If life is a game of chance, then Keith Taft is an ace in the hole and Ken Uston is the joker. Both play black jack but the former is a deceptive force, undetected, unknown; the latter is onstage, in costume and going for the elbow to the ribs. Indeed, shuffled any which way, the odds that two so dissimilar men would meet and team up for a caper that divested the Nevada casinos of $130,000 in one fell swoop must be a trillion to 1.
Consider the contrasts. Keith Taft is 45, a self-described rube who was raised in the remote wilds of Cut Bank, Mont. He is a deeply religious Baptist, a director of church choirs and partakes not of the cursed weed or demon drink. Staunch family man, low-key, straight-arrow all the way.
Then there is Ken Uston. He would rather split 5s than reveal that he is 45, a disclosure he feels might somehow detract from "my basically hedonistic lifestyle." A Phi Beta Kappa who majored in economics at Yale, a graduate of the Harvard Business School and a former stockbroker, he is brash, flamboyant and as polygonal as the mirrors over the circular bed in his Las Vegas bachelor pad.
In short, Taft and Uston are the original odd couple, the Oscar Madison and Felix Unger of the green-felt jungle.
April 16, 1979
The one common trait that ultimately drew them together is a burning urge to escape the shackles of the corporate world. The extent to which they have succeeded is evidenced by their freedom-now reveries. Most often, like schoolboys mooning over their first kiss, both men are given to vividly recalling the tingling moment when they were first smitten by Dame Fortune.
For Keith Taft, a self-taught computer engineer now living in Sunnyvale, Calif., the romance began innocently enough on a weekend outing to Reno in the family camper. Gambling was not on the agenda. God forbid! Of a Sunday, Taft, his wife Dorothy and their four children are more accustomed to performing religious music in hospitals and old-folks homes, and for them Reno was strictly a look-but-don't-touch tour.
Then temptation struck. Upon leaving an exhibit of antique cars, Taft was given a "lucky buck" token that was good for a dollar's worth of play at Harrah's Club. As uneasy as a nun peeking into a pool hall, he cased the casino and then, succumbing to the come-on, ventured inside. Though he felt like a "complete turkey," he was fascinated by the glitter and heavy action, particularly at the tables offering a beguiling little game called blackjack, or 21. Unfamiliar with the rules, he asked a bystander to please explain.
Picture cards count as 10 points, he was told. Aces are either one or 11. All other cards are counted at face value. To begin, the dealer and the players receive two cards apiece. The player then has the option to stand pat or "take a hit," that is, draw one or more additional cards. The object is to achieve a total of 21 points—the perfect hand—or come closer to that sum than the dealer does. If either the player or the dealer exceeds 21, he "busts," or loses. If the player draws an ace and a 10-value card on the first two cards dealt, that is a "natural," or blackjack, and it pays 3 for 2.
Simple enough, Taft thought, and with heart racing he sat down at one of the kidney-shaped tables and took the lucky-buck plunge. On the first deal he drew a pair of 10s and won. On the second hand the dealer busted, and he pocketed another dollar. And on the third hand—blackjack! "I was so excited," Taft recalls, "that I took my $3.50 killing and ran."
But the hook was set. On the five-hour drive home, his mind juggling equations like a UNIVAC in overdrive, Taft speculated that by keeping track of all the cards that were dealt, he might be able to devise a mathematical system that would tip the odds in his favor. "Generally," he says, "the problem required the kind of technology that I dealt with in my work." In fact, he thought, how much easier, faster and more accurate it would be to feed the data to a computer and let it calculate the best play. Of course, he reasoned, the casinos would never permit him to plunk a portable computer down on their blackjack tables. But what if...?
That was 10 years ago. Last January, after his daily half-hour session of Bible reading and prayer, Taft was back at the blackjack tables in Reno. Only this time he was a shark in turkey's guise. At one point, after bumping his bet from $50 to $200, he drew a pair of 4s and, ever so timidly, asked the female dealer if, er, he was allowed to split the pair—that is, play each card as an individual hand and double his bet to $400. "Yeah, sure," the dealer sniffed disdainfully, "but splitting 4s ain't smart."
It was in truth profound, for not only did Taft know the exact number and values of the cards remaining in the deck, he knew that the odds dictated that the dealer was all but predestined to lose. And so, when dealt another 4, he boldly resplit for a total bet of $600. In response to the dealer's mocking glare, Taft meekly pleaded, "My friend David told me that splitting was a good play."
He was only telling the truth. David, as in David vs. the casino Goliaths, is what Taft calls the space-age microcomputer and battery pack, each about the size of a deck of cards, that were hidden in pockets sewn into the high-waisted athletic supporter that he was wearing. All along, by using his big toes to manipulate a pair of switches that were connected to the computer by copper wires running down the insides of his pants legs, he had been "inputting" the value of each card as it was dealt. In turn, the computer, whirling through 100,000 calculations a second, "told" Taft the best possible play by means of a tapping device built into the instep of his left shoe.
