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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. Liqmaticus

    This explains it well:

    http://christianity.about.com/od/whatdoesthebiblesay/f/isgamblingasin.htm

    March 11, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  2. a

    Counting cards is neither illegal, immoral, nor unethical. You are sitting at the table looking at the cards the dealer throws in front of your face. When you play ANY card game you should be watching what cards are played. The better your memory and tactics, the better you will be at any card game.

    On the other hand, casinos can refuse service to anyone they want. The people they most want to refuse service to are the people who win on a regular basis. That's their prerogative.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Smart Human

      You MUST be a christian if you think counting cards is ethical.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • reason

      You probably meant to say that you must be a Christian if you think counting cards is UNethical.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • Smart Human

      No, you moron I said exactly what I meant to say. You're just too stupid to comprehend it.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Muslims have very highly ethics.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • The whole world

      Muslims just have a real hard time landing planes.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Muslims have very poor grammar, and they worship a smelly brown God.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  3. daTrutha

    Why should anyone see anything wrong with card counting? Oh sure, the casinos say it is wrong since, as put in the story, it takes the gambling out of gambling. But hey the casinos set the odds and rules. And if you have the memory to add and count and get that statistical edge so you can win. go for it. Very few people can do so successfully. And the Casinos do what they legally can to stop it. Mulitple decks in a shoe, shoes are changed out after so many cards so you don't get into those low card situations, and other items reduce the ability to card count.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • reason

      You are right. Based no logic there is no reason card counting would be unethical.
      However this blog is not about being rational, it is about religion.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
  4. Jew converted to Christianity

    Reasons why Atheism is TERRIBLE and unhealthy for our children and living things...

    † Atheism is a religion that makes you stupid, ignorant & blind.
    † Atheism is a disease that needs to be treated.
    † Atheism makes you post stupid things (90% of silly comments here are posted by closet Atheists)
    † Atheist are satanic and have gothic lifestyle.
    † Atheists causes problem in our religious society.
    † Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith.
    † Atheism won't take you to kingdom of heaven and paradise.
    † Atheism making you agree with Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot & other terrible mass murder leaders.
    † No traditional family lifestyle, no holidays, no culture, boring and feeling 'outsider'
    † Atheists are angry, drug additcted and committ the most crime.
    † Atheist try to convert people over internet because they feel "safer" behind closet.
    † Atheists do not really exist, they just pretend that they don't believe in God and argue with religious people.
    † Atheists have had terrible life experience, bad childhood and not being loved.
    † Most Atheists are uneducated... No Atheists could run for presidency.
    † Atheism brought upon the French Revolution, one of the most evil events of all of history.
    † Atheism cannot explain the origins of the universe, therefore God exists.
    † All atheists believe in evolution, which means they don't believe in morality and think we should all act like animals.
    † The Bible says atheism is wrong, and the Bible is always right (see: Genesis 1:1, Psalms 14:1, Psalms 19:1, Romans 1:19-20)
    † Countries where Atheism is prevalent has the highest Suicide rate!

    †† Our Prayers goes to Atheists to be mentally healthy and seek their creator ††

    March 11, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Observer

      Copy and paste nonsense from a troll.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Smart Human

      You're an idiot.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Mike

      Doesn't God say to not cast judgement? And to love the sinner? Not feeling the love. You are a terrible Christian. See you in HELL. Ahahahaha!!!

      March 11, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • daTrutha

      Riiggghhhhttt..... Obviously you've never met a lot of atheists or refuse to. My niece is an Atheist (and I like to tease her she does have a faith ... and that faith is there is no God ... she really dislikes that). But she throws most of your copy and paste trash out the window. I have a belief in God, she doesn't ... but you are the one with hate in your heart to post such garbage.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Mastodonrocks

      Lol

      March 11, 2012 at 6:28 pm |
    • Sarah

      I am an atheist and I forgive you.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • LuisWu

      Believing in an imaginary, invisible, supernatural being in the sky is a mental illness. Believing in science shows intelligence.

      March 11, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      This ex-Jew prays to atheists. Wow. Are there meds for this ?

