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March 11th, 2012
01:20 AM ET

My Take: Jesus would be OK with card counting

Editor's Note: David Drury is featured in the documentary "Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians” and is writing a book about his card-counting adventures.

By David Drury, Special to CNN

(CNN)–“Shackled by a heavy burden/'neath a load of guilt and shame/ then the hand of Jesus touched me/ and now I am no longer the same.”

So begins the popular William Gaither hymn. By popular, I mean Elvis once recorded a version of it, which is what it takes for a hymn anymore.

When I stumbled into a church on the outskirts of Las Vegas one Sunday morning in 2007, I was shackled with my own heavy burden of sorts. I had $80,000 in cash hidden on my person. It was crammed into pockets, stuffed into socks and strapped beneath my clothes. The pastor was just getting his sermon fired up when I slipped into a back row with all the grace of a stiff-limbed Frankenstein.

So much for going unnoticed.

The pastor stopped midsentence and stared my way. Had he cleared his throat or even made an offhanded comment about punctuality, I would have understood. Instead, he called my first and last name into the microphone, and every head turned.

Believe it or not, I had never been to this church. While I traveled to Vegas often, my time was spent in casinos, not churches.

Blackjack is a beatable game. With card counting, perfect decision-making and plenty of capital, you can gain and cash in on an advantage against the house. East Coast college students, known as the MIT Team, used the method to plunder casinos in the 1980s and 1990s, inspiring books and movies and making card counting famous. But people have been employing this winning strategy in casinos for 50 years.

Mark Treas stands outside of a casino.

A card counter assigns a value to every card as it is dealt out of the shoe. This creates a running count that always changes and allows a player to determine when a statistical advantage falls to him or her, by virtue of more aces and face cards than usual being poised to appear. More faces mean the dealer will bust more often.

More aces mean more natural blackjacks, which pay the player at a higher rate. A card counter keeps bets low when the casino has the statistical advantage and raises them high when the advantage shifts to them.

CNN's Belief Blog – all the faith angles to the day's top stories

When I lost my Seattle office job in 2006, this was the strange career path down which I found myself traveling. I was not alone.

It started when I met a guy at church named Ben. He had made a small fortune counting cards. Ben was putting a team together comprising people he’d found through mostly church connections — pastors, worship leaders and students of theology. This was the team I trained for and joined. As card counters, our common faith was incidental, but as team members it held us together.

A scene from the new documentary Holy Rollers about Chrstians who count cards at casinos.

We took our craft to casinos, from Vegas to Atlantic City to Biloxi, Mississippi, to Bremerton, Washington. We won millions of dollars. The money was not funneled into any ministry or religious consortium.

Instead, the winnings were split between those who invested in the operation, those who managed the team - which ran between 10 and 25 players – and the players, who didn’t risk any of their own money at the tables. As a player I made what amounted to a modest annual salary with no financial risk and maintained, on average, a 10-hour workweek.

We returned home with the gift of time to our ministries and families and, yes, to plenty of questions.

If the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, as the Bible suggests, what business did a bunch of Christians have throwing around big money on a game of chance? For us, chance had nothing to do with it.

To count cards is to remove the gamble. Anything can happen in one hand or on one night, but slowly, over time, the advantage you earn by executing perfect playing decisions and betting according to your advantage bears itself out. Playing the stock market is much more of a gamble.

Yes, money is attractive, and we dealt with a lot of it. Tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. You can’t withdraw $50,000 from a casino ATM and it can take a half -day of red tape to get as much out of an account at a big bank. Our assets had to be liquid.

Until we had the better sense to put it in safety deposit boxes, we kept our cash in freezers and under mattresses. For our investors and for tax reasons, we were tasked with reporting our wins and losses accurately, but at any time any one of us could have pocketed thousands without a hint of suspicion.

While we were left to weigh our own motives, as a team we were forced to trust one another with money that could have collapsed the business if it ever went missing.

We were an uncommon fellowship, to be sure. But while we never claimed a full understanding on how God viewed our activities, I felt that he never left the room. He was ever present in our musings, discussions and deliberations. With the math on our side, we took confidence in the fact that that we lacked any of the traits of wild gamblers. But were we deceptive by hiding our intentions at the tables? Were we providing a service to the world by playing a card game? The answers varied.

Mark Treas baptized a woman before heading off to a casino to card count in the documentary 'Holy Rollers.'

