Binion's vs. Uston
$100,000 on the Line and the Whole
World was Watching.
When I walked into Benny Binion's Horseshoe casino in downtown Las Vegas, it was obvious something special was happening. People were crowded against the heavy red velvet partition normally set up for the World Series of Poker, which is held annually at the Horseshoe. Bright television lights beamed down on a solitary blackjack table, placed before the Horseshoe's famous display of one million dollars in cash-one hundred $10,000 bills-in front of which thousands of tourists are photographed every year to commemorate their trip to Las Vegas.
TV crewmen scurried around, arranging wires, microphones, and videotape machines. A makeup girl had set up her headquarters near the million-dollar display, in back of a row of twenty-five-cent slot machines. As I walked into the casino, several newsmen ran over to me, all firing questions at once. I answered several of them and slid through the crowd, placing my businessman's attaché case on another blackjack table in the vacant part of the casino.
I was about to play a $50,000 challenge match against the Horseshoe casino before national TV, the first such match ever held. Through the years there'd been a lot of talk about all sorts of blackjack challenges - experts challenging casinos, promoters and journalists challenging counters, one expert challenging another. But despite all the hoopla, a match had never taken place until now.
I ordered a cup of coffee from the cocktail waitress, dried my sweaty palms on the green felt of the empty table, and reflected on the events leading up to the match.
The phone rang in the bedroom of my San Francisco apartment.
"Ken, my name is Gary Hoffman. We're producing a TV show on gambling. David Hartman, the host of Good Morning, America, will be the narrator. We'll be interviewing Shecky Greene, Totie Fields, and Allen Glick, the head of the Argent Corporation (a holding company which owned the Stardust, Hacienda, and Fremont casinos in Vegas). We'd also like to interview you. The show will be a Wide World of Entertainment Special to be aired next month at 11:30 p.m. after the late news.
"We'd heard that you're a successful blackjack player, that you've been barred from several casinos in Vegas, and that you're suing them. Is that true?"
I filled Gary in on the details of the previous eighteen months, during which I'd been playing blackjack nearly full time. I related the circumstances leading to my being barred from the Sands, Dunes, MGM, Marina, Holiday Riverboat, Flamingo, and Las Vegas Hilton and described the nearly $80million in lawsuits I'd filed against those casinos.
Gary said, "Fabulous. That's just what we want. Do you think there's any chance we could film you actually playing blackjack?"
"I don't know," I replied. "You might talk to the casino people you interview in Vegas. Maybe one of them would give me a game for a while for the publicity. Benny Binion's Horseshoe has a reputation for being a sporting, old-time gambling house. You could talk to Benny or to one of his sons, Teddy or Jack. In the meantime, I'll call some people I know at Caesars Palace-they might be interested."
The idea fascinated me. I had co-authored a book, The Big Player, released in May, 1977, by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. The book describes how a team of blackjack players and I had won over a million dollars playing blackjack in Las Vegas and Europe. The TV publicity obviously would help the book. As a matter of fact, I was scheduled to fly to New York in several days to be a panelist on Tom Snyder's Tomorrow Show, along with Amarillo Slim, the world famous poker player, Steven Wynn, the General Manager of the Golden Nugget casino in Vegas, and two authors of blackjack books.
In New York, I met with Dave Hartman just before taping the Tomorrow Show. Tall, personable, and sincerely interested in the subject of blackjack, he "pre-interviewed" me in depth for about an hour. Gary Hoffman was also there and announced happily that he had arranged for the Stardust to deal me a game for the show.
The Tomorrow show taping was a disappointment. I felt there were too many panelists, and I wasn't able to make many points about the mathematics underlying blackjack and the rationale leading to my lawsuits. One of the guests, a Bay Area psychiatrist, had recently written a book on blackjack and refused to appear on the show with me. He was afraid I might reveal his identity, since we'd met on several occasions at Caesars Palace and the Aladdin. I sent a note to his dressing room assuring him that I'd protect him, but, much to the dismay of the producer, he refused to budge. He was relegated to a small segment at the end of the show, wearing a disguise which added thirty years to his appearance.
Before I left for Vegas, Gary phoned with the bad news. The Stardust had decided not to participate in the match-no reason given. When I arrived at my Jockey Club condominium in Vegas, I called Harry Wald, the Executive Vice 'President of Caesars Palace. Unlike most Vegas casinos, Caesars does not bar good blackjack players and had become my "oasis in the desert"-about the only club I could check into under my actual name. Harry, a true gentleman and one of the few casino executives with a real flair for public relations, agreed to meet with me the following day to discuss the possibility of staging the match at Caesars.