In this instance, responding with a series of short and long taps similar to the dots and dashes of the Morse code, David directed him to: taaap-tap (quadruple his bet) and taaap-taaap-taaap (split) and tap (hit) and taaap (stand).
True to the law of probabilities—and Taft's adage that "one tap is worth a thousand words"—the dealer, drawing to a 13, pulled a 10 and busted. "Mister," she said, shoving a stack of $100 chips at Taft, "you may be dumb, but you sure are lucky." Taft beamed, patted the computer purring warmly against his stomach and gushed, "Gee, wow; I dunno, I just had this gut feeling."
Ken Uston first got that special feeling for the game of blackjack one glimmering afternoon while tooling his MG across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. At the time he was a senior vice-president of the Pacific Stock Exchange, and bored—so bored that he traversed the bridge each lunch hour to practice playing blackjack in a run-down bungalow with a team of "counters," professional gamblers who employ a card-counting system that attempts to do mentally what Taft's computer does electronically. It was no idle diversion; after weeks of intense practice, Uston planned to join the team for a full-scale assault on the Eldorado of gambling, Las Vegas.
On the afternoon in question, Uston recalls, "I'd just had a bad morning with the board of governors, done my usual sycophant number and was feeling down. But as I crossed the bridge that afternoon, I got to thinking about where I'd been and where I was going. And suddenly it hit me. Hey, this is just like Mission: Impossible. Six guys plotting to outwit the Vegas biggies at their own game. This could be my chance to bust out of my Brooks Brothers monkey suit!"
That was in 1974. Three months ago Uston strolled into the new Resorts International Hotel Casino in Atlantic City—but not so anyone would notice. As the mastermind of his own team of counters, "Mr. Blackjack" was playing it low profile. Or more precisely, new profile. His beard was sprayed gray, and he was wearing a matching wig, "Coke bottle" glasses and a staid business suit with a Shriner's pin in the lapel, the better to pass himself off as Dr. John Wasserman, a vacationing psychiatrist from Phoenix. "Taking off a casino gets into your blood," says Uston/Wasserman, "but you've got to have a cover act."
Thirteen days later, at 9:45 p.m. on Jan. 30, Uston finished a long round at the Resorts' tables and, weighted down with $43,000 in chips, went to cash in. At the cashier's cage he was stopped by six casino heavies, one of whom produced a piece of paper from which he read in an icy monotone:
"I represent the landlord of the premises, and I am informing you that you are considered to be a professional card counter and you are not allowed to gamble at any blackjack table in this casino. If you attempt to gamble at a blackjack table, you will be considered a disorderly person and evicted from the casino. If you are evicted and return, I will have you arrested for trespassing. If you refrain from gambling at any blackjack table, you are welcome to participate in any other game offered by the casino."
Welcome to Atlantic City.
In all, what Uston calls the Tuesday Night Massacre resulted in the barring of 22 suspected counters. Sweeping as it was, the ban was only the latest stopgap attempt by legalized gambling to ward off a threat that one Las Vegas casino operator says is "by far the most serious problem facing the industry today."
The issue is wide open. There is nothing illegal about playing a system in blackjack or in any other casino game. On the contrary, for years the gaming Establishment welcomed the practice as the opiate of the eternally gullible. The one thing about a system player, the old casino saying goes, is that he will lose his money systematically.
Now that the axiom has broken down, the casinos are crying "Foul!" and the pro players are hollering "Revolt!" Several counters have taken legal action on the grounds that the casinos have no more right to bar a skilled player than they have to bar a guest on the basis of sex or religion. Banished more times than even he can count, Uston has sued eight casinos—the Dunes, Sands, Hilton, Flamingo, Marina, MGM Grand, Silver City and Holiday Riverboat—for a total of $85 million. The Dunes and Sands have settled out of court, and the other cases are pending. Last year, responding to charges that Uston was barred by the casinos solely because he "did not lose his money quite as fast as most people," a federal court in Las Vegas dismissed two of his suits on the grounds that the state of Nevada is not obligated to force casinos to allow card counters to play.
Declaring "I'm on a crusade!" Uston has engaged a high-powered legal team and vows to "carry the battle all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary." There are rumblings that the Federal Trade Commission may take action against the casinos for possible antitrust violations. The American Civil Liberties Union has gotten involved. And a counter's defense fund and national association are being formed to fight on a united front. "The controversy," warns Casino, a gambling trade paper, "may prove to be a fuse slowly burning toward the biggest explosion in the history of legalized gambling."
Like his Nevada counterparts, Steve Norton, a Resorts vice-president, argues that the "law says that the casinos shall include games of chance. But when counters are allowed to play, it becomes a game of skill. There is no luck involved." Shaky at best, that defense is undermined by the traditional image of the casinos as something less than paragons of sportsmanship and fair play. Not above such low tactics as plying high rollers with free booze to ensure that "luck" prevails, the casinos appear to be in a no-win contest with public opinion. "Mr. Uston and his like seem to us to have justice on their side," said The New York Times in one typical editorial reaction. "If the casinos do not admit smart players as well as suckers, where's the gamble?"
