"I'm sitting in an airplane, looking down at what I have just barely escaped. I think that my jaw is broken. I won $100K this week in the Bahamas, getting physically thrown out of their casino." Ken Uston contemplates further."This line of work is highly lucrative, but becoming dangerous. I mastered the game of blackjack, winning too much, and I am being thrown out, beaten up for being too good." How did I end up here?
Ken Uston was born Kenneth Senzo Usui on January 12, 1935 in New York, N.Y. He spent his childhood living in Long Island, N.Y.;later New Haven, Connecticut. Ken's father, a Japanese businessman in Yokohama came to this country in 1929. He became a U.S. citizen in 1953 and taught in the foreign language department at Yale University. Ken's mother Elsie Lubitz a native of Austria, was a long time volunteer worker helping the needy and teaching reading to children. They were a hard working middle class Christian family.
There were 3 children, Ken, the eldest, Nancy, and Lynn. Elsie remembers the early days. "I was taking piano lessons, the kids were watching. I was having a rough time, learning to play. One day Kenny just sat down and played the piano himself, just like that. I was amazed. He was only three." They later learned that he had an high IQ. A child prodigy on piano, he also enjoyed many honors and successes while growing up. He excelled in a variety of sports and games of skill...a high achiever who skipped grades in grammar school and entered high school at age 14 years old.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 1941, there was a knock on the Usui's door, in the middle of the night. FBI had come to take Senzo away. Kenny was 6, and his sister Nancy 3. "I asked, where are you taking him? " Elsie remembers. "We'll contact you soon" they answered. "They even came to our bedroom and watched him get dressed. We learned that he was at an American-Japanese camp at Ellis Island," Elsie remembers. After three months he was released to his wife's custody. The family was relieved to have Senzo safely home. Things had changed though. They were chastised, prohibited from having a radio or a camera in their homes. "Kenny was taunted and teased by the kids, called dirty little Jap," Elsie sobs. "His teacher asked him what kind of name Usui was and he answered, "Irish. He would scrub his skin claiming that he was rubbing the Japanese off of him."
The Usui family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, after World War II. Despite the isolated Japanese "backlash," Ken's family flourished in their post WWII life here. Senzo got a teaching job at Yale University and Ken attended the University of Connecticut before transferring to Yale. He graduated in 1955 at age 20, Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Economics. He continued his graduate work at Harvard University where he earned an MBA in Finance. He was in the U.S. Army reserve for eight years, achieving many awards being honorably discharged as second lieutenant . Ken had inherited a strict work ethic and a code of honor from his father Senzo. He excelled in all his pursuits, and was ready to conquer the business world.
This is the time in which Ken met his future wife and mother of his three children Betty. "I was a flight attendant at the time", recalls Betty. "We met at a Harvard party where Ken was playing the piano. I was attracted to his outgoing personality and obvious camaraderie with his peers. He was truly a gentleman. We dated one year and when Ken was about to begin his career he proposed to me, with an exceptionally beautiful diamond".
I was born in 1960, at which time my father was working at the Southern New England Telephone Company in New Haven, Connecticut. His first official job, Ken started as a staff assistant and worked his way up to Director of Operations Research within 6 years. My sister was born in 1965 when our father worked for Cresap, McCormick and Paget as a senior consultant. Ken was in the upper 2% of income earners at 32 years old. He was relocated to California in 1969 and soon worked for the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange in San Francisco.
Ken moved his family to Marin County, where he worked as Vice President of the Finance, Personnel, and Planning Department of the Exchange, working his way up to the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Pacific Clearing Corporation. They lived in a house on a hill in Tiburon with views of the San Francisco Bay peninsula and the Oakland Bay bridge. Surrounded by blue water and hills, they shared life with the elite and the "posh" country club members. My brother was born here in 1970 when Ken was at his peak. He made a good salary, had a beautiful family, lived in a picturesque neighborhood with good friends, living the American Dream.
Ken discovered that financial success was fruitless unless it is heartfelt. He had achieved an executive position in a conglomerate, only to find that back stabbing and greed were at the top of the ladder. He loathed the corporate world , feeling trapped in the throes of the establishment. The counter culture was brewing in San Francisco at this time. A time of moral decadence , anti-establishment and freedom of expression. Ken was on a search to "find" himself, ending up changing his lifestyle overnight. He ventured out one evening, which was a night that forever altered his life. At a party he met the pseudonymous "AL Francesco", the man who introduced him to blackjack card counting. With the chance to master the game and the possibility to make a serious amount of cash, he began to study blackjack on his lunch hours, extending his studying for hours until he felt confident to try his hand in Las Vegas. He conquered the casinos and began to gain notoriety. The Stock Exchange was not happy with the attention that Ken was receiving as a blackjack player. Stories about his winning blackjack were hitting the newspapers and airwaves. The notoriety and attention became too much and Ken resigned from the Exchange to pursue playing blackjack full-time.
