Ken Uston

by Roger Dionne


SCORE! The hardest working man in the video game business is on a roll. Uston turns out tip books faster than you can say Inky, Pinky, Blinky and Clyde.

Ken Uston cuts through life like a tornado across a western plain. Nine years ago, the now 47-year-old Uston (pronounced “Houston”), was senior vice-president at the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. He was a go-get-‘em, three-piece-suit man, a Yale Phi Beta Kappa, M.B.A. from Harvard, and a mathematical and financial whiz kid who had previously leaped past his elders to Director of Operations Research at the Southern New England Telephone Company. Uston then went on to various executive positions on the West Coast, before finally landing at the Exchange. Not yet 40, he seemed to be living every man’s dream. In addition to earning $42,500 a year, he was married to an attractive airline stewardess he had met while at Harvard and was the father of three children.

In March, 1974, as recounted in his first book The Big Player, Uston received a call from a professional gambler who used the pseudonym “Big Al Francesco.” By then Uston had divorced his wife, and now he would be taking the first step toward a divorce from his secure, corporate life. He joined Big Al’s team of blackjack card counters—players who can gain an edge over the casino by keeping track of the cards from one hand to the next. Casinos appreciate card counters about as much as bars appreciate loud-mouth drunks. Hence, counters, like drunks, are often thrown out on their ears and threatened with arrest. However, before Big Al’s crew was uncovered by an alert shift manager at the Sands in Las Vegas two years later, it had won approximately a half-million dollars playing blackjack. Uston had become the team’s premiere player.

It was only the beginning. In the next five years, Uston made blackjack his career. Using ever more sophisticated methods to avoid detection, he organized new blackjack teams that are estimated to have netted about $4 million in some 300 casinos from Las Vegas to Macao. At the same time, Uston sued a number of American casinos that barred him from play. Earlier this year he won a major battle before the New Jersey Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that casinos may not exclude anyone from playing blackjack simply on the basis of his skill. (However, the Supreme Court allowed 90 days for the New Jersey Gaming Commission to come up with appropriate measures to counter the card counters.)

Between jaunts around the world, Uston wrote several books on blackjack, including the monumental Million Dollar Blackjack. He directed the Uston Blackjack Institute at the Jockey Club in Las Vegas, published a blackjack newsletter, and, eschewing attire any more formal than a sweater and jeans, lobbied from Reno to Atlantic City for what he considers the civil rights of blackjack players.

Then, in late 1981, a completely new career sprang up for Ken Uston, and it came as suddenly, surprisingly and lucratively as a wildcat oil strike. In a mere four days, he wrote a little opus called Mastering Pac-Man. Within three weeks of its publication, the book soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and immediately led to two more big-selling books—Score! Beating the Top 16 Video Games and the 674-page Guide to Buying and Beating the Home Video Games. By the end of this year, Uston expects to have two more books on the market—an update of the home video game book and one on home computers. Remarkably, the ultimate blackjack player has become the ultimate authority on video games.

Though he has a condo in Las Vegas, an apartment in San Francisco and a house in Newport Beach south of Los Angeles (not to mention an office building he bought recently), Uston spent the summer relaxing and “partying non-stop,” as he puts it, at the Playboy Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, while at the same time monitoring the blackjack rules changes under consideration by the New Jersey Gaming Commission. VIDEO GAMES Contributing Editor Roger Dionne, an old friend of Uston, sometime biographer, drinking partner and Pac-Man opponent, caught up with the video game maven at his Playboy suite in July. Interrupted by phone calls, the arrival of an attractive brunette named Toni, and even a false fire alarm, Uston nevertheless talked at length about the twists and turns of his jet-setter life, and his metamorphosis from business wiz to blackjack expert to his current status as bestselling author and video games guru.

“In blackjack, the dealer always does the same thing. In Pac-man, the monsters always move in a predetermined way given how you move. In Ms. Pac-Man, the monsters tend to move randomly, although the more I play the more I’m finding there are definite, predictable patterns. They’re just more complicated.”

Video Games: When we first met in 1978, you had an Atari VCS (Video Computer System). One of your blackjack teams was in town, and they were down a few thousand dollars. Yet we still managed to play Breakout. My recollection is you beat me pretty soundly.

Uston: My God, that was a long time ago. When you talk about video games, 1978 is prehistoric. But yes, I was hooked on Breakout at the time. I used to play it about two or three hours a day. Before that it was Pong. I always used to beat my buddies at Pong, and I seemed to do pretty well at Breakout too. I think it has to do with the fact that I type and like to play piano, two skills which not only require hand-to-eye coordination, but some kind of finger dexterity.

VG: How did you react when Space Invaders came along?

Uston: Space Invaders came out in the fall of 1979, just before our blackjack team operation got started again. It wasn’t long before I was hooked on it too. Then we had a huge, beautiful win here in Atlantic City—$350,000 in ten days in December, ‘79. It was the nicest win we ever had, and we celebrated by going back to California, renting a house in Newport Beach, and buying a Space Invader machine. That machine was going six or seven hours a day every day.

