Ken Uston - Barefoot Boy in Bungalow Four
by Roger Dionne
Rising demurely behind an ching drive lined with towering Ims at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Drive in Beverly Hills is that grande dame of hostelries-the pink, Spanish stucco Beverly Hills Hotel. For sixty-five years it has been the southern California pied-a-terre for the world's rich, royal, and beautiful-Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden, Prince and Princess Rainier of Monaco, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, the Shah of Iran, John and Jackie Kennedy, John Jacob Astor, Jock Whitney, Brigitte Bardot, Gina Lollobrigida. The rich, the royal, and the beautiful.
Gambling Times editor Len Miller and I enter the gardens behind the hotel in search of Bungalow Four. The bungalows are tucked behind bursts of color and puffs of greenery-azaleas and gardenias, oleanders and magnolias, orange and ginger, banana trees and jacarandas. Finally, we find Number Four and knock on the door.A blonde, fresh from a shower in halter top and dark slacks,answers.
"Ken isn't back yet. Come on in. I'm Barbie."
A quizzical smile creeps along her lips. There are dark circles under her eyes. Photographer Bob Landau has already arrived and is sitting in the living room of the two-room suite. We join him and talk with Barbie, who punctuates her animated account of her stay in L.A. with a lot of "far outs" and "y' knows's."
The telephone rings. It is the University Club in Houston looking for Ken. Then the door opens and a young man bursts in, his black hair glistening around his head, his gold neck chain gleaming, his eyes bright, almost wild. He strides across the room with his hand extended.
"I'm Ken Uston," he says. "How about a drink?"
"Never mind us. Order one for yourself," I reply.
"Good idea. I don't believe what's been happening. They're talking about making a movie of The Big Player. I might actually become a producer."
"Ken, there's a call for you from Houston," Barbie interrupts. "Something about flying there tomorrow for the Jockey Club."
"But I have to be in San Francisco on Friday."
Uston gives Barbie a kiss, takes the telephone from her, and snaps his replies into the mouthpiece.
Three years ago Kenneth S. Uston was a young senior vice president at the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. He was the classic short-haired, threepiece-suit company man, the poor, determined, Jewish boy who graduated Phi Beta Kappa andmagna cum laude from Yale, themathematical and financial whiz kid who leaped to Director of Operations Research at the Southern New England Telephone Company in six years, then to Senior Consultant for Cresap, McCormick, and Paget in San Francisco, then to Director of Strategic Planning for the American Cement Corporation in Los Angeles, and finally to the vice presidency of the Pacific Stock Exchange. Married,financially successful, not yet forty, he had it made-a rising prince in the corporate establishment who threw himself into his work.
"I always loved, business," he will tell us out in the lounge later that afternoon. "I can't think of a job I've had, no matter how dry or boring, where I didn't try to make it more interesting, get promoted, move up."
"How could the Southern New England Telephone Company possibly be interesting?" I ask.
He looks surprised at the question. "Listen, there are challenges there," he says. "This operations research study I did-I'm proud of it. There was a six-month period of my life where I learned simulation, called dynamic programming, FORTRAN language. I mean, I probably learned more in that period of time than I learned in three years at Yale. I knew this stuff, and then I applied it and made some changes in the way the phone company operated-not really that many because they're so goddam big and immobile-but I got off on it."
He pauses and looks over the glittering people chattering at the tables around us. Someone recognized him when he entered the room and asked him to resolve a debate about doubling down he was having with his date. It is cocktail time in the Polo Lounge.
"I have to say now in retrospect," Uston adds slowly, "there's no way in the world I could go back to doing one of those damn jobs and going into an office and having a boss and that bullshit."
In March, 1974, as reported in his book The Big Player, Uston received a call at the Pacific Stock Exchange from a professional gambler named Al Francesco.
"I understand you know a thing or two about blackjack," Francesco said.
The rest is history. Uston joined Francesco's team of blackjack players, in which card counters stationed at several tables and placing minimum bets would signal to the "Big Player" when the deck at their table was favorable; the B.P. would then rush over in brash highroller fashion, spread maximum bets over all the open boxes, get the count through another set of signals, and play to the hilt. Before the strategy was uncovered by an alert shift manager at the Sands two years later, Francesco and his team had won approximately $1 million from casinos in Las Vegas and around the world. In the meantime, Uston had risen to become the team's best blackjack expert and principal Big Player. Since 1976, he has opened the Uston Institute of Blackjack at the Jockey Club in Las Vegas; he has developed an advanced card count with the assistance of computer experts at the University of California at Santa Barbara; he has formed his own teams; he has continued to play both under his own name and under a variety of pseudonyms and disguises; and he has stretched his winnings well beyond the $2 million mark.
Winnings? Earnings is probably the more operative word.
"I don't really consider myself a gambler," Uston says. "I'm more a mathematician and scientist. I majored in economics at Yale and finance at Harvard Business School, and it's funny-I used to work at the stock exchange but I wouldn't put a dime in the goddam stock market. No way in the world."
