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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.

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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. Caral from SoCal

    But. It is against the rules. Jesus, remember, He's the one that said, "render unto Ceasar that which is Caesar's?"
    I'm thinking He would NOT like card-counting.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:44 am |
  2. Just another guy

    Well, if he isn't ok with it, it doesn't matter to me! lol

    March 11, 2012 at 3:43 am |
    • Bazoing

      Then why did you reply? Did you know there are billions of people in the world? The rest of them did not reply.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  3. AdmrlAckbar

    Ha, is CNN really this desperate for more belief web traffic? Oh the economy... Well then bring in the polarized evangelists from both sides of the belief spectrum yet again. . . .Here we go again.. folks mindlessly quoting the bible sparing with folks who seem to have no grasp of scientific research beyond what they learned on South Park.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:33 am |
  4. lastofall

    The Lord would not approve of trusting in uncertain riches, nor any manner of trusting riches. The answer to money is, look and se whose image and subscription is on the money, that is who you restore it too.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:32 am |
  5. CC

    He writes, "As a player I made what amounted to a modest annual salary with no financial risk and maintained, on average, a 10-hour work week." This to me is funny. The casino needs 1000's of player hours a week to get their advantage to kick in yet, this guy does it with just 10hrs/week?

    March 11, 2012 at 3:28 am |
    • Steve

      only because the goal of the casino is to make millions in that week and the goal of the card counter is to make a modest living.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Steve M

      The players are paid based on their expectation (theoretical). They don't worry about getting into the long run, the team as a group gets into the long run via their aggregate play and only the investors worry about the flux.

      March 12, 2012 at 6:25 am |
  6. Bazoing

    Incidentally, the other players do take a hit when you card count. You bet against the uninformed bets. The real moral question is whether this is God's provision, or preying on the foolish rather than letting the Casino do it. Maybe the next thing these guys can do is follow a robber around and get the victim's possessions first. That way they will be in the hands of these so called "Christians" rather than in the hands of godless thieves.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:26 am |
    • Smith

      B.S. Your bet absolutely does not affect the players at the table. You can play just as easily with or without other players beside you. What matters is the count in the deck, not what other players do.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:39 am |
    • Herf

      Your play does not affect any other people at the table. Maybe in the short term, but not in the long term. Your actions hurt or help the other players randomly and it averges out over time.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:46 am |
    • The slave

      maybe you are thinking of the proverb: Pro 21:27 The sacrifice of the wicked is abomination: how much more, when he bringeth it with a wicked mind?
      Well judge not lest you be judged.
      Back in Roman times the "Christains" were considered Gamblers. Because the Christians were trading their present life on planet earth, that the Romans considered known and a safe bet, for a closer more intamate relationship with the Lord Jesus in the future.( which by the way is so infinite and awesome that it cast a shadow on this present life making God closer even in this life as it is) That is because they did not know Jesus/The Truth it seemed like a gamble to love Jesus.
      The point is, at the end of this article he declared himself to be a Gambler. I am pretty sure God ment that he wrote this article for your well being not for monetary reasons, which I am sure in the eyes of most gamblers is a gamble.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:37 am |
    • Steve M

      Your betting according to the count has zero impact on the other players. Blackjack is not a zero sum game with regards to the other players at the table. Now if you leave when the count goes bad, the other player may have to play some extra rounds in that bad shoe as a result of your departure, but the same information is available to all players at the table. Someone who chooses to use their brains and watch the cards as they come out should not feel guilty for any potential losses of someone who decides to play with their brain shut off and eyes closed.

      March 12, 2012 at 6:28 am |
  7. Chuck The Canuck

    Jesus supports what ever one group of delusional xians can convince another group delusional xians he supports.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:18 am |
  8. /sigh

    The bible does not condone anything that requires intelligence.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  9. Bazoing

    Jesus would disapprove of many ways of making money without contributing to the general progress and welfare of the group. This includes speculation. For instance buying homes low and selling high causes the young to have greater difficulty getting a home. The Nevada law against card counting is absurd, but so is casino gambling.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • oneSTARman

      I agree with you – especially about speculators – the Wall Street Kind – PARASITES who DRAIN WEALTH from a Society while adding No Value – and then there are those Like During the MELTDOWN who Set Up BAD DEAL – Bet AGAINST Them after they SOLD Them then BOUGHT the BANKS they Caused to Go down with OUR TARP MONEY after Kicking Out the Homeowners they were supposed to Help. Who ARE The CRIMINALS Here.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:25 am |
    • Steve M

      There is no law against card counting. It is not illegal to see and think simultaneously. I know someone who has won more than a billion dollars in Asia playing horses and is one of the biggest philanthropists in the world today. Gambling does empower someone to do positive things with their assets.

