston’s counts were quite hard to play.

To this day novice players emulate the Ken Uston persona – hard drinking, high rolling, constant whoring along with dangerously and delightfully walking on that edge. One might characterize Uston as a man who created a "Ken Uston character" that he then played for the rest of his life which would, unfortunately, not be all that long. Certainly his books are page turners and worth a read by casino players. Uston was a far cry from the average casino player who trudges to the slot machines, plops down and whiles away the hours. I guess it would be safe to say that Ken Uston was the anti-ploppy; he was the Zorro of blackjack play, the rogue.

While Uston’s "big player" teams had tremendous success, the casinos finally caught on to the act and Uston found himself banned from just about all Vegas properties, as well as properties around the world. He then went to wearing disguises but these were often so poorly executed that casino personnel tended to recognize him immediately. Uston played in Atlantic City as well. My mentor the Captain ran into Uston at Resorts Casino and had this to say, "Everyone seemed to know who he was. He wore a poorly fitted wig and the pit bosses were all around his table. I’m glad the guy didn’t work for the CIA because we’d never be able to keep a secret."

When Uston was banned from playing in Atlantic City he brought a lawsuit against the casinos that saw the New Jersey Supreme Court outlaw the barring of skilled blackjack players. Unlike Las Vegas, Nevada, the state of New Jersey was not controlled by the casino industry – the judges simply applied the Constitution to the situation and made their ruling, no more banning of skilled players. Card counters were now a protected class.

But the casinos did not take this ruling sitting down; the Atlantic City casinos did the next best thing – they made their games awful and generally not worth playing. They also began shuffling up after every hand when they knew a skilled card counter was playing at a table. They limited the size of a card counter’s bets. In short, the casinos acted like spoiled brats who were determined to get their way and in fact they did. The Supreme Court of New Jersey had ruled one way; the casinos slithered out of the decision another way.

Uston died in Paris in 1987 at the age of 52. Conspiracy theorists believe he was murdered by a cabal of casino henchmen. The medical records show something quite different; he died of a heart attack, generally attributed to his heavy drinking and carousing lifestyle. Still, speculating that he was murdered has a romantic element that dying from a heart attack just can’t match. That’s probably why so many card counters believe that myth. If Ken Uston just fell over dead – plunk! – where is the glamour in that?

I am guessing that very few card counters don’t know about Ken Uston. He became the mythological standard of the devil-may-care aggressive advantage player taking on the powerful casinos and beating them. He laid the groundwork for a generation of Ken Uston juniors, players who want to count cards, yes, but also players who want to count cards and live-it-up the way Uston did. Much of blackjack play for many players is more persona than anything else. It is closer to "I think I am Ken Uston, therefore I am."

Continued Next Month.

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