Which is worse? To declare your path the righteous one and retire all questions of God’s will to the back of your mind, or to seek them out?

We chose the latter, engaging the hard questions as they arose rather than pretending to corner the market on righteousness. We wrestled with them in a way that we came to know intimately the stink of our own individual natures. But there was something pure born out of abandoning an easy, comfortable existence for a true fellowship with my teammates that came with plenty of hard questions.

Casinos have a dubious reputation as the gateway to vice and temptation. I think that’s unfair. I had Internet access and a bar around the corner from my home, so the casinos never represented any particular threat to my morality I didn’t already have at my fingertips.

Maybe that day I stumbled into that Las Vegas-area church I was looking for a familiar face in a strange town. For all the secrecy and questions, maybe I was looking for a little validation, too. I knew two of the pastors on staff because they had served at the church of my childhood.

One of those pastors was at the pulpit that day. He called my name out when he recognized me. After the service I had a brief conversation with the other in the church lobby.

“What brings you to Las Vegas?” he asked.

“I’m on a card-counting team.”

“Well, God can change anyone.”

What? I thought.

“I know a young man,” he said, “who came to Las Vegas for a dodgeball tournament. Now he’s on staff with us. Who knows what God has in store for YOU?”

This man of the cloth had essentially stuffed the cloth right in my mouth, as if to say that even I could be saved from whatever silly game I was playing. But he needn’t have tossed me a lifeline because I didn’t need saving.

Engage me. Ask the hard questions. Be confounded as I am confounded. But don’t write me off. We are all in the water together. Faith is a journey, and God calls us into relationship.

I remember a man at my table once who was furious with the aggressive way I was playing. “A fool and his money are soon parted,” he said in a huff. For six years I stood ready as ever to be the fool. But me and the money, by way of card-counting wins, never parted.

The team ended with the making of a documentary about our journey. My blackjack career ended with it. I have taken to writing my tales in the hopes of forging a new journey that doesn’t involve stacks of cash. I guess I am a gambling man after all.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Drury.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity

soundoff (1,821 Responses)
  1. Jonathan

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ek7tfozS13c&w=640&h=360]

    March 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Bronze Age Peasant

      George Carlin would have made a heck of a tele-evangelist if he had been stupid enough to believe in the almighty.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  2. EM

    "To count cards is to remove the gamble." - let's think about that.

    As old Sherlock said, when all other explanations are exhausted, the one that is left, no matter how implausible, must be the correct one.

    In this case, we've eliminated the possibility that this money is earned by risk-taking (gambling), we've eliminated the possibility that this money is earned by real honest work ...

    ... so the only explanation left is: THEFT.

    I can't honestly believe that God is endorsing theft.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Jonathan

      There are ways to earn money honestly without doing "hard work." You could just be a mathmatetical genius, which is all card counting is. And use that to your advantage as the house uses it to their advantage that most people can't count cards. There's nothing "cheating" about it when it's an inner skill you posses fairly.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  3. Jeff Lucas

    This is a matter of nonessential doctrine, where the only rule is perfect Christian Liberty. A person is free to play cards, a person is free to not play cards. The only thing that matters is that the individual Christian stay TRUE to the convictions upon their conscience.IE. If they think it unpleasing to play cards, for God's sake don't play cards.

    But if you rmind and conscience is brought above these perancious principles, play cards and thank God for the fun!

    March 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  4. TXpresby

    There is so much wrong with this story! Jesus wouldn't be okay with gambling period. He also wouldn't me okay with the subterfuge that you and your team did, lying about who you were and dressing in disguise. Just because you pray when you enter the casino doesn't meant that your gambling is a mission from God. Just because you have a supposedly noble goal in keeping the money out of the hands of the "evil" casino people, doesn't make it right. You and your team need to re-think what you are doing. I'm glad that you, sir, have given it up and turned to journalism.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  5. A Modern-Day Believer

    I think this article is a fascinating examination. And I think all the arguing over whether Christianity is true or not missed the point of the article. I really admire the way these Christians asked themselves tough questions, and struggled with the morality of what they were doing. I wish all Christians took their faith as seriously as these men and women appeared to do.