Then in 1980, Asteroids came out. A lot of my friends got hooked, but I never really liked the game. Asteroids was basically thrust, fire, left, right, sort of a Defender/Stargate kind of hand-to-eye reflex game. I think it was a little too demanding for me. I like games that are more cerebral. Space Invaders was cerebral because you had to count the number of shots, and then you had to know when to get 300 points for the space ships. I was good at that.

VG: Can you explain what you like about video games? What the appeal is?

Uston: People like challenges. When they see a high score, they want to beat it. Another very important factor is that when you’re playing a video game, you forget about your ex-wife, your mortgage, your bills, your job. You forget about everything. As you know, when you’re playing Pac-Man, all you think about is that machine.

VG: As long as you mentioned it, how do you explain Pac-Man’s extraordinary success?

Uston: Every coin-op manufacturer is asking that same question, and none has come up with the answer yet. Pac-Man is a cute game, plus the controls are so damned simple; You can hold a drink in one hand and play the game with the other hand. Try to do that with Stargate and its seven controls. And even though it’s difficult to master Pac-Man, it’s not too hard to get moderately good at it in contrast to a game like Stargate.

VG: Intense video game players like yourself have become very discriminating—liking some more than others. What do you think accounts for that attitude?

Uston: I think video games appeal to two different kinds of people—those who like cerebral, mental kinds of challenges, and those who like fast, hand-to-eye-coordination challenges. For example, I think the people who like to play Pac-Man or Make Trax are quite different from the people who like to play Defender or Stargate. It’s like the difference between playing blackjack and craps: One is a mental game, the other is a fast-action game.

VG: You seem to be particularly attracted to games requiring strategy as opposed to games where you’re simply reacting to a variety of surprises.

Uston: As a matter of fact, when I played blackjack, people always used to ask me, “Well, how come you don’t play backgammon? How come you don’t play poker?” Then when I started getting into Pac-Man, people asked, “Why Pac-Man and not some of the others?” And since I enjoy piano playing and working with computers, I finally figured out what the common denominator is. In all of these things I’m using my brain to vie against an opponent with a predictable response. Maybe not an easy response, but a predictable response.

In blackjack, the dealer always does the same thing. In backgammon and poker this isn’t true. The human element is involved. In Pac-Man, the monsters will always move in a predetermined way given how you move. In Ms. Pac-Man, the monsters tend to move in a random way, although the more I play Ms. Pac-Man, the more I’m finding there are, in fact, definite, predictable patterns. They’re just more complicated.

Piano-playing isn’t random either; you play certain chords and arrangements, and as for a computer, if it’s programmed correctly and doesn’t have any bugs, it always does the same thing. So I think it’s this absence of randomness, of the unpredictable, that’s the source of my interest in all these things.

VG: How did your involvement with Pac-Man develop to the point where you could write a book (Mastering Pac-Man) about it?

Uston: The Playboy Casino opened in ‘81 and the bunnies there used to hang around a 24-hour club called the Easy Street Pub. The girls were so gorgeous, I used to hang around Easy Street all the time. After a while I started playing their Pac-Man machine with a pitboss and two craps dealers from the casino. We all got hooked on the game and started having contests. At one point, I had the high score of 50,000 when the pitboss called me up at four in the morning. “Ken,” he said, “I just got 58,000. I beat your record.” I leaped out of bed, went down there immediately, and played for about three hours until I reached 70,000.

When it became obvious to me that there were patterns in the game, I diagrammed the board, the dots, the channels and everything else. I xeroxed about 100 copies and started experimenting with these patterns. That’s when I developed what I call P1, P2 and P3 in Mastering Pac-Man. At the time I wasn’t really thinking of a book, I just wanted to master the game and get an edge over everyone. But I couldn’t get past the ninth key on the slow machine or the fourth key on the fast machine, I’d get up to 130,000 or so, but I couldn’t go beyond that.

When I went back to San Francisco, I discovered a little Chinese kid named Tommy at the Machine Shop arcade on Broadway getting up to 380,000. I thought, “Wow! What’s going on here?” A couple of people had suggested I write a book on Pac-Man, but I felt I didn’t really know enough about the game yet. So I started working with Tommy and another Chinese kid named Raymond. Every time I went down to the Machine Shop I learned something new from them, which wasn’t easy because they didn’t speak English too well. But finally, I mastered that ninth key (or fourth key), and I could get up pretty high. That’s when I decided to go ahead and write the book. It took me four days. It’s sold about 1.3 million.

“I don’t defend video games. I really don’t give a damn whether they’re good or bad. The fact is they’re here. I just think it’s fun to write about the subject you happen to know a lot about. What the hell, I’m helping these 12-year-old kids save a little money. Arcade operators don’t like it, but that’s life.”

VG: I understand the Midway people, who have the copyright on Pac-Man, were not too happy about the book.