Not in the Nevada casinos. Their legal out is a suitably fuzzy piece of legislation called Nevada Revised Statute 463.151. In part, it states that casinos "have a duty to keep from their premises persons known to them to be inimical to the interests of the State of Nevada or of licensed gambling or both." In other words, since the state of Nevada is in on the casino action, winning is "inimical." Or as one pit boss, unencumbered by legalese, interprets the statute, "It's our game and we'll damn well throw out who we please."
Trouble is, most every blackjack player counts cards to some extent. It is in the nature of the game, and many casino officials fear that the publicity about the dragnet for card-counting sharks will scare off the plump little fish who are the staple of the industry. "If I threw out counters," says one casino manager, "I'd throw out 50% of my business."
Admittedly in a bind, casino executives are divided in their opinion of system players. "God bless 'em," says one official who opposes the heave-ho school. "The better the public plays, the more they play and the more we win." Truth be told, as high-risk ventures go, card counting ranks right up there with prospecting for gold in the Everglades. As Uston is the first to point out, "For every one of me, there are probably 99 counters who lose money."
And thousands more who are lured to the game because of books like One-Third of a Shoe/How To Win, by Ken Uston. Says Casino, "The gambling business should recognize that card counting has created more blackjack players and increased profits all out of proportion. The few players who are of any effect take away very little, but the casinos' greed to get it all may endanger the whole bonanza."
By that measure, even the casinos' most common defense against counters—shuffling early, or "breaking the deck"—has its shortcomings. Because a counter's knowledge of the deck, and hence his potential advantage, increases in proportion to the number of cards that are played, many dealers shuffle at the slightest hint that there is a pro in their midst, sometimes after every hand. But that is dully time-consuming, reduces the desired number of 100 hands an hour by half or more, annoys other customers and violates what one dealer calls the first commandment of the pits: "Thou shalt not prolong the natural transfer of cash from the player to the house."
Regardless, the fast shuffle is so prevalent that the New Jersey Casino Control Commission imposed a pair of new rulings on Jan. 4 that not only thwarted the practice but also precipitated the Tuesday Night Massacre. First, the commission decreed that the dealers had to deal a minimum of two-thirds of the way into the "shoe," a dealing device that holds two or more decks, before shuffling. And second, it directed that dealers could only be changed at the end of their hour-long shifts, thus preventing the practice of arbitrarily switching dealers as a pretext for shuffling.
Word that Atlantic City would be staging the "best game in the world" all but short-circuited the counter grapevine, and Resorts suddenly found itself hosting what amounted to a counters' convention. But from its "eye in the sky," the overhead network of catwalks and closed-circuit TV "chase cameras" that look down on the gaming tables through a ceiling of one-way mirrors, the casino's security force was doing some counting of its own. "We had 60 to 75 counters in the month of January," says Norton, "and the effect on our business was substantial."
When Resorts reported the invasion of counters to the gaming commission, Chairman Joseph Lordi allowed that "the commission does not have any standards on the subject at this time. The casino, therefore, is free to develop its own standards." Within hours, Uston & Co. were persona non grata and the casino was busily posting signs that read: WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO EXCLUDE PROFESSIONAL CARD COUNTERS FROM PLAY AT OUR BLACKJACK TABLES. "Basically," countered Uston, "it means, we reserve the right to exclude winners."
In a quandary, the gaming commission A scheduled hearings in an attempt to work out a definition of the term "professional counter." They might just as well try for a tidy legal definition of pornography. As Commissioner Albert Merck observes, "We have to balance a lot of things. We want the casinos to make profits, but at the same time I don't think any level of skill should be banned." Citing the example of baseball teams that shift their fences to accommodate the strengths of their hitters, Merck suggests that there might be some way to tinker with the blackjack rules to satisfy all parties concerned.
Adding insult to incursion, throughout the controversy Uston maintained a base camp in Room 1022 at Resorts and, on an electric typewriter provided by the hotel, pounded out lengthy memos to the commission, charging the casino with price gouging, "harassment techniques" and other offenses, such as forcing the crowds of average players to bet above their heads by making "fully 85% of the blackjack tables $25 minimum."
In his crusader's robes, Uston also pushed for "an open environment in which skillful play is viewed in a positive way rather than being judged as a furtive, even quasi-criminal pursuit." He realized how refreshing it was to play "out in the open," he says, after he failed the Wasserman test. Seems that on Uston's very first day in the casino one of the pit bosses saw through his psychiatrist's guise and let it be known that Mr. Blackjack was in town. No great loss, says Uston. Not only was the "wig too itchy anyway" but the unveiling gave him the chance to play the most thrilling role of all: himself.