      March 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  5. Smart Human

    You can't trust a christian... ever.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Convert to Muslim and see the good changes in your life today.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • Smart Human

      My life is just fine without some religious nut trying to convert me. Get a life!

      March 11, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • LuisWu

      The only religion dumber than Christianity is Islam. Mohammed was gay for little boys.

      March 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  6. common sense

    This just shows that the idea of a god is just a figure of your imagination.

    Jesus would be OK with anything, if you wish to think that way.

    Got no job? Go rob a bank. Jesus would be OK with that.

    I'm glad I'm an atheist, because the hypocrisy on one end, and the extreme religiousness on the other, is sickening to see.
    One does not need religion to be morally upright.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • Mastodonrocks

      Well said. I like to think I live a good life. Help all those that I can, love all I can and even forgive those against me. Yet I still am atheist. I dont know how I do it.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • just sayin

      President George H W Bush said an atheist is not a patriot and should not be considered a citizen of the United States. How do you do it? You steal value from the God fearing people and the God fearing nation you infect with your evil.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Observer

      just sayin,

      Bush said he talked to God all the time. Apparently God didn't trust him enough to warn him about the coming 9/11 attack or to tell Bush that he was starting another war for false reasons.

      lol.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • Clarifying

      Observer,

      Agree.

      Not that it makes a whole lot of difference, but @jest sayin was referring to a statement from the elder Pres. Bush (41).

      March 11, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Observer

      Clarifying,

      Thank you. I want to know when I am wrong. My statements were valid but not relevent here.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Oblio

      just sayin – How do you do it?

      I find it easy in my Canadian heart to fuck your country over in every way I can imagine, moron.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • just sayin

      Observer
      Wrong Bush.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Observer

      just sayin,

      Yes. I was wrong about who said it. I read it too fast and assumed it was George W. Bush since he talks to God all the time and it sounded like something he would say.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • just sayin

      Oblio
      you would be twice as useless then wouldn't you?

      March 11, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • just sayin

      Not too "observant" of you was it?

      March 11, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • Joe Schmo

      Being morally upright will not save you on judgement day. You must be perfect according to God's Law. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" Romans 3:23. "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account." Hebrews 4:13.

      For those who are not perfect, God has already given you a way out from his righteous judgement. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. " John 3:16

      March 11, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  7. alamb

    Total nonsense, this guy is using his pure smarts to win, nothing else. He just plays Blackjack much better than anybody else and is able to win. Welcome to the Olympics! Good for him. Nothing unchristian about this. Those who whine here are jealous of his abilities and his wins. Just admit it! LOL

    March 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • reason

      Card counting is only ethical if you are rational about morality. Religion however rejects reason and based on Christianity this is immoral.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  8. Ex. Atheist

    I have found that if you put an atheist in a bunker
    and start getting shot by a hostile force that they
    all start to pray and ask God to get them out.
    What is up with that?

    March 11, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Observer

      What's wrong is that you are confusing KNOWING there is a God with WISHING there is a God.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
    • UncleM

      Just not true. I've been in a life threatening situation and imaginary deities were the last thing on my mind.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • momoya

      Atheists in life-threatening situations do not cry out for god, repentance, or salvation.. The facts speak for themselves; such scenarios merely represent the wishful thinking of believers who are most motivated in their god belief by their own personal fear of death.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • Phillip Bellho

      What's up is that religion is a stress reaction. The need to believe in a higher power to save one's life or someone they love is overwhelming when faced with the ultimate stress (death). It's why churches congregate in the poor areas – the poor are the most stressed, and they need the most hope. I've also noticed that the last thing many people have said before they die is "Oh, God." But they still die. What's up with that?

      March 11, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
  9. Observer

    Gambling is nothing new for churches. Catholic churches have run the lottery of bingo for years.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  10. Kevin

    Sounds like a fun example of the old expression "using your god given talents."

    If casinos can make their money off of using probability to their advantage then what's wrong with finding bias functions/methods that offset that advantage? There's no rule that says the outcome _must_ be due to random chance alone.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
  11. www.twitter.com/hlmelsaid

    unbelievable.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  12. Alan

    Contrary to what is posted here, card counting is neither cheating nor illegal. You can't be arrested for counting. You will be asked to leave the casino, but you won't be arrested. Using basic math skills is hardly cheating...