    And stepping away from the topic of the article, I have to point out that many of the most fervently-religious people I have listened to seem to feel very strongly about how YOU or I should allow THEM or someone who thinks like them to control some aspect of our lives. Abortion, prayer in schools, contraception, they seem to want to use their religious views as an excuse to make others like you and me act the way they think we should act. I always enjoy debating with them how much of THEIR lives they'd like to let a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Jew control, because the control that they crave is only acceptable to them because their way is the RIGHT way. Well, all religious folk think their way is the right way. As believers, we are charged with trying to save others. But me personally, I don't believe Jesus sent me out to write laws. I'm not opposed to basing our legal views on Biblical morality. But I believe I'm to OFFER my beliefs, not FORCE them on anyone.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • MissusPowell

      Having been raised in the Christian Church, though not one that pushed the talk as much as actions of being LOVING, I am one who questions, like the child who says WHY? or WHO SAID SO? It served me as a child and it serves me as well today. I responded here only because you said all believers or religious people think they have it right, and I don't agree with the word ALL. Many are always seeking, even seem to know when something doesn't seem quite right, many who read all they kind find in their seeking, as well as listen to others along the way. Yes, there are also many who think they got it right, but who might also deny the questioning part of themselves. Lots of reasons why not to question. I know it isn't easy to question so maybe it is just easier not to, like in this story. I have come to believe that RELIGION can serve as a pathway to GOD, or whatever name you use, AND can also be a barrier to God. I also believe that inside each of all of us, of a faith or a non-believer, is something (I call Spirit) that tugs at us as if to say, "do ya think this is a good idea-really?" or "Why? or "WHO SAID SO?" There are MANY wise prophets, wise seekers. I have a real problem with INTOLERANCE-so much so that I have come to realize I HAVE ZERO TOLERANCE FOR ZERO TOLERANCE and even that isn't easy.
      HATE doesn't cut it for me in any way & I find I almost HATE the Santorums of this world, and they are many. So my own struggle is as real as can be within myself. I know there is no winning an argument with these folks but I pursue so others might also pursue in terms of that little voice within asking the questions. I have several quotes I like most of all, but for this I will quote Lao Tzu "When you think you know everything, you know nothing. When you think you know nothing, you know everything." Easier? No. Who ever said it was suppose to be easy? HATE is causing more problems in this country and seems to be true that "Hate begets Hate." Can that be one starting point? Will we Will it to be? Every one of us gets to choose. And "it isn't easy in them there hills" (I have no idea where that came from or who said it-lol)

      March 11, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  6. Jeff Lucas

    [9] Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology
    The Sufficiency of the Scripture
    #5. With regard to the Christian life, the sufficiency of the Scripture reminds us that nothing is sin that is not forbidden by scripture either explicitly or by implication. To walk in the law of the Lord is to be “blameless” (Ps. 119:1). Therefore we are not to add prohibitions to those already stated in scripture. From time to time there may be situations in which it would be wrong, for example, for an individual Christian to drink Coca-Cola, or to attend movie theaters, or to eat meat offered to idols (see 1 Cor. 8-10), but unless some specific teaching or some general principle of Scripture can be shown to prohibit these (or any other activities) for all believers for all time, we must insist that these activities are not in themselves sinful and they are not in all situations prohibited by God for his people.
    This also is an important principle because there is always the tendency among believers to begin to neglect the regular daily searching of Scripture for guidance and to begin to live by a set of written or unwritten rules (or denominational traditions) concerning what one does or does not do in the Christian life.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • LuisWu

      Who cares what an ancient book of mythology says? It's just ignorant old myths, written thousands of years ago by members of a primitive, bronze age culture. People should base morality on logic and reason, not ancient mythology.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
    • Jonathan

      The Vulcan's did have something right... See Star Trek was good for something.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • AreAtheistReasonable?

      Luis, when people like WLC try to use logic with atheists like you, you cry foul and start implying that we are twisting logic in our favor, or that logic itself does not work. What can a poor Christian do to reason with someone like you who has his mind made up to live in ignorance?

      March 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  7. Jonathan

    Why do people care so much about what some carpenter who may or may not have lived two thousand years ago thinks???? Yet they don't give a damn about the people around them here and now.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  8. big banjo

    wow....no shortage of religious fools on here.....each and every one of these gullible whacks believe in a myth.....whether it be christian or muslim they are all just a bunch of dangerous minded ninnies who want you to believe as they do in the great man in the sky or the pedophile leader they call muhammed.....they are ALL a bunch of fools.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • AreAtheistReasonable?

      If you are in a room full of people and you look at everyone as though they are foolish but everyone seems to look back at you the same you, doesnt the light ever turn on that the fool might actually be you and not them?

