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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. Jeff Lucas

    they never let me post the important parts that makes everyone agree that the bible teaches a little different than what the world teaches; the world says "abstain". The Bible says "be ye sober"

    March 11, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
  2. bluemax77

    If I’m winning, I’m good...

    March 11, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  3. Jeff Lucas

    To summarize; The Christian world view and the ONDCP world view can be sharply contrasted. In the ONDCP world view, the Truth is "everything is toxic" and application is "just say no". In the Christian world view, the Truth is "God's creation is good" and application is "be ye sober". The Scripture provides us a sharper, more accurate understanding and response to the subjects of cannabis use in society than the secular drug use prevention community. And as Biblical passages are weighed and discovered as this more accurate Truth, it should bear witness that the Gospel message of Jesus Christ is Truth. We should lend thought to this greater spiritual Truth for which the Bible is compiled as evidence of; That Christ made atonement covering and salvation for our souls. "For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that he world through him might be saved. God publicly displayed him as the mercy seat accessible through faith, all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, but by grace are you saved through faith, and it's not of yourselves, it is a gift from God. For whosoever believes in Him will not perish. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

    March 11, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  4. Jeff Lucas

    To further discover the long term consequences of these unnatural teachings, we can observe the characterizations and acts employed in the war on pot have a resemblance to the warnings in Scripture regarding the signs of false teachers (which are directly linked to signs of the coming Rapture of Christ's church). The war on cannabis shares at least 2 key qualities as the Gnostics. In the presence of the negative implications of statements such as "there is no way to teach this to you in a brief, " and, "everything is toxic, there is no harmless substances. ", the Christian should be reminded that encouraging formalism and asceticism as the result of false teaching is traditionally known as the activities of demons [6]; and the acknowledgment of liberty of conscience in a free moral agent is the formation of evangelical theology- for this very reason the Reformers left the Roman Catholic Church! [7]. The binge drinking phenomena we see in the just say no generation, as well as the licentious rebellion in the 60's, is evidences of the "fleshly indulgence", or antinomian development that results from these ascetic teachings. [8,9,10]

    March 11, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  5. Sweet Pee

    The lord just told me tell you all that he wants to make one thing perfectly clear to you. Mary did NOT fool around ever and any of you that insinuate that Mary was not as pure as mid-winter snow will burn. I'm taking questions for our Lord until 10pm central time.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Jeff Lucas

      do you think pot should be legal? Do you think it's a sin to smoke pot?

      March 11, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • Sweet Pee

      I asked our Lord and he said. "No, pot is not even close to being as bad as alcohol. Alcohol is directly responsible for 77.8 percent of the prison population. If you would smoke pot and leave everything else alone you would be ok. Just stay away from all alcohol and drugs.".

      March 11, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Is just sayin an alien?

      March 11, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Gezellig

      Do you have a Biblical reference for this?

      March 11, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Sweet Pee

      I am not a biblical scholar, I am merely the messenger for our Lord.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  6. Robyn Harris

    Thank God that you've gotten out of that degrading moral cesspool
    of addiction to casino gambline that will take a statistically consistent
    portion of a person's money and found yourself a new addiction that
    can take ALL of your money.

    BON CHANCE ! ! !

    March 11, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  7. Jeff Lucas

    There is a certain contrasting quality between judgments within the world view of the proponents of the war on cannabis and Christian theology.
    The "everything is toxic" philosophy embraced by the ONDCP toxicologists and controlling offices such as the FDA and DEA is the exact opposite of sound Christian theology [1,2], and the corollary truths built upon it are not Biblically founded, and can be proven to be Biblically incorrect. -And if it's not Theologically true, if it's not true in the Bible, than it isn't true at all [3].
    No Bible believing Christian can accept any "toxicology" studies or reports from the ONDCP in good conscience, when they consider the axioms that were used to build their studies. Do Christians adhere to "scientific" theories about big bang and evolution? No, and we can also reject the observations of the ONDCP about cannabis on similar grounds when all things are considered in a clear systematic theology. One must "Test The Evidences" that come from outside Scripture.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  8. Jeff Lucas

    They should write an article called "the conscience of the pot smoker", and look at the harm that people do to their consciences by smoking pot when they think God doesn't want them to.