Ken conquered the world of Blackjack in the 1970's-1980's. In doing so, he lived the high-rolling, bachelor, celebrity life. He thought he had finally found his Dream. "I had everything money could buy, an exciting life, limos, parties, comped suites at Caeser's Palace, and women, lots of women. But I still was not happy" Kenny would say. "Kenny was not happy in his entire life," his sister Lynn once said. "He used to call me on the telephone and say,"God Lynn,"what's wrong with me? Why can't I be happy?" And I would reply "They say geniuses are not necessarily happy people."
Ken had a legal battle not only with the casinos, but also with his ex-wife that was on- going until his death. He wanted to strengthen his relationship with his three children . When asked about regrets in his life Ken once said "I could have been a better father, and this is one thing that I resolve to do in the future." His relationship with his mother was also strained. "I have never gambled and I was not happy that he was in blackjack," his mother Elsie would say . "You don't spend a fortune at Yale and Harvard to become a blackjack player."
Once Ken's blackjack hey-days ended, Ken tried to mend fences with his family. He frequently planned exotic trips with them, he flew everyone to Japan for a family reunion, took his children to Disneyland. "My father flew me to Los Angeles to watch them tape his appearance for the "Merv Griffin Show". Afterwards we went to Chasen's for dinner. One of my favorite memories with him was when I was around 20, and we toured the monuments of Washington D.C. in a limo. And went to the McDonald's drive-in afterwards. Any moment with him was magical".
Ken was devastated when his father Senzo died, at age 79. As he watched Senzo die from cancer after a long illness, Ken became afraid of aging. "I don't ever want to get old" Ken would say. He made a dedication in his book "One Third of a Shoe" to "Senzo Usui". The man who made it all possible and who I deeply disappointed when I changed my name. I am proud to be a Usui. I love you Dad." To his mother Elsie he wrote""Elsie Usui who held sales in her gift shop so I could join the other Yalies on a Florida spring vacation. I've neglected your love far too much, Mom. " Elsie was devastated when her husband Senzo died and then three years later her son Ken died. She never recovered from the grief. But she lived on until she was 87 years old. Ken's sister Nancy lives in California and has three children and four grandchildren. Ken's sister Lynn resides in Maryland and has two children.
Ken's passion in life was music. Jazz music was his vehicle away from the soullessness and monotony of life. His spirit was transcended when he played piano, filling his soul with peace. He emulated his idol Erroll Garner. He was truly baffled by his skill in playing piano. He told his sister Lynn "When I play the piano, it's not just me. I just sit there and watch my hands move". He could not walk by a piano with out playing it, and he was known to jam with some of the best musicians.
His son John remembers, "one of the most moving events in my father's life was in 1979 at church, when he accompanied a black gospel singer on piano. He claimed that the energy completely transcended him to a higher realm of happiness." Other highlights in Ken's life were when he played piano in the Salem Jazz Festival in 1982 and the time he had Erroll Garner to his penthouse apartment in San Francisco to celebrate his 40th birthday. A friend remembers, "There were two baby grands in the place, and these two larger-than-life personalities and talent are jamming. It was incredible, and Kenny audio taped it all too". When Garner died in 1977, Ken made dedications to his idol in all of his books. "To Erroll: Over two years have passed since you've progressed to that Great Jazz Festival In The Sky..and you still provide me daily pleasure...through your music and mine."
Ken chronicled every detail of his life through his books, countless photo albums and scrap-books, diaries, audio and video footage, and extensive files. He collected stamps, coins, newspaper/magazine articles, and hotel keys. His key collection spans hundreds of hotels where he stayed throughout the world. He created large picture frames for his walls of foreign coins and betting chips from casinos world-wide.
The last year of Ken's life was spent in Kuwait. The ultimate challenge for him was trying to adapt to this conservative lifestyle . He was in a strange country that forbids gambling, wine, woman, and song, the very things that he had a penchant for. "I had culture shock the whole time that I was there, " Ken said. "Life in Kuwait is so totally different from life in the U.S. that ex-pats, even after being in the country for years, never cease to be amazed by, and discuss, their newest findings."
The political situation grew more tense daily in Kuwait, as the U.S. , Great Britian and France were sending in warships. The Soviets and China got involved, and Iran and other Saudis were threatening each other. "We have been joking about a world war. But it's beginning to sound like a world war situation. If Iran and Saudi go to war, little Kuwait, who TIME magazine says has been called the Switzerland of the Mid-East, is going to be between Iraq and a hard place", Ken writes. He goes on to comment " maybe it's time to get a little more seriously concerned."