      March 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  9. Jeff Lucas

    if Christians read thier BIBLES DAILY, pot would have been legalized a long time ago.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  10. ud

    Best example of redefining the lifestyle that Christ has taught us. And a perfect example for misleading the young and being in this kind of delusion. Love for money? is that a question to ask even? why did anyone in here enter to casino to preach gospel? laughable and seriously deluded is the team involved in gambling or mathematically speaking card counting. Nice redefinition. And
    GAMBLING AND CHRISTIANS they don't fit in the same line. Useless article as well.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  11. Jeff Lucas

    the worldhas their imagesof what is sin and what isn't; what's allowedby God and what is not.

    But the BIBLE tells a whole different story than what the world assumes the Bible teaches.

    If you want to know what sin is, read the Bible. NOTHING is sin that is not forbidden by the Scriptures either explicitly or by implication.

    a good example is pot smoking. The world thinks and assumes it's a sin to use pot. THey have never searched the Scriptures to see what the Bible teaches about it, and as aresult the majority of Christians live with a false image in their world view.

    The way to battle these cultural persuasions is to read the Bible daily. Everybody says they do,but they don't. Reading the Bible daily is how we stay true to Biblical teachings.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      Reading the buybull is what makes most people Atheist. The problem is that every single person who follows that book interprets the stories in their own manner and there is no right or wrong way to interpret them. Atheists just dismiss it all as the fairy tale that it is...makes being an adult so much easier.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • LuisWu

      I've read the bible from cover to cover, old and new testaments. I've read a lot of other religious texts too. They're all just ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by primitive cultures. I'll take science, logic and reason any day over ancient mythology.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • tom

      Actually the world doesn't really think pot is sin, only US. Search the net, Cannabis/Ganja is legal in India, my german friends from black forest area talked about shroom hunting etc.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  12. Matthew Chapter 23

    The Pharisees and Sadducees claimed to worship the true God and yet Jesus made clear who they really were.
    Jesus also made it clear that many would call him "Lord" in our day, however they were not his true followers. (Matthew 7:21-23)

    Just like Jesus said... there are many who claim to be Christian today doing the opposite of what he taught. However he views them as workers of lawlessness.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • LuisWu

      If you insist on quoting blah blah blah nonsense from your old book of mythology, read Numbers: 31. That will give you an idea what kind of being the Christian god really is.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  13. Bravin

    The end of the big three (e.g. Judaism, Islam, & Christianity) couldn't come soon enough. What would Jesus think...he'd think we were a vile and violent culture who makes religion up as time trips along.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  14. buffalo

    Sad how religious loons can bend and manipulate the "bible" to say anything they want it to say. "God gave us reason; not religion".

    March 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  15. smeeker

    If they are so christian, why are they not giving the profits to those in need?

    March 11, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • SueEllen

      Smeeker they are not Christian. They are in fact no better than immoral people like you and they will be barred from the kingdom as well.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • EM

      smeeker is immoral? How do you figure that? How?

      March 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • Jonathan

      Don't worry Smeeker. SueEllen has got it all figured out on the cosmic scale. And if she says you're doomed you midaswell give it up now. So cruel and egotistical, ha.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • LuisWu

      Ha ha, yeah smeeker, it's your fate to be tortured forever in a burning hell by an invisible red guy with horns and a tail. What is wrong with you any way? heh heh.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • smeeker

      I wonder why when good things happen a guy named god gets the credit. When bad things happen, a guy named satan gets the blame. sueellen is such a hippicrit.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  16. SueEllen

    I pray for these mens souls because they have strayed from the path set up by our lord in heaven. They will be shut out of the kingdom just like all the immoral liberals in this country!

    March 11, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • smeeker

      Another "compassionate conservative". It will be nice to get to heaven where there will be none of them, or preachers either for that matter.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • jeff

      you're the poster-child for christian compassion...

      March 11, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • SueEllen

      My compassion is reserved for the righteous and not for the false prophets or liberal baby killers who shack up with the same gender that are leading this country astray!

      March 11, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • EM

      How do you know that? How?

      March 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • OnStreetWise

      If there was ever a liberal, it was JESUS!

