Kenneth Uston, who abandoned the three-piece suits and button-down shirts that exemplified his promising career in the Pacific Stock Exchange to pursue his passion for pasteboards but then found his skills barred him from most of the country's prestigious casinos, has died in Paris.
The self-styled "applied probability analyst" whose photographic memory for cards became the bane of dealers in Las Vegas and Atlantic City was 52.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the blackjack master died Sept. 19 of what was reported only as "natural causes." No other details were forthcoming.
Phi Beta Kappa Graduate
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale University who also earned a master's degree in finance from the Harvard University Business School, Uston was a senior vice president of the Pacific Stock Exchange and president of its subsidiary, Pacific Clearing Corp., when he moved in 1974 from that elite circle into the murky world of gaming.
He told The Times in a 1979 interview that he was never a gambler, per se, but "a mathematician and a businessman." He did not shoot dice or play the roulette wheels but utilized his phenomenal skills as a counter of cards to amass more than $3 million at the time of the interview.
But a year later Uston was reduced to wearing a false beard or pretending to be a high roller in a 10-gallon hat to try to add to that figure.
Uston, who was half Japanese and had anglicized his surname of Usiu, would become "Billy Williams," a hard-drinking cowboy, or "Dr. John Wasserman," an elderly psychiatrist sporting a Shriners pin in the lapel of his conservative suit. But he was often discovered, and once it was particularly painful. He suffered a broken cheekbone when a security guard in Reno hit him after he began doubling up his bets on what proved to be sure winners, thanks to his abilities as a "counter."
Working with one or two friends who helped him keep track of the multiple decks that complicate casino action, Uston finally had to go to court to continue playing.
That action, which ended in a compromise in which Uston was allowed to play any game of chance but blackjack, was prompted by a 1979 change in rules by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.
Earlier dealers had been able to regularly shuffle the four decks of cards used in a blackjack chute. But the commission, in January of that year, restricted that action, and Uston and his ilk went on to amass even more winnings.
Frustrated, Atlantic City's Resorts International Hotel Casino, where Uston said he had won $145,000 in nine days, barred him and 22 other "counters" from their gaming rooms.
But after the compromise in which dealers were allowed to reshuffle only when a suspected counter or other players substantially raised their bets, the casino decided to capitalize on Uston's notoriety and hired him as a television spokesman.
At his death, Uston had authored 16 books on blackjack, video games and personal computers.
And he also had managed to keep his income far beyond what he had earned during his days at the Pacific Stock Exchange when "I was making more playing cards in Vegas on the weekends than I was during the week."