With Harry at the meeting was Al Faccinto, Caesars' casino manager, and Mike Velardo, their blackjack expert, one of the few pit men in Vegas who really understands the game.
I had hoped that Caesars might deal me a game similar to the game offered the general public. No way. Mike, justifiably, wasn't about to give anything away. He'd spent years protecting casinos from losing money, and it ran against his grain even to consider giving me a game in which I'd have a significant edge. He insisted on dealing to me from a four-deck shoe (I had hoped for a single-deck game) and cutting off three of the four decks (I'd thus see only 52 of the 208 cards and then the decks would be shuffled).
We negotiated some more and finally agreed on the following terms: I'd be dealt from a four-deck shoe. The joker would be placed right in the middle, cutting off two decks. Mike said, "We obviously won't count exactly, but I promise you won't have the worst of it. " My minimum bet would be $300 and the maximum would be $1,000.
I asked if I could play any number of hands as long as I had a minimum of $400 on the table and a maximum of $1,000. After some resistance, the Caesars executives finally agreed.
Harry ended the meeting. "Kenny, we'll call you in a few days.I have to check this out with our Executive Committee."
Later, Gary Hoffman called again from New York. "Ken, I think I've arranged a game with the Horseshoe. Call Jack Binion."
Now things were really looking up. We had two possibilities.
I drove down to the famous Glitter Gulch in downtown Las Vegas and walked into the informal Horseshoe casino. Jack was in the pit, watching a high roller betting $2,000 a hand at mini-baccarat. The gambler had about $60,000 in chips in front of him and seemed to be winning, although, of course, he may have taken out huge markers as well.
Jack came over and after we shook hands, he said, "Yeah, I think the match is a good idea. We'll have to talk about the rules, though. I'm thinking like maybe we'll deal down sixteen cards or so and let you have a 2 to 1 bet variation."
These terms were not as favorable as I'd hoped, but there were still advantages to playing at Binion's. The Horseshoe deals single deck, which would help me in several ways. My edge would be higher by about .5 percent compared to the shoe, and the game would be a lot easier for me. It's much easier to count down a. single deck-the frequent shuffling gives the counter much-needed mental breaks during the game. On the other hand, the downtown Las Vegas rules were not nearly as favorable as Caesars Palace, which has just about the most liberal rules in the world. The player at Caesars can double down after splitting pairs, and he can surrender. Another drawback to the Horseshoe is that the dealer hits a soft 17, which costs the player another 0.2 percent.
"Jack," I insisted, "you've got to lighten up a little. The match will help your club and I need some air. How about a minimum bet of $300 and a max of $1,000, and deal down to twenty cards?"
We finally compromised. I'd get sixteen cards-more if the round had already started-and could bet a minimum of $400 and a maximum of $1,000.
"Sounds O.K., Jack, but can I play multiple hands?"
"I got to think about that. I don't want to promise you that now and have to go back on my word tomorrow."
To me, the multiple hand option was critical. In bad decks, I could spread to four hands of $100, eating up all the undesirable cards. In positive decks, I'd play one hand of $1,000, getting more rounds in during those "plus" decks. My overall effective bet variation would be more than the 21/2 to 1 ratio that seemed to apply. Though Jack wouldn't commit himself to multiple hands, he seemed favorably inclined, so I was confident that he'd ultimately agree.
A final call to Harry Wald. "Harry, I'd really like to do this at Caesars, and while I don't want to whipsaw you, I've got to say that I've got a single-deck game at Binion's. Can't you give me a little air-either a single-deck game or maybe move the joker further back in the shoe?"
Harry's answer disappointed me but made me respect him even more. "I can't undercut Mike and Al. They're my blackjack experts and they've made the decision. I don't want to overrule them."
"I hear you, Harry. I've just got to go the Horseshoe route. No hard feelings?"
"Not at all. Good luck to you."
As I sat at the blackjack table in Binion's waiting for the match to begin, I was surprised at how ner vous I felt. Though I'd probably played over a million hands o blackjack over the past three years, with as much as $12,000 be on one round, my stomach neve churned as much as it did this morning and my palms never seemed more damp. I had only a very small edge. In fact, I would never participate in a game like this in actual play. I reflected that if I lost, everything would be down the drain. The general public wouldn't understand that, with my tiny edge, I had probably about a 55 percent chance of winning. A loss in front of eight million viewers would hurt the sales of my book and thwart our chances of selling the rights to a movie producer. It would seriously cut into the success of my blackjack seminar, which I planned to hold weekly at the Jockey Club. My very career was at stake, not to mention the fact that I might lose twenty or thirty thousand dollars.