      March 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • craig

      When people ask do you tell them you're a "radical Christian extremest"? Because that's what you sound like. Please don't go on the internet and speak for Christians in America, as a Christian I do not want you giving the rest of the world the impression all American Christians think like you. That would be like if all American's thought Muslim's were terrorists.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • RMG

      Are you kidding me? How can you judge someone for card counting? Card counting is not cheating by any definition of the word. Casinos discourage card counting precisely because it's not cheating, a card counter is simply using their mathematical wits to gain an advantage over the house.

      Next: All liberals are going to hell? Lady, you are going to have a rude awakening when it's your turn to be judged. Who are you to fling your judgment on people? You are not god and do not know gods will. Live your life and leave judgment to god. This man was using his god given gifts to provide for himself and his family. He was not on welfare or asking people for hand outs. This man was taking care of himself by using his mind and other peoples capital.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      SueEllen: Please enlighten us with where it says that card counting is a 'sin' in the buybull. Furthermore, this kingdom you speak of does not exist...it is man made. How are you so sure of it? You had said in one post that these men are not true christian, this is better known as the no true scotsman fallacy...who are you to judge them and does your book of fairy tales not teach you not to judge? By judging you have committed a sin and therefore your god will condemn you to hell.
      You have gone one to speak of baby killers and those who sleep with people of the same s.ex...what do these have to do with card counting? What a person does with their own body or who they love is not your business! Science has well stated that abortion before the end of the first tri-mester is not wrong and that being ho.mo.se.xual is natural. Science trumps your belief system any day because it is based on fact not fiction!

      March 11, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • LuisWu

      Lords (and Ladies) went out in the 18th century. You can spout mumbo jumbo to your invisible friend all you want but there is no one there to hear it. If you want to believe that ancient mythology is real, that's your problem, but I for one would rather use logic and reason as my guide instead of ancient fairy tales.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • SueEllen

      How dare yall attack me! I am a good and righteous woman who loves and fears my lord. It's obvious to me that most of y'all are in league with the devil! Craig you need to reexamine your Christian values if you're not outrage with where this country is going.

      I pray for all yalls souls and will weep for you when I am in heaven and y'all are somewhere a lot warmer!

      God Bless!

      March 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Get Real

      SueEllen,

      How dare you attack us'll – in league with the devil! - indeed! There is no evidence for ghosts, goblins, fairies, pixies, jinns, devils or gods. We might be just as good and righteous as you - no god necessary.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • SueEllen

      Get Real you need to get real! You will find out on the day of judgment how wrong your atheist values are and at that time it will be too late. Wake up America atheist have infiltrated us at every level and are trying to get us to stray fom the righteous path!

      March 11, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • craig

      matthew 6:1
      Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

      matthew 7:1
      Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged

      March 11, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Get Real

      SueEllen,

      Is the "day of judgement" the thing that keeps you from murdering, stealing and other nasty actions against your fellow man? I guess you'd better stick with your book then - we certainly don't want you out in the real world.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • smeeker

      sueellen – The bible says that women are to remain silent in church. I think it would also apply to a web site too.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  17. manofgod

    Jesus would tell you to obey the authority of this current world. In other words give Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Obeying the law of the land is apart of obedience. If what they did is wrong then they should be punished according to the law.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • zack

      "Give to cesar what is cesar's and give to God what is God's" is just one of the many lines that have been added to the christian bible over the years. When are christians going to realize that the bible is just a book, as is any text from other religions as well. While God may exist, no mortal could possibly understand his form, function, or reasonig. We humans have writen words into God's mouth to suit our own needs; we use our "sacred" text to justify wars, murder, torture, and oppresion. It is time humans realize there is no true God known to man, just conjured spirits of our own design.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  18. StuckInTheMiddle

    LOL, judging by the number of atheists here, earth is going to be a very nice, uncrowded place to live in a very short time.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Brett

      I agree. Please take all the Christians away Jesus. They just cause problems for all the other people on earth who want to be happy and live their life. Since we know there is really no heaven or god this is going to fall upon deaf ears. Just like the rapture, it's just a nice thought.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  19. T-bone!

    Typical Christian hypocracy.

    If you do it, it's a sin. If you do it in the name of god, it's ok.
    Next thing you know promiscuity will be ok because someone figured out what god meant when he said 'Go forth and multiply'.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  20. NewsRaider

    Yes, Jesus would count cards. He would also wear his pants down around the bottoms of his butt cheeks while wearing flannel boxers at Christmas. He'd be like, "This is how I roll ..."

    March 11, 2012 at 11:50 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.