Living in Kuwait at a Hilton suite Ken worked and tried to beat the boredom and loneliness. Out of desperation, he joined an amateur theater group as the piano player. They were putting on Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple". Ken was introduced to the Kuwait underground through this association along with the U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait who played the role of "Felix". They became good friends and attended parties together where Ken observed the diplomatic community, always with their contraband alcohol - as they were able to disregard being immune from the Kuwait restrictions.
Ken's full account of his experiences in Kuwait are in his book"An American in Kuwait". This is only available to read on this website. It is built on personal experience and makes fascinating reading for the person interested in understanding the depths of how an entirely
different culture works. It is an interesting first-hand view of the turbulence embedded in this country and how the emergence of Kuwait's invasion by Iraq was cultivated.
After living in a rigid Arab country for a year, Ken retreated to Paris, France. He spent time relaxing at the cafes with Margaret, a Brit whom he met on a weekend stint to London. He played piano, and wrote about his experiences in Kuwait, reflecting on the danger that he had eluded. " At this time, I am thankful to be alive. The Cathedral of Notre Dame has become one of my favorite places" Ken wrote. He was not outwardly religious but Ken encompassed what people search for in religion: compassion, forgiveness, and faith. He had his Bible with him always and felt compelled to read it now.
The evening of Sept 17th, the night that he died, he was jumpy and on edge, worried about the night's activities. "Ken was pacing back and forth, he kept putting things away, then taking them out again", Margaret explained. "I was leaving for London that night, and he was having guests over to play some jazz. He was concerned about the character of these guys who he had just met at a jazz club the night before ,"they don't look me in the eye, the one guy makes me nervous " he said."
Margaret had been calling him for days from London and when there was no answer she went back to check on him on September 19th. The apartment manager was summoned to open the door and they found him motionless. "When I saw him I immediately knew that he was dead. I became hysterical, and called the police. They came right over, sealed off the apartment and notified the U.S. embassy", remembers Margaret.
Both Ken's mother and Sister Lynn knew that he was in trouble on the 17th. "I woke up in the middle of the night dreaming about Kenny," Lynn remembers. "I had a feeling that something was wrong and I couldn't lose that feeling." His mother Elsie remembers " On the 17th I became unusually concerned and worried about him. Call it mother's intuition." Ken's long-time friend and business manager Jerry Fuerle was the first person in the States to get the distressing call. "I knew Kenny was in trouble by the tone of the message on the machine from the U.S. Embassy," Jerry later recalled."I never thought that he was dead though."
They found him propped up in his chair with his portable electric keyboard in his lap, eyes closed with a smile.
His family was immediately notified via telegram. They flew to Paris to claim the body, one of the hardest things to do in life. He was cremated at Pere Lechese, in good company. "We stayed in his apartment and spent days packing his belongings. Some of his personal belongings such as his lucky gold medallion necklace from the Jockey Club were missing, along with his $500 and $1000 bills, never to be found", said his daughter.
We filed with the Probate court the necessary documents in order to Administer our father's Estate. For us to gain control of his assets we had to locate them. "After a lot of bureaucracy, his personal belongings in Kuwait were finally allowed to be packed up and sent to us. My Dad's friends at the Embassy inventoried and facilitated the shipping and payment. It was ironic that they got the shipment out right before Kuwait was invaded by Iraq," accounts Beth Anne. "Closing my father's Estate was a challenge in so many ways. I was devastated that he died, and I was determined to do what I thought he would want us to do. We dealt with the IRS, law firms, book publishers, and claims against the Estate. Their was real estate investments, and unfinished business. The Will was not updated, and had to be challenged. His personal belongings were also in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and New York."
Eighteen years later and the prolonged interest in Ken Uston still exists. The gaming industry is one of the largest today along with video/computer games. Blackjack is still popular, and players are still trying to count cards to beat the House. Ken's books are still selling, and he is still remembered as one of the greatest blackjack players ever. Blackjack Confidential Magazine devoted their whole issue in November 1997 to remembering Ken Uston, 10 years after his death. There is still interest in Ken's screenplay about his life.
Our father was an intense man who was generous, loving, and affectionate. He was not only our father but also a public figure who was intoxicated by fame He was on a search to traverse the borderland, to know himself and find peace of mind. His son John reflects," I recall back, when I was 9 years old, my moment with my dad. He took me to my favorite music store, bought me drums and signed me up for drum lessons. That night he played the piano and I was on the drums jamming with him. People were amazed that we could improvise together and sound like we had rehearsed, but we never rehearsed."
The memory of this man is alive. He left behind children and grandchildren who are carrying on his lineage through their own music, talents and personalities. Ken Uston's legacy lives on...
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