If nothing else, the Massacre focused attention on a shadowy subculture, one that gives rise to two key questions: How many professional counters are there, and how much do they win? The counters themselves claim that there are no more than 50 or so of their number who win serious money with any consistency. But Bob Griffin, president of Griffin Investigations, a detective agency that services 30 casinos and maintains an infamous "black book" of some 1,500 photographic dossiers on cheats and counters, estimates that there are "100 known major-league counters and probably another 100 who are undetected. The ones that get greedy come to our attention. The ones that are content to win $300 to $400 a day might go undetected for years."
As for "how much?" Resorts says that in January its blackjack wins were cut in half, or some $80,000 to $100,000 a day. How much of that decrease was caused by the postholiday lull and how much by the skills of the counters is indeterminable. However, Uston offers one yardstick; he says that he and his five teammates won $145,000 in their 13-day fling before the boom was lowered. Unbeknownst to Resorts, two of Uston's confederates escaped detection and played on until the team broke camp on Feb. 22, netting an additional $30,000. Overall, Uston estimates that counters win up to $1 million annually in the U.S. For the five years he has been on the circuit, playing in the U.S., the Bahamas, Aruba, Panama, Macao and in the major clubs in Europe, Uston claims that he and the 40 or so top players that he has teamed with have won $3.4 million.
Even allowing for the penchant of gamblers to exaggerate, the figures are the kind that compel casino spokesmen like Norton, engaging in a little hyperbole of his own, to say, "If counters are allowed to play in Atlantic City, it will be economic suicide." The fact that Resorts has somehow managed to scrape along on average daily revenues of $663,000, or triple the take of the largest Nevada casinos, calls to mind another gambler's maxim: never bet on anything that talks.
Fact is, a gambling fever is upon the land. The gross revenues for all Nevada casinos last year were a record $1.85 billion, up 21.6% over 1977. And there is no doubt as to the spark for the boom. It's blackjack, which has surpassed craps to become the most popular casino game by a runaway margin. Over the past decade in Nevada, the gross revenues per year from the game have increased from $117.3 million to $519.6 million, a growth of more than 400%. In Reno the number of blackjack tables has tripled to 2,700 in the past decade, and schools and seminars teaching card-counting systems have opened in 10 major cities around the U.S.
The highly addictive appeal of blackjack is that it is the only casino game that can be consistently beaten by strategy. That is because it is not subject to the law of independent trials, a mathematical edict meaning that in games like craps, roulette and keno, one play is unrelated to the next. For example, the odds that a crapshooter will roll a 7 are 1 in 6. And though a shooter might roll seven 7s in a row, the odds that he will do so again on the eighth roll are still 1 in 6, just as they were on each of the seven previous rolls. As they say in the pits, the dice have no memory.
Blackjack hands, however, are very much dependent on what cards have already been played, and the odds for or against the player fluctuate accordingly. Next to aces, no cards are more beneficial to the player than the 10-value cards—jacks, queens, kings and the 10s themselves. Primarily, that is because the rules require the dealer to continue drawing until he has a total of 17 or more. Thus, when the deck is "hot," or rich in 10-value cards, it is to the player's advantage to stand on a "stiff" (any hand totaling 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16) and let the dealer take the risk of drawing one of the 10-value cards and busting. In such instances, the player's advantage over the house can rise to 5% or more.
One of the first to discover, codify and cash in on this statistical windfall was Dr. Edward Thorp, the godfather of counters. In 1961, when he was a 28-year-old math professor at MIT, Thorp used an IBM-704 computer to plumb the mysteries of the 34 million different combinations in which the cards can be dealt. His conclusion: given a bet limit of $500, the game could be consistently beaten at the rate of $125 an hour.
Thorp had a far better return when, while field-testing his system in Lake Tahoe, he and one of his two millionaire backers won $17,000 in one two-hour whirl. And when he revealed all in his 1962 bestseller, Beat the Dealer, Thorp became to blackjack what Einstein is to relativity. In no time, his book was the most-requested volume in the Las Vegas public library and the casinos were invaded by players clutching the sweat-resistant, palm-size strategy charts that came with Beat the Dealer.
The casinos' initial reaction was overkill. They instituted rule changes that restricted various strategy options and significantly increased the house advantage. But so many average players went elsewhere for their kicks that the old rules were soon reinstated. Thereafter the casinos relied more on the fast shuffle and began replacing their single-deck games with four-deck shoes, affectionately known as "perfesser stoppers," on the theory that 208 cards are harder to keep track of than 52. Looking on bemusedly, Perfesser Thorp said, "These new rules show that the casino owners still don't understand the system."
Multideck play is more difficult for counters but only slightly so, since they have replaced memory with a counting system. As a case in point, the fact that all of Resorts' blackjack games are multideck did not exactly make them immune to a counter attack. More than anything, casinos prefer the multideck shoe because it delivers up to three times as many hands an hour. Player acceptance has been grudging, though, and today about 25% of the blackjack games in the U.S., most of them in the Reno-Tahoe area, are still single-deck.