My uncertainty was heightened since, at this point, I hadn't even agreed on the final terms of the match with the Binions. A few minutes later Teddy came over and dropped a bombshell.
"Ken, about those multiple hands. If you start with one hand, you've got to stay with one hand. If you start with two hands, you've got to stay with two hands."
"Teddy, I can't do it. I need some flexibility."
Gary overheard our conversation and saw that the match was on the verge of blowing up. Wisely, he said, "Ken, hold it. Let me talk to Benny."
A few minutes later Gary summoned me into the Horseshoe dining room, where that elder statesman of gambling, Benny Binion, was sitting at a table, flanked by his two sons. Gary said, "Ken, explain the problem."
I described that I needed some flexibility and, while I would always have a minimum of $400 on the table and never more than $1,000, 1 needed to be able to vary the number of hands played.
Benny sat back, reflected, and finally turned to Jack. "This will be good for us, Jack. Do what's necessary to make it happen. Give them what they want."
We agreed I could play one or two hands at my discretion. "But," Teddy added, "if you get up more than $5,000, we've got to cut your betting ratio to 2 to 1. If you're stuck, we'll increase it to 3 to 1."
That sounded fair to me. I breathed a sigh of relief. The match was on!
The makeup gal did me with pancake powder, eye-liner, and God knows what else. Then I climbed over the ropes restraining the crowd and opened my attaché case. Inside were ten stacks of hundred dollar bills; fifty in each stack; $50,000 in cash. I placed them on the table, opposite the many rows of black hundred-dollar chips in the dealer's tray. I pulled out the flash cards I practice with before every blackjack session. Usually the cards are hidden in a hotel room so the bosses won't suspect I'm a counter. I thought, "How ironic that I can now sit in a casino, in full view of perhaps ten bosses, running through the flash cards. " In fact, I asked one of the photographers to take a picture of that for my scrapbook.
David Hartman interviewed Benny before the cameras and made some introductory remarks about the match. Jack Binion had selected a dark-eyed, trim beauty as the first dealer.
I placed my first bet, four one hundred-dollar bills, and the camera started to roll. As the match began, I realized my edge would be perhaps .3 percent higher than I'd thought for several reasons.
First, the TV people wanted the cards dealt face up so the viewing audience could observe the action. This helped me, since, when I played multiple hands, I'd see all the cards before making my plays.
Second, the Binion's had arranged for a young lad to announce the number of cards played after each round. He recited, "Five cards played, ten cards played, seventeen cards played- shuffle," reminding me of an umpire in a tennis match. This relieved me of having to count the actual number of cards played and made my ace adjustment and true count calculations completely accurate.
I discovered another advantage when, after several shuffles, I noticed that I could spot the dealer's burn card. (The first card in blackjack is immediately placed in the discard pile, unused; this card is called the burn card.) I varied my play according to the value of the burn card. If it was a small card, which meant the deck was in my favor, I would bet one hand of $400 or $500, depending upon its value. If it was a nine, ten, or ace, I'd bet two hands of $200, which enabled me to use up the unfavorable deck in fewer rounds. I was also risking less since
from the standpoint of what the statistician's call "gambler's ruin," you risk less with two hands of $200 than with one hand of $400. Naturally, if the deck turned favorable, I adjusted back to one $400 hand. Finally, after several rounds, I was dealt a pair of aces and found that the Horseshoe, unlike most clubs, allows re-splitting of aces, which is slightly to the player's advantage.
I had originally assumed my edge was around .75 percent. Assuming about 150 hands per hour and an average bet of $600, my winning expectation was thus about $675 per hour. With these unexpectedly favorable conditions, I estimated that the edge had increased to about 1 percent, for an average earning of $900 per hour.Nevertheless, with only eight hours of play, my chances of winning were still under 60 percent.
During the first fifteen minutes, I quickly went up $3,000. Dave Hartman gave a running commentary on the match before the cameras, then the TV crew left. I was afraid somehow the game might change without the protection of Gary and Dave, but the match continued exactly as it started-the Binions, of course, held to their word. After an hour, I had five stacks of ten black chip's in front of me - up $5,000. Then the cards turned.
I put out a $1,000 bet, was dealt an 11, and threw out another $1,000 on the double down. When I caught an ace, the dealer made her hand and gathered in my chips. A few minutes later, two $1,000 bets were lost in a row. I was now into my cash. I threw out four $ 100 bills and lost again. The deck went positive and I put out $1,000 in cash. I busted. The losing hands continued until I was down $3,000. Then another $1,000 double down was called for. I drew yet another poor hand, which meant that I'd be down $5,000 if the dealer made her hand. She busted. Her single bust card was actually worth $4,000 to me-the difference between a $2,000 loss and a $2,000 win.
