SI Vault
Ray Hennedy
April 16, 1979
Keith Taft, a devout Baptist, and Ken Uston, a high-living ex-stockbroker, blackjacked Vegas casinos for a small fortune with the help of a computer
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April 16, 1979

The Odds Couple

Keith Taft, a devout Baptist, and Ken Uston, a high-living ex-stockbroker, blackjacked Vegas casinos for a small fortune with the help of a computer

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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.

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...?

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