The common misconception about professional counters is that they have photographic minds and somehow memorize the deck. This was true with one deck, but not with four. There are dozens of system books for sale, most of them beneficial only to their authors, who charge up to $395 for their "secret formulas." Whatever the exotic name—Aus the Boss, Wong High Low, HI OPT—all are based on the Thorp method of ascribing a plus or minus value to the cards.
In a basic, simplified system, for example, the low cards 2 through 6 are counted as plus one, the high cards 10 through ace are minus one, and the middle cards 7 through 9 are zero and not counted. Thus, by adding or subtracting the plus or minus value of each card as it is dealt, the system player keeps a "running count." The higher the plus count, the more 10-value cards remain in the deck, and the player increases his bet accordingly. The lower the minus count, the more low cards remain, and he bets the minimum.
Because the player only has to remember one number, the running count, he can do so as easily through four decks as one. Not so easy is developing the speed to keep up with the rapid-fire pace of play. Practice makes perfect in card counting only when the player can keep an accurate running count while flashing through an entire deck in 20 seconds.
Then comes the hard part. What card counters do memorize are strategy charts that take up to 100 or more hours of intense cramming to master. The best counters practice daily with flash cards, mumbling to themselves, "When do you split a pair of 9s? When the dealer is showing anything from 2 to 9 but not 7."
Q. What is your best play if you have a pair of 7s against the dealer's 10?
A. Hit in Las Vegas, stand in the Bahamas and surrender in Atlantic City.
Surrender does not mean the counter should turn himself in to the security guards. It is but one of several house rules that vary widely, and critically affect the counter's strategy. In Atlantic City the player is allowed to fold his hand and forfeit one half of his bet before the dealer checks his own down card to see if he has blackjack. Called early surrender, it is not to be confused with conventional surrender, the five variations on doubling down or the myriad other adjustments the counter must learn to make if he is to avoid going home in a barrel.
Then comes the really hard part—actually playing. Many are the counters who have perfected their systems at home only to turn into bumbling idiots when real money is on the line. It takes a unique strain of steely-eyed infighter to survive the pressure, suspicion, fatigue, hostile dealers and, worst of all, inevitable losing streaks. If he does survive—if he does not make the common, fatal mistake of trying to recoup a loss by exceeding the bet limit allowed by his bankroll—then and only then the counter may achieve his goal of turning the 1.5% advantage the house has over the average player into a 1.5% advantage for himself.
Provided, that is, the house is not playing the more profitable, and revengeful, game of fleecing the fleecer. To a man, the counters claim that the casinos are guilty of all manner of dastardly tactics including out-and-out cheating. Of course, such accusations are only that, and make a convenient excuse for losing. And, just as vehemently, the casinos deny that they would risk losing their licenses by doing anything underhand. Still, charges of stacked decks, phantom shuffles, doctored drinks and house "mechanics," or crooked dealers, are so often heard that the cloud lingers. In his book Your Best Bet, Mike Goodman, a former Las Vegas casino manager, casually admits that, before a crackdown, some of the Nevada casinos routinely removed 10-value cards from shoes "for years."
The casinos know their quarry's habits well: intense concentration, darting eyes and—the big tip-off—erratic betting patterns. To compensate, the counters make foolish "cover bets" and engage in more evasive actions than a counterspy. Indeed, for the hooked, the intrigue is part of the high. "Make no mistake, gambling is superexciting," says Taft, a blackjack subculture unto himself.
Born Keith Gustin Seidensticker Jr., Taft remembers little of his father, except to say, "Well, the first time he was in prison had something to do with selling undelivered airplane engines through the mails. The next time was for rum-running." Taft's stepfather, whose surname he assumed, was a math teacher at Cut Bank Junior High, and young Keith was the nearsighted kid who was forever building bombs in chem lab and shocking teachers by hot-wiring their classroom doorknobs. He hummed around town in a three-wheel electric car of his own design that featured a tootling exhaust pipe borrowed from a church organ. He also built a stubby-wing airplane with an outboard motor that made it out of the garage and down the driveway but, alas, never got off the ground. "I was a real weirdo," he says.
While attending Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., Taft designed a blimp in which he planned to circumnavigate the earth. Instead, after graduation, he went back to Montana to teach high school physics and music, and build a prototype of the first snowmobile, a huge, growling, tank-like thing that flattened a neighbor's fence. "I couldn't get it out of reverse gear," he says. Eventually he took an engineering manager's job with Raytheon and in 1967 moved to Sunnyvale, which is 40 miles south of San Francisco in the heart of "Silicon Valley," so called because of the concentration of electronic firms in the area.