Uston: My publisher, New American Library (NAL), wanted permission from Midway to go ahead with the book. Midway’s Marketing Vice-President (Stan Jarocki) loved the idea. I had my agent send him a copy and when the President of Midway (Dave Marofske) saw it he said, “This book is too good.” When I heard that, I saw red. That’s what they tell a blackjack player when they throw him out of a casino. It was so ironic, especially coming from a subsidiary of Bally, which has its own casino in Atlantic City. I was so furious, the first thing I did was call the President of Midway. I talked to his secretary and said, “I am printing that book. I would rather work with you than against you. But the book will be published.” Right after that I went to the expense of having 500 copies printed. As it turned out, I ended up blowing a grand because NAL decided to go ahead with the book anyway.

VG: And Midway took no action when the book came out?

Uston: Absolutely none. About six weeks later, Loeb and Loeb, their lawyers in Los Angeles, initiated letters to Warner, Simon & Schuster and NAL (all of whom have books on Pac-Man), claiming Midway had some kind of a vested interest in these books by virtue of their copyright on Pac-Man. I’ve let Simon & Schuster fight the legal battle, and recently a judge refused to grant an injunction against the printing of their book (How to Win at Pac-Man). That may well mean the lawsuit is dead.

VG: Meanwhile, you came out with two more books on video games. How were you able to research and write them so fast?

Uston: When my editor suggested I write a book on the top 15 coin-op games, I thought to myself, “Well, I know Pac-Man, but I don’t know these other games.” So I made a deal with my little friend Raymond to join me in New York and help me put this book together. I went to two really grubby arcades near my hotel in New York that had all the games and some really dynamite players. I wrote up one game a day and got the book written in 16 days. (Hence the title, Score! Beating the Top 16 Video Games.) Within three weeks NAL had shipped about 400,000 copies.

VG: Obviously it didn’t take you 181 days to write about all the cartridges that are reviewed in your Guide to Buying and Beating the Home Video Games. How did you pull that one off?

Uston: For that book I had a brilliant, fast-talking blackjack groupie I call “Harvard” as my research assistant. We came down here to Playboy, rented a suite, and did nothing for three or four weeks but play the games and write an analysis of each cartridge. We had two typewriters, three televisions and cartridges everywhere. My original goal was to do 80 cartridges, but we kept finding out there were more out there. First, we expanded to 130 cartridges and then eventually to 181. It was a project I never thought I’d finish.

VG: There are some people who argue that the how-to books remove the fun of mastering a game through trial and error. How do you respond to these critics?

Uston: I’m no big crusader or proponent of these how-to books. I just think it’s fun to write about the subjects you happen to know a lot about. How are video games books different from books on bridge, blackjack, golf, how to fix your television set, how to build a patio? I get letters, usually from kids under fifteen, saying, “Thank you. Thank you. You’re my hero. You’ve helped me go from a score of 20,000 to a score of 28,000. Can I have your autograph? Could you please write something about Dig Dug. I really like that game and I want to get better at it.” The fan mail I get indicates that people really like to read about ways of improving at these games. Of course, a lot of the kick is getting better by yourself. I’d say the criticism is more applicable to the home games, where you don’t have to put in a quarter. But as far as the arcade games, I figure, “What the hell. I’m helping these 12-year-old kids save a little money.” Arcade operators don’t like it, but that’s life.

VG: You bring up an interesting point. As you know, there are citizens’ groups around the country, trying to enact laws against video arcades. One proposal is to prohibit minors from playing games during school hours. What do you say to that?

Uston: I know some of the arcades are really funky. One of the arcades I was going to in New York was a sleazy place with some real seedy looking characters hanging around. But there are other arcades that are phenomenal. When I went on my promotional tour in April, I saw some clean, cleverly-designed, fun arcades, where they had competitions like the one that gave kids extra game tokens for a good report card from school. Most arcades, I found, absolutely forbid alcohol and swearing on the premises, and prevent kids from playing during school hours. Naturally, they’re doing it out of self-interest, but I think the pressure from parents helps keep the arcades respectable.

VG: Other critics say the games are a bad influence on people. They point to incidents like the one in Long Island in June when a fellow got into a fist fight over a Pac-Man game, stormed out of the bar, got a rifle, and ended up killing a college student who just happened to be in there having a drink. The New York Post called it “the first Pac-Man murder.”

Uston: I don’t defend video games. I really don’t give a damn whether they’re good or they’re bad. The fact is they’re here, and you and I are sort of reporting on them. There are so many different ways murders happen, how can you single one out? In Oakland, two guys were racing for a toll booth. One guy cut the other off and the guy who got cut off had a gun in his car so he shot the other guy. In bars people will argue about a women, they’ll argue about a ball game, they’ll argue about who gets served first. There are psychotics out there. If some pure psychotic is standing in line at a game and slits the throat of a guy cutting in front, well, I think you chalk that up to a human foible rather than to video games. You’ll get people killing each other over any dumb thing. The fact that there’s been only one Pac-Man murder—maybe that’s pretty good.

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