    March 11, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
    • reason

      Why are there so many rational people making comments here? This is a blog about religion. You are not supposed to use facts and logic!

      March 11, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  13. Dave

    There's nothing morally or ethically wrong with card counting. It's an intelligent way to play a game. Casinos don't like to lose, so they don't like people playing intelligently. If anyone's actions should be frowned upon it's those of the casinos providing a game and then not letting people win with their intelligence.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • reason

      That is the rational view and not the Biblical view, which are two entirely different things.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  14. Boney Lee

    This whole "religion" section of CNN is just weird. Rarely is it actual news, it just seems to be a way to get traffic to their site. CNN used to be just news. This is not news. Also, god is fake.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Eman de Riuqer

      God not being real... also not news. 🙂

      March 11, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  15. EKZea

    It's not cheating or dishonest to be smart enough to count cards. As a matter of fact it's not even a crime.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • reason

      Stop being rational. This is a blog about religion.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 11, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • Observer

      Like what?

      March 11, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Mastodonrocks

      You've already posted this exact post about three pages back. Prayer dont change shi7.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • Mike

      Doesn't God say to no cast judgement on others? And to love the sinner. Not feeling the love.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • just sayin

      Feel the Truth, the love is in the Truth.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • Eman de Riuqer

      @just sayin... I love how you've capitalized the word "Truth". This is good, to disambiguate the word "Truth" from truth, whereas without the capital letter, it's the antonym of falsehood, referring to a state in which words accurately reflect reality as, at a minimum, they are understood by the speaker or writer, and ideally the recipient of the message as well. "Truth" on the other hand, as you've used it, is evidently what the writer or speaker BELIEVES to be true, meaning really just an opinion, which could easily be FALSE. (In the case of people who use this word this way, probably false more often than not.) This is similar to how advertisers and other professional liars use the word "Truth", with or without quotation marks.

      As for Atheism not being healthy... religion is not healthy for ANY living things, especially people who are intellectually children, but whose bodies have matured to adulthood, and who should, therefore, KNOW BETTER.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • just sayin

      Truth is God's Truth as opposed to your "truth" which in fact is a lie. In order to embrace atheism you must first lie to yourself. That done you will proceed to corrupt as many innocents as possible with your self proclaimed "truth."

      March 11, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • Observer

      just sayin,

      "In order to embrace atheism you must first lie to yourself."

      No. In order to embrace atheism you must first start trying to think logically.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • just sayin

      How do you "think" logically when you have determined to follow a lie?

      March 11, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What "lie" are atheists "following"?

      March 11, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
    • IKYABWAI

      just sayin
      "How do you "think" logically when you have determined to follow a lie?"

      You would know all about following a lie, dear. Why don't you tell us...

      March 11, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  17. james anon

    This guy is an ibsult to Christanity.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Mastodonrocks

      More like poster boy.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  18. Eric

    Card counting isnt a crime. It's just frowned upon.

    Like over-charging for gasoline.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  19. StGermain

    I don't feel using math to gamble is immoral. It would be different if the players had someone feeding them the information about the next card, but to simply play the odds successfully shouldn't be against the casino rules – it's not against the rules for the casinos to set the odds so they win the majority if the time.

    To use your God-given talent to make a living at casinos is no different than jockeys who are small and can ride making their living riding thoroughbreds, a doctor who uses a gift for science to go into medicine or an engineer to use their abilities in math to design a new machine.

    It's far more egregious to allow casinos to ban players because the casino doesn't like the fact that they win.

    StG

    March 11, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • KS

      Amen.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • Mastodonrocks

      I like how you justified it for yourself. It was well worded and everything. Sounded like a reasonable argument until you used the phrase "god given talent", then I realized you are only justifying gambling to make yourself feel better. Almost though, almost.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  20. Phil

    Dishonest people always find a way to justify their crimes. Always.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • RealGlaird

      Well Phil, card counting is not a crime. If the dealer chooses to show the player a card, there is no law made by man or God, that prohibits that player from remember what card he was shown. Or just because something is unsightly, do you believe it to be labeled a crime?

      March 11, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
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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.