Early yesterday morning, Ken Uston stepped into a rented silver limousine. Uston was on his way to a casino here for the first time since he was officially banned on Jan. 30, 1979. After a legal battle that lasted three years and eight months he finally forced the casinos to readmit card-counters like himself.
En route to the Resorts International hotel, he stopped at the Midlantic Trust to pick up half of the $20,000 in cash he was going to carry in. The bank manager pulled him aside. "I'm assuming you'll be needing large quantities of cash again," he said. "Could you please let us know in advance; we can only order bills twice a week."
At 10:15, he rolled up to Resorts. A crowd was outside cheering ("Kenny, Kenny we love you. Welcome back. Knock 'em dead."), along with a pack of about 50 reporters.
Q: Have they changed the rules to hurt you?
A: It's not the same game. An arbitrary value was that you could expect to make $40 an hour; now you can figure on $15 an hour. Maybe now the player has an edge of two-tenths of one percent.
Yesterday the co-opting casino did something not normally allowed: It permitted journalists to record this historic event inside on film.
Uston, his three-piece brown suit, his brown beard and his head of brown curly hair all displaying a slightly slept-in look, was actually quite surprised by the reception he got from the staff at Resorts ("Hey Kenny, the roulette wheel is over here . . . ") They provided him with his own blackjack table where he could be taped: watching the dealers shuffle the eight decks of cards ("Ugh, four is bad enough," he says); buying in to the game for $10,000 in chips; ordering a cup of coffee and tipping the waitress $5; and playing an hour's worth of blackjack while visibly and vocally keeping track of the count in the deck. Several hundred people gathered around the table, assuming he was winning. Actually, he stopped after dropping $1,500.
"People will never believe that you lose. It's part of all of that 'Nick the Greek' mythology. They had an experiment over here a few weeks ago when they tried to allow the counters back in. I went to Caesar's and they weren't very nice to me. I mean, they look at me like I'm a crook unleashed in a bank. I asked for a cup of coffee. The pit boss won't give it to me. I say, 'I hope this cup of coffee cost that guy $50,000. Actually I get lucky and take out $25,000. I go over to Resorts and order a coffee. They bring it to me. I say, 'I don't want to hurt these guys too bad. They brought me coffee.' I take out $10,000. The next day the story is in the Philadelphia Daily News. It says not only that I took $50,000 out of Caesar's, but that they heard it over at Resorts, and when I got there they had a pot of coffee waiting for me. Do you believe it? In 10 years it's gonna be $750,000 and an urn of coffee."
Something else was bothering this graduate of Yale and Harvard Business School, a former head of the Pacific Stock Exchange who in the mid-'70s used to think that blackjack was a much better gamble than the stock market. "It's a dying field. There is no more money to be made in it. But of course, I can't walk in there tomorrow and announce that. These people look up to me like I am some high-stakes gambler. I mean, I am not even a gambler. It's all mathematics. I see this as ROI -- return on investment. But sometimes you have to play a role."
Lots of things change in just three years and eight months. When Ken Uston was originally thrown out of the casinos it was perceived as a personal affront; now it's almost as if he had to go through the motions to go back in.
"You know how somebody said you go through seven-year cycles," he asked, "Well my blackjack cycle has run its course. I guess I spent $50,000 fighting this thing. And all the while the legal battles are going on, I got hooked on video games and wrote four books about them. Now that's pretty much over. The future, I think, is personal computers. I love computers. They don't intimidate me."
Nor do the bosses at Caesar's. Yesterday the manager of the casino invited Ken Uston -- along with two Hollywood producers who expect to be filming a dramatization of Uston's life -- to lunch.