A few minutes later, the pitboss started watching my eyes as the dealer burned her card. Then he whispered something to her and the burn card was no longer visible. A few minutes later, though, a new dealer came in, and I found that by sitting low in the chair, I could read her burn card. The pitboss apparently didn't notice. After over three hours of play, I was up $6,500 and noticed that fatigue was setting in. The calculations were coming in more slowly and less precisely.
I asked Teddy for a room so could lie down for a while. In minutes, a clerk appeared with a room key. Two security guards were summoned to watch over my $50,000 and roughly $50,000 in chips on both sides of the table. I fell asleep no more than five minutes after I lay down. About an hour later, the phone rang. The TV crew had returned to film a progress report on the match.
I went back downstairs and, while waiting for the match to resume, went over by the crowd. There were several counters there who quietly asked me questions about the game. Then the supreme ego trip-a lady asked me for my autograph. At first I was a bit embarrassed - but sign away I did. For a brief instant I didn't know what name to sign, being used to months of signing Tommy Rogers, Dan Saunders, or Roger Hughes to comp slips at the Dunes, Fremont, Desert Inn, and most other Strip hotels. Then a fellow said, "You probably don't know these guys. They're with the Griffin agency. " The Griffin agency is a private detective outfit, retained by many Vegas casinos to watch out for slot cheats, dice cheats, and, alas, cardcounters as well. They'd been following my team of blackjack players around for the past five months and in more than one case had been responsible for the barring of one of my teammates.
I was in a good mood and joked, "Why don't you guys leave us alone? We're just trying to make a living."
"Well, you know, it's just our job."
"Let me ask you something. How come sometimes you catch us just like that, and other times, it seems as if you're just not around?"
One of the Griffin fellows I responded, "It's really hit and miss. I remember a while back we saw a bunch of you up at the Trop and followed you down the Strip. But then we said, 'Hell, we don't want to wait around their motel room all night long.' so we went over to the Stardust and got drunk."
I said, "Well, I tell you what. When this is all over, let's throw a party-our group and you guys."
"We can't afford it."
I said, "Don't worry, man. Our team'll pay for it-though it'll really be financed by the casinos."
A jocular exchange, I reflected, but tomorrow they'll be out chasing us, and we'll be ducking them.
My makeup retouched, Dave Hartman interviewed me some more, asking about some of the more unusual plays that I'd made. Then the match resumed. I lost back $2,000, and then the cards turned in my favor once again. After a few more hours, I was up $10,400. Since the ratio had now been reduced to 2 to 1, 1 felt I had little to gain by continuing to play-and I had lots to lose. So at 11 p.m. I called Teddy over and we jointly agreed to terminate the match. Some final interviews were held with Dave and me sitting at the table with Benny Binion, who couldn't have been more gracious.
Dave asked Benny, "How do you feel about losing $10,000?"
Benny, aware of the publicity value of the match, said, "I tell you what. I'll do this every two weeks if you want."
"Benny, is Ken Uston a cheater?"
"Hell, no. It's science. Science-that's what it is. He used his brain. We gave him tight rules, and the edge he had was tiny, yet he won fair and square. He deserves his win."
Then Benny, with the smile of a kindly grandfather, posed for a few more shots and the TV crew left. Over dinner Benny told me half a dozen poker stories, obviously just scratching the surface of his fortyfive years or so in the gaming industry. Then he assigned a driver and security guard to escort me back to the Jockey Club in the Horseshoe's limousine.
I was silent and reflective during the ride back. The match had been draining, but the day couldn't have gone better. Sure, I was lucky. On average, I should have won perhaps $4,500, and I'd more than doubled that. But how unbelievable, I thought, to be able to play in a casino, having to employ only your skills; not having to worry about cover bets, camouflage, the possibility of barring or perhaps even detention, as had happened at the Sands and the Dunes. How nice to be able to be up front with the floormen and the owners-to know that they knew what you were doing, to have all the rules of the game spelled out in advance, with no surprises, no shuffle after one hand, no suspicious glances, no whispering bosses. Maybe someday it will be like that in every casino, all the time.
I reflected on the Binion family-all true gamblers, gentlemen and, I felt, friends. As I left, Benny joked, "Now don't be shavin' off that there beard and comin' back in here playing blackjack in disguise."
There's no way I'd do that at the Horseshoe, but I won't make any promises to the other casinos. I love the game too much.
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