      March 12, 2012 at 6:32 am |
  10. oneSTARman

    The only thing IMMORAL about Counting Cards is that the Casino Kicks you Out for Doing It. It is Only OK to Play as long as you don't WIN? Come On – Who is CHEATING Whom?

    March 11, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  11. CC

    This article is mostly nonsense. Even when you have the advantage say 1% it means very little. I have waited hours never to see a shoe turn 'ten rich". Most casinos limit the number of cards you can see. Another words they shuffle 6 decks but you only play with four. The 2 decks you do not see has the assumption that these unseen cards have an even distribution of high cards and low cards. This is not often the case. So you get close to the end of the four decks suppose before the cut card comes out and you say wow the end of the shoe is ten rich, so let's bet big ( some bet ramp) and those high cards never come out they are all stacked in the 2 decks you don't see. Seems to me the guy wants to make some real cash on a book and includes fake tales of big wins.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:12 am |
    • Pibblelover

      If the casino you go to cuts off 2 decks, then you should be going to another casino. That takes away your advantage. Why play when you don't have the advantage? Then it's just gambling. Look for a casino that only cuts off 1 to 1 1/2 decks in a 6 deck shoe.

      March 12, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  12. Gerald

    Well, Jesus was a nut job and therefore he probably would be aloof on this subject....but his crook followers who made him a saint and a son a God would certainly not have a problem with stealing a penny They stole a body to make it disappear to make him a martyr and lied about him coming back to life...so forget about integrity. Same goes for Joseph Smith, founder and con man who invented LDS...purely to take a penny from other loonies.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:12 am |
  13. A typical xtian fundie

    My take: Jesus values line up with how I'm already living my life. Coincidence? Not at all...

    March 11, 2012 at 3:06 am |
  14. OCCUPY WALLSTREET FOR CONGRESS 2016

    Hmmm....

    Not sure when they counted cards, but every modern casino has a lot of decks hidden in a shuffling machine. You can't count cards anymore at any casino in my area.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • Steve M

      You need to travel more. There are more casinos with beatable blackjack games now than ever before and Ohio and Massachusetts next in line to open their doors. You have to travel. I put more than 30,000 miles on my car last year.

      March 12, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  15. CC

    q

    March 11, 2012 at 3:02 am |
  16. Brandon

    Coming next week, If Jesus had a Facebook account what would it look like? The answer may shock you.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:57 am |
  17. IhaveID

    @person of name; Any religion that does not take the bible or any "good book" literally is interpreting it's meaning and taking the stories out of contect to suit their purpose.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • Steve M

      When Jesus told a parable did he intend for it to be taken literally or for the underlying meaning? People who can only accept the Bible as an exact literal history of God's relationship with Man are simpletons.

      March 12, 2012 at 6:37 am |
    • Justme

      Why is it when we read any book, we can see when it's stating facts and when it is being symbolic? Yet, when we read the Bible, we can't? Jesus knew we were thinking people and knew we would know the difference it symbolism and fact. No we shouldn't pluck our eye out if it causes us to sin, but that graphic image does let us know how bad things we see can affect us. However, the Bible does straight talk about healings and other miracles, those are literal. And the one thing I wish all atheists would learn is that all the Bible makes sense if put in proper context of itself and sometimes the surrounding culture.

      March 12, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  18. Brandon

    Really? This is what you guys came up with?

    March 11, 2012 at 1:50 am |
  19. Steve the Goat

    I count how many times i rip a ripe one out of my rear. If it causes paint to peel, I count it as a double. The son of the space ghost is fine with that too. Mainly since imaginary creations generally don't have a problem with anything. And even if they did in their stories, it wouldn't matter since they aren't real.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:46 am |
    • StupidWhinyLiberal

      It must be exhausting for you! How do you spend so much energy, hating something in which you don't believe, while defending an indefensible theory?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:11 am |
    • Sagebrush Shorty

      Sounds like you are not playing with a full deck.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  20. hemo

    well considering jesus supports murder, hate, and bigotry i dont see why he wouldnt support cheating

    March 11, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • StupidWhinyLiberal

      The terms "murder", "hate" and "bigotry" are fluid: Their definitions roll with whatever their society accepts at the time. It was once a crime to kill an innocent person and now it is accepted as "normal". Today, "bigotry" and "hate" are thought crimes; committed by people of less moral stature than yourself. Might I ask: Do you believe there are too many people in this world?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:20 am |
    • rightwingwac

      Hemo...really? Come on now, you've been seriously misinformed and if think you've read that anywhere you seriously need to brush up on your comprehension skills. Show me where Jesus supports murder, hate, and bigotry. I think you're referring to muhammad. There's a big difference in the two philosophies and you need to find the source of your mis-infomation and smack them firmly in the back of the head for making you look like a boob.

      March 12, 2012 at 10:16 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.