Then came the fateful lucky-buck trip to Reno in 1969. More than as a handyman's fling, Taft viewed his secret blackjack project as a "new frontier, a chance to break out of an increasingly partitioned world. Whatever the outcome, I felt I could justify all the work involved by the technical knowledge I would gain. Certainly, making additional money was a strong motivation but only insofar as it would buy my freedom to become what I've always wanted to be—an inventor. Call it a Walter Mitty dream, but I saw the gambling computer as my bridge to the independent life."
Because he was working under wraps, Taft had to teach himself by using the computer manuals like recipe books. For the better part of two years he spent his weekends and evenings in an upstairs bedroom, testing, plotting graphs and soldering more than 2,000 tiny joints. Training sessions were equally intense. While driving, Taft played license-plate blackjack by wiggling his big toes to record the numbers on passing cars. Family members took turns dealing him more than 10,000 hands at the dining-room table while his daughters played their rock records at full blast to simulate the feel of a casino. One recurring problem: the 10,000 toe movements required for an eight-hour session of play gave him painful calluses. Smiling through, he allows that "the thrill of victory is sometimes tempered by the agony of de-feet."
Taft called his first computer George; it was a kind of Cro-Magnon forebear of David. His initial solution to the problem of reading George's output was as ingenious as it was complex. Working with the precision of a watchmaker, he inserted a row of seven tiny light-emitting diodes into the frame of his black horn-rim eyeglasses just above the right lens. The diodes were connected to the computer by a fine wire that was combed into his hair and ran down the back of his collar. When all the diodes flashed on—stand. When they all flashed off—hit. And so on, through a color-coded series of winking lights that covered the range of betting and playing options.
Finally, in early 1972, Taft was ready to plug all the components together for a shakedown trial. Like some suburban Dr. Frankenstein, he turned on the juice and stood in wonder as his patchwork creation blinked to life and responded perfectly to his every command. "I've never been so thrilled," he says.
But George was a monster, sure enough. At the time, the state of computer art was such that what Taft had envisioned as a light, compact unit turned out to be a 15-pound mass of brass-encased computerware, nickel-cadmium battery packs, switches, lights, cables and wires. Suited up, with the whole rig fitted into an apron and trussed to his upper body by an Ace bandage, he looked like something out of Star Wars.
Even so, all systems go, he set out to zap Nevada in a series of weekend forays. Though jittery and limping because of toe fatigue, he went largely unnoticed as he dragged himself through the casinos with the 15 pounds of added bulk pulsing beneath his outsize pea coat. He recalls, "I felt like I was nine months pregnant"—and ready to deliver. According to the meticulous notes he kept, his pulse rate never dropped below 110 while playing.
Not to worry. Blessed with total recall, the magic machine was a born con artist. That is, if a pit boss was zeroing in, it cooled the "heat" by dictating winning plays that were so seemingly foolhardy—stand on a 12 against a 10, hit a hard 18, split a pair of 10s—as to show no discernible pattern other than dumb luck. Moreover, the computer also eased suspicion by freeing Taft for the kind of chitchat that would shatter the concentration of a counter.
"It's just a fun piece of equipment," says Taft, who once asked it a fun question: How much are you worth? Answer: the computer gives the player a 2.5% advantage over the house, or nearly double the win potential of the professional counter. "And during the shuffle," Taft adds, "it'll do your horoscope."
All Taft's signs were in the ascendancy on his first swing through the casinos. Oh, there was a problem with a battery-acid leak that ate through his shirt and into his chest, but the scar is hardly noticeable. Undaunted, he won $500 the first weekend, betting in the $5-to-$15 range. "And I won the next weekend," he says, tracing his progress on a graph, "and the next weekend and the next and the next, and I said, 'Hey, I got it made!' "
But not on the home front. Taft's notes for the period show another, decidedly negative, trend: "Dorothy upset over my gambling.... Dot in pieces again.... Dot on verge of nervous breakdown." She explains, "I was fearful of so many things—of losing a lot of money, of the Mafia, and Keith being harmed in some way. But my worst fear was that he would become a compulsive gambler. He was devoting so much time to the computer that it put a strain on the family. At church I always had to make excuses about where he was, and it was very hard on my nerves. At times the strain was almost unbearable."
Taft attempted to pacify his wife with two lines of reasoning. First, he says, "I, too, consider gambling a vice that leads to the breakdown of society, but I was pursuing it only as a means to a socially redeemable end. Specifically, I want to build industrial robots to free people from drudgery so they can do something more meaningful. In that sense I'm mixing Christianity and blackjack. I'm God's gambler." Secondly, he says, "Gambling implies a chance of losing, and I didn't intend to do that. I was interested in putting in enough hours so that luck didn't count and the statistics would take over. For me, blackjack is not gambling, it's a business." Dorothy, her image of the devil's pasteboards unshaken, replies simply, "It's gambling."
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 Renè Lalou.