"Why not?" I ask.
"It's a gamble. And that's another irony. When I resigned from the stock exchange, I wrote a letter to the board explaining that, in my opinion, blackjack is a unique business. It's the only one that I know where you can actually assess the mathematical expectations of winning or losing in advance and know what those expectations are. When you open a laundromat or a brokerage house or a magazine, it's a gamble. You don't really know. But when I play blackjack, I know that in ten days I have about a ninety percent chance of doubling our bank and a ten percent chance of being below that figure; and I know that if we keep going forever, we eventually have a niney-five percent chance of doubling. And I can assess one standard deviation, two standard deviations, four, and so fourth.You can express it exactly mathematically. It's the only business I know of in the world where you can do that. And it's far more assured than the stock market, where you're betting on other people's expectations of a given equity issue six months hence, given fluctuations in the international gold situation and interest rates and other factors, factors way beyond your control. So blackjack is far better business than the market."
Back in Bungalow Four at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Uston finishes his conversation with the University Club in Houston and orders drinks from room service.
"What else have you got going besides that movie deal?" I ask him.
He tells me about his blackjack institute, about his promotional work for the Jockey Club, about his new blackjack bookwhich he's selling for $97, about another book he's writing that begins where The Big Player left off, about the $50,000 challenge matches at Binion's Horseshoe and the Aladdin, about the people investing in real estate for him, about the teams he directs with an autocratic hand, about his new condominium with mirrors everywhere, about water-skiing and getting stoned and spending time with really fine ladies like Barbie and playing jazz piano ala Erroll Garner...
"I just got back from United Artists, and they're going to do an album of me playing piano with a trio-a lot of tunes that Erroll played way back in the old days that nobody knows because a lot of them he just made up. Like the other side of "Misty." When I play it, people say, "That's a fantastic piece," and they don't realize Erroll wrote that. It's called "Dreaming." He made it up probably. And then I'll play some music I've composed myself."
"Tell me about the movie deal."
"I just met with Gary Allison, a screen writer. He sort of sees a Horatio Alger 1977 guy who actual ly did it, a combination of The Sting and Rocky. And my God, he's so excited about it."
"Where do you fit in?"
"Well, I'm not sure. He's going to write it, and there'll be a guy in there named Ken Uston. I view this as a bottom line thing although there is some ego involved. I mean I'm going to be the producer of a movie, it looks like, and that just blows me out. I mean here I am at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Liz Taylor stayed in this very bungalow. Yves Montand stayed here with some chick. Yesterday I was reading a book about Howard Hughes, and honest to God, I opened it up, and it said that one of his guys put this chick in Beverly Hills Bungalow Four to wait for Howard Hughes, who was in Beverly Hills Bungalow Five. And this is Beverly Hills Bungalow Four! It just blows me out! I grew up poor, and here I am in a $150-a-night suite, Liz Taylor stayed here, Howard Hughes stayed next door, eight-dollar ham sandwiches, and everything else."
The door of Bungalow Four opens, and a tall, lissome brunette in a bikini strolls in. Uston is so involved in what he is saying that he pays her no attention as she walks into the bedroom. In a few moments I hear the shower running. Later she'll accompany Uston, Barbie, and the rest of us into the Beverly Hills dining room where, on the grand piano there, Uston will amaze us with his brilliant renditions of "Misty" and "Where or When" and "Dreaming" and a string of other Garner tunes. She'll accompany us into the Polo Lounge for a round of drinks, and pout while Uston talks for ten minutes, on a telephone brought to the table, to a blackjack player from Atlanta who wants to join one of his teams. Then, suddenly, while Uston, Len Miller, and I are talking about the spread of casino operations around the world, she-taking Barbie with her-will disappear back to Bungalow Four.
Women are clearly a big part of Ken Uston's life. "It's very simple," he says. "When I was a kid in high school, see, I got pretty good grades, high IQ, and all that stuff, and I skipped grades. When I was a senior, I was fifteen years old, and I had a really lousy relationship with women. You know, all the girls are eighteen and little Kenny Uston is fifteen. Bullshit. So then I got married, and I never really got the chance to do a lot of the kinds of things I'm doing now. I love it. I'm very frank about it. I guess you could call me a womanizer. Right now my lifestyle is a fantasy kind of a thing, really. I'm doing things that I never really thought when I grew up I'd be able to do. Even when I went into the establishment, I had to smile at people I didn't want to smile at, suck up and kiss ass and go to lunches, and I'm still rebelling against that sort of thing. Right now I don't have to do that. I can be my own person, and it's really a nice life."
There is a knock on the door. The drinks arrive. The brunette-her name is Nora-returns from the bedroom in halter top and slacks and sits at a table near Uston. Barbie is sitting on the sofa.
"Right now," Uston says, "I'm flying high."
Swirling in his flood of enthusiasm for blackjack, for music, for riches, for mathematical analyses of business operations, for women, for life itself, we all raise our glasses.
"Here's to flying high," someone toasts.
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