Did Ken Uston Ruin Atlantic City Blackjack Games?

Blackjack Hands With an Atlantic City Sky View

Atlantic City is different from any other major gambling destination in the world. It’s the only place that prohibits casinos from discriminating against skilled players.

Therefore, Atlantic City must be the mecca of card counting, right? You can count cards at a table without fearing the pit boss tapping you on the shoulder.

We have Ken Uston to thank for these perfect conditions. Actually, the card counting conditions in AC aren’t so great because of Uston.

You can read more on his story below along with if he’s truly responsible for destroying Atlantic City blackjack games years later.

Who Is Ken Uston?

Born in 1935, Ken Uston was a (video) gamer, early PC expert, author, and advantage gambler. He became the most famous for the latter.

Uston got into card counting in the 1970s. He linked up with Al Francesco, a blackjack legend who developed the “big player” concept.

But while Francesco developed it, Uston popularized it. He wrote The Big Player: How a Team of Blackjack Players Made a Million Dollars.

This book immortalized Uston in the blackjack world and made him seem like one of the world’s foremost experts.

Blackjack Player Ken Uston

Francesco would later say that Uston didn’t really make a lot of money for his particular team. The latter, though, would eventually start his own team and become a great player in his own right.

Aside from The Big Player, Uston showed his expertise in other areas by writing Mastering PAC-MAN (1981), Score! Beating the Top 16 Video Games (1982), and Ken Uston’s Guide to Home Computers (1983). This limited selection of his works show just how well-rounded of an individual he was away from the gambling tables.

In 1987, Uston passed away in his Parisian apartment at the age of 52. The listed cause of death was heart failure.

Uston’s Blackjack Career

Ken Uston met Al Francesco while playing poker. He got an inside look at Francesco’s immense blackjack knowledge during this chat.

Upon hearing about the Big Player technique, Uston was immediately hooked. He joined Francesco’s card counting team shortly thereafter.

Uston was just a “spotter” for Francesco’s team. His job was to count cards and signal the big player when the deck was hot.

Spotters are an important part of any big player team. They play at minimum stakes and determine when the deck is highly positive.

The big player, meanwhile, can come in and start placing large bets right away. Therefore, they appear to be a high roller rather than a card counter who’s spreading bets wildly.

However, spotters don’t actually bring in the winnings for the team. Francesco’s notion that Uston didn’t make much money for the team came from this dynamic.

Eventually, Uston would attain big player status on Francesco’s team. After some level of success, he chose to start his own team with members like Darryl Purpose.

The team made a great deal of money playing in Las Vegas casinos. Eventually, though, they were banned from Vegas casinos and moved to Atlantic City.

Ken didn’t help his cause by releasing The Big Player. Not only was his face on the cover, but he also provided the casino with further tidbits that they weren’t already familiar with regarding team play.

Uston and His Team Take on Atlantic City

In 1976, New Jersey voters approved a referendum to allow casino gambling in Atlantic City. These new casinos attracted advantage gamblers looking for a new target.

Uston and his team were among those to shift their operation to New Jersey. Part of this move was due to the opportunity, while the other was out of necessity after being banned elsewhere.

The team lasted about a year, or so, before they received bans from Atlantic City casinos. Resorts International 86’ing the team was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Ken filed a lawsuit against Resorts International in January 1979. In the case of Uston vs. Resorts International Hotel Inc., the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that AC casinos aren’t allowed to ban card counting.

This judgement, which still stands today, initially seemed like a victory for card counters everywhere. However, Atlantic City gambling venues weren’t about to start paying advantage players’ way.

They responded by adding decks, letting dealers hit on a soft 17, and moving the cut card up in the shoe. Local card counters soon found themselves dealing with tougher conditions than at Vegas casinos.

Uston’s team broke up after this ordeal. He went back to counting cards in Vegas casinos while using various disguises.

Fellow blackjack legend Arnold Snyder recalled how Uston once disguised himself as a Hoover Dam worker. He fooled the casino into letting him spread bets from the table minimum to the table maximum.

The Aftermath of Uston’s Fight Against Atlantic City Casinos

Atlantic City gaming establishments may have been new when Uston took Resorts International to court. However, they weren’t naïve.

Casinos quickly adjusted to having to accommodate all blackjack players—from the person splitting 10s to the advantage pro who incorporates shuffle tracking.

The rules changed not long after Uston won his court battle. This legal victory wasn’t really a win for advantage gamblers or amateurs (based on increased house edge).

Multiple decks were the first change to come. Rather than dealing the more-favorable single- or double-deck games, AC casinos rolled out six- and eight-deck tables.

The house increases by 0.58% from a single to eight-deck game. This lone rule change gave Atlantic City a much bigger advantage than before.

Casinos also began having dealers hit on a soft 17, rather than stand. This rule discrepancy boosts the house advantage by 0.2%.

The biggest death knell to counters was the casinos that placed the cut card earlier. Dealers shuffling the shoe earlier prevent adequate deck penetration.

Long story short, the Atlantic City blackjack scene sucked for both counters and amateurs alike after Uston v. Resorts International.

Should Card Counters Hate Uston?

Ken Uston’s legal win may have hastened the bad conditions that are still present in AC blackjack today. However, these changes were coming anyways.

You can’t find any gambling destinations today that make it easy for gamblers to count cards. Las Vegas, at least much of it anyways, is notorious for having poor blackjack rules.

Many Vegas games only pay you 6:5 on natural blackjacks. This payout increases the house advantage by 1.39% compared to 3:2 payoffs.

Blackjack Dealer Dealing a Hand

Sin City isn’t the only place that has terrible rules. Everywhere from Biloxi to Reno has changed the game to thwart counters.

East Coast card counters and anybody who moved there in the late 1970s most likely did hate Uston. After all, he forced Atlantic City’s hand earlier than many gaming destinations around the world.

But it’s not like his legal battle did anything that wasn’t coming already. Vegas had been, for years, altering rules to their benefits before AC gambling even become legal.

Does Card Counting Still Work in Atlantic City Casinos?

Rather than hating Ken Uston, today’s advantage players should thank him to some degree. Atlantic City still features beatable conditions in certain cases—and you can’t get thrown out!

You can find AC tables that offer profitable counting opportunities. You can also look to use more-advanced methods, such as hole carding and shuffling tracking in some instances.

Of course, Atlantic City is still no card counter’s paradise. The rules are, on average, a little worse than what you’ll see in other gambling hubs.

Furthermore, pit bosses can still bring heat by closely watching games, chatting with you, or even citing some minor infraction you’ve done.

The key, though, is that you can’t be 86’d for counting cards. Assuming you’re able to exploit a casino for winnings, then you can keep doing so until the conditions change.


Ken Uston became one of the most-famous people to play blackjack due to his skill, authorship, and legal fight with Resorts International.

The latter changed Atlantic City into a strange place that can’t legally boot card counters. Here, casinos must welcome advantage gamblers by law.

AC casinos are just like anywhere else, though, in that they alter rules to stop counters. Most notably, they can tell dealers to shuffle the shoe earlier and stop deck penetration.

Nevertheless, this city still offers susceptible tables in some cases. You can take advantage of them without being kicked to the curb too.