But the losing streak never came. And as the weeks and months wore on, the Bomber become the subject of intense scrutiny. Then, in June 1976, a pit boss at the Sands figured out the method to the madness. The scenario: six or so of Big Al's counters would enter a casino separately, take seats at different tables, bet the minimum and try to blend into the background. Enter the Bomber, pretending to booze and whoop it up while in fact he was carefully surveying the counters and waiting for the hand signals that would tell him when a deck was hot. Often several decks heated up at once, and hence the seemingly bizarre dashing about. Far from rash, the Bomber's bets were so deceptively shrewd that for nine months of hit-and-run play, Big Al's team claims to have won $480,000.
As for the Bomber, or Big Player, as the role is known in the counter's trade, Uston says, "I was only acting out what I really wanted to be—a rich, fun-loving high roller."
Since then Uston has become a student of disguises. He has half a dozen roles, including Billy Williams, a drawling, yippee-yi-yo cowpoke ("Hiya, my friends call me Tex") swaddled in denim and pearl buttons. He also had Mike Westmore, the Hollywood makeup man, build him a false nose and buck teeth for $500. With the addition of a little tape on the eyes and a lot of cotton in the mouth, Uston turns into a Chinese hit man who "is so ugly that the pit bosses can't bear to look at him."
Uston used his winnings to buy a $90,000 condominium in the Las Vegas Jockey Club, where he wrote of his exploits in a book titled, natch, The Big Player. He also founded the Uston Institute of Blackjack (price for two-day advanced course: $397), which he hopes will be the "foundation for a whole empire of schools and real estate." In fact, no sooner had he hung out his professor's shingle in 1977 than he had a call from an interested party—Keith Taft.
In the two years since he had consigned George to the used-parts pile, Taft had moved his family into a new ranch home that had enough room off the garage for him to build a longed-for workshop with decor by Rube Goldberg. Most important, thanks to the knowledge he gained by assembling George, Taft had quit his job at Raytheon to become a $60,000-a-year computer-engineering consultant. Heady with the freedom of it all, Taft began building a single-engine airplane in his garage and took up pistol shooting and soaring. And he bought a Kawasaki motorcycle that, when he took it out for a long test spin one weekend, mysteriously—his wife says diabolically—ended up in Reno.
"Just fooling around," Taft started gambling again, counting mentally and winning $200 to $300 on an odd weekend. Yes, he had some moral compunctions, but he prayed for guidance and got "no negative feelings." In effect, he says, "I asked, 'Whither goest I?' and God answered, To the Sahara.' And He didn't mean the desert."
Still confounded by his one turn of bad luck in 1974, Taft programmed George to play one million hands of blackjack, the largest sample ever amassed. Night and day for two weeks the computer winked away in Taft's workshop. And when he pored over the reams of results, he discovered that "the vagaries of chance are very wild indeed." The sample showed that a player putting in 30 hours a week could have a losing streak that lasted six months!
Clearly, Taft concluded, the best defense against that kind of wicked turn of fate was the funds and tactics available through team computer play. So he arranged a meeting with Uston and demonstrated his magic machine. Uston allowed that there was only one big question: Would they win $2 million or $3 million? Photographs were taken and Uston mounted his print in his scrap-book under the inscription, "These two men will make gambling history!"
It was decided that the toe switches were too difficult to master on a team basis. So Taft and Uston devised an elaborate dodge that called for the Big Player to sit at a blackjack table and work in tandem with a counter who would mingle with interested onlookers. Using a keyboard hidden in his pocket, the counter would feed the cards to a computer bandaged to his thigh along with a radio transmitter and battery pack. The computer would then relay its commands through the transmitter to a receiver built into the heel of the Big Player's left shoe. The receiver in turn would activate a tapper built into the instep of the shoe. Taft called the new computer, the precursor of David, George II; it was a more svelte if schizoid descendant of George I.
A San Francisco cobbler, sworn to secrecy, was engaged to construct six pairs of the custom-made wedge shoe for $1,200. Uston agreed to supply the Big Players. But where would the counters come from? Enter the Singing Taft Family, ready, willing and wired. All but Renee, 24, that is, who had "grave moral doubts." And Dorothy, of course.
Jody, 22, Marty, 25, and his wife Rosie, 25, quit their jobs, and Dana, 20, left his premed studies to join the team. They practiced at home while Dorothy looked on fretfully and Renee searched the Bible for redeeming passages. Then, telling their friends that they were going to build a cabin at Lake Tahoe, they left for Nevada. "Wealth from gambling quickly disappears," said Renee.
At a team meeting at Lake Tahoe, the Taft clan and the five Big Players who had signed on decided on their code names and rehearsed their special team knock—rap, rap...rap!—the computer's way of saying 21, or blackjack. "The secrecy is fun," said Jody. In her diary, she also noted a change in her father, who had grown a beard and tried wearing a racy cowboy hat until everyone laughed him out of it. "I think my father is rather taken in by the Big Player's lifestyle," she wrote. "He has a habit of telling cruder jokes than usual and even swearing occasionally."
On April 19, 1977, five two-man teams fanned out through the Las Vegas casinos, playing off a joint bank of $50,000. On the very first day, Marty and his partner relieved Harrah's of $17,600, and the team doubled its bank to $100,000 in less than a week. During a break, Dana, who whispered "Praise the Lord" every time his partner won, went to visit Renee in Dallas, where she is a music student at the University of Texas. And when he returned he announced that he had seen the ruin of his ways. "Gambling is such a gray area," he says, "but basically you're taking the money from somebody else, and some Christians think that is wrong." He took his $2,650 share, bought a used car for $650 and returned to his premed studies.
And none too soon. On May 11 a casino official at Harvey's Club circled Marty with a radio receiver and told him to step into a back room. There, he says, five strong-arm types forcibly stripped him, confiscated his computer and told him, "We're going to bash your brains in with a two-by-four." His playing partner, an attractive young woman, was also detained, but though she was searched and stripped, they could not find her radio equipment. Finally, she says, under threats that they were going to manhandle Marty if she did not cooperate, she showed them the shoe. After being grilled for four hours, Marty and the young woman were turned over to the police, fingerprinted, booked for swindling and bunco steering, and released on $2,000 bail each.
The computer gear was sent to Washington, D.C. for analysis by FBI technicians, who concluded that it was not a cheating device. Arguing that the team was only making use of information available to all blackjack players, Oscar Goodman, the Tafts' Las Vegas lawyer, says. "There's nothing illegal about using computers. It's no different than the guys who make notations at the roulette wheels on pads provided by the casinos. The computer is merely a more sophisticated method." Harvey's Club and the Nevada gaming commission apparently agreed. Charges were never pressed.
"The bust was my fault," says Uston. "We knew the heat was on but I got greedy." There were compensations; in 22 days of play the Taft-Uston team won—praise the Lord—$130,000.
The game has since toughened up in every way, as Uston will attest. Last August, after being banned from the Mapes Moneytree in Reno, he exchanged a few words with a security guard in an alley and was punched out, his cheek and temple bones broken. The left side of his face required extensive plastic surgery. Uston is suing Mapes for $9 million.
Of late, Uston says that when he feels that someone is tailing him, which is often, he races away in a cold sweat. "I keep telling myself, 'Naw, they wouldn't bump me off.' But Jimmy Hoffa said that, too. Not long ago I started up my car, heard a funny noise, leaped out and hid behind a pillar."
More often Uston likes to reflect on the positive aspects of his unlikely career—the $100,000 he earns annually from his $2 million real-estate holdings, the $5.6 million movie version of The Big Player that will start shooting this fall. "I enjoy being a celebrity," he says. "It just blows me out. I don't know, maybe I'll become a kind of Nick the Greek character for a while. One thing for sure, when this gambling stuff is all over, I'm going to sit down and play jazz piano à la Erroll Garner in some sleepy little jazz joint in San Francisco.
"As for the moment, well, it sure beats drawing charts at the stock exchange. For the first time in my life, I can tell the world to go to hell. And that, my friend, has a value you cannot compute."
Keith Taft strongly agrees, although he would like to gain more freedom by selling a value that does compute. Recently, tucked away in a small San Francisco financial journal called the Daily Commercial News, there was this ad:
"David is so sweet, so slick," says Taft, "that I thought some other people might be interested in it, too. Of course, on moral grounds, I won't make it available to the public, just to professional gamblers who would be playing, regardless.
"With the appearance of this article, I intend to go public, so to speak, and no longer personally involve myself in gambling on a regular basis. It will make my wife happy, and I have other projects I want to pursue. Besides, I doubt that computer gambling is all that unique anymore. Right now, I'll bet there are 17 guys out there who are wired, and they're not talking to anybody."
Surprisingly, one of the secret computer gamblers might be the once-righteous Renee. When last heard from, she was mellowing and had made an interesting conjecture: "Billy Graham says there is nothing in the Bible against gambling." Nor is there anything against a young lady helping to pay her way through college, which Renee figures she might be able to do with a little help from her friend David. Praise the Lord.
Recently, after the family gathered around the living-room piano to sing Seek Only Thy Perfect Way, Taft reflected on the future. "One thing I could do," he said, "is build the casinos a computer that could tell them the skills of a blackjack player within minutes."
Even so, he admits that it will probably take something more compelling to pique his interest these days. "Like jumping off a mountain," he suggests. "From the beginning, I knew the computer would provide the kind of challenge I was looking for. But I also realized that when it was over, most everything else would seem dull by comparison."
So what will he be up to in the next several months?
"Well, it's a secret but this much I'll tell you. I still think that blimp will go around the world."
Absurd. But what if...?
CONCEALED BLACKJACK COMPUTER DESIGNED FOR USE IN CASINO PLAY
$5,000—INCLUDES TRAININGFOR MORE INFORMATION, CALL DAVID