    And then explain how pot prohibition is a "STUMBLING BLOCK", by presenting Scriptures, Traditions, and right reason.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  9. Rick Sanitorium

    This article made me lose my cookies. After reading this article me and Newt have decided to get NASA to build us a spacecraft so that we can go to the moon baby. yeeeeehhhhaaaaaawwwww!!!

    March 11, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  10. Sweet Pee

    I feel very very good all the time because I am 100% sure that I am going straight to heaven when I die and all my enemies will be frying in heIl for eternity. Ouch, it's going to be so hot for you. I love my religion and it's the one that God gave us. It's so important that you BELIEVE. If you have any messages for God I'm taking his messages for a few hours.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • momoya

      Sure.. Tell god that I'm following his example; he doesn't believe in any higher beings (he is god of all gods), and neither do I.. We're both atheists.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • Sweet Pee

      My brother, our Lord just told me to let you know that he cares not whether you believe in him or not. The only prerequisites for eternity in heaven is to be a good person and to never ever even insinuate that Mary was not as pure as the mid-winter snow.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  11. New Yooooork

    USA is a Christian nation, that's why we have Christian holidays and things are closed on EASTER & CHRISTMAS, not on any other religion's holiday 😉 The 10 commandment are on federal buildings, all presidents Christians and IN GOD WE TRUST on currency and motto 🙂 I gotta love this!

    Yeah Yeah 'seperation of church and state' is all bull....

    March 11, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • St. Louis baby

      Santorum says that seperation of church and state makes him throw up 😀

      March 11, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • turkey

      So that's what makes us a christian nation? I thought it was the burning crosses and lynched African Americans.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • RhondaMO

      Put the Muslims on a boat with all the illegals and sink it in the gulf!

      March 11, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • tallulah13

      If you are interested in what the founders of the government of the United States thought about christianity in their own words, check out this website:

      http://freethought.mbdojo.com/foundingfathers.html

      You will find that they recognized the dangers that christianity and other religions posed to freedom, and so deliberately separated church from state.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • Gezellig

      As a Christian I like separation of church and state.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Once the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) was asked, "What person can be the best friend?" "He who helps you remember Allah (SWT), and reminds you when you forget Him," the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), counseled.

      Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) was further asked, "Who is the best among people?" Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) replied, "He who, when you look at him, you remember Allah (SWT)". Such a friend reflects qualities of love, mercy, honesty, service, patience, optimism, professionalism, and the entire lifestyle taught by Islam.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • Jeff Lucas

      we are NOT a Christian nation. We are a PAGAN nation, that happens to have a lot of Christians living in it.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      How many times must I say this... "in god we trust" comes from the quran(Quran 7: 89). Are you still in love with this motto since it's referring to Allah?

      Also on your dollar bill is a pyramid. The pyramid and single eye is the common representation of the Egyptian mythology as the Eye of Horus, an ancient god of the Egyptians. So, now are you a nation under Horus?

      March 11, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hey, New Yoooooooork, I'd have a bit more respect for your spew if you actually knew how to *spell* 'separation'.

      Moronic twit.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
  12. God Bless CHRISTIANS

    2.3 billion Christians worldwide... proud!

    I love that we grew from 0 to 2.3 billion in 2000 years 🙂

    March 11, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • turkey

      Don't have an orgasm about it. It doesn't really mean anything.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • tallulah13

      In the translation of the Holy Quran Chapter 7 verses 80-84 Allah(God) says;"We also (sent) Lut: he said to his people: "Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? (80) "For ye practise your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds." (81) And his people gave no answer but this: they said "Drive them out of your city: these are indeed men who want to be clean and pure!" (82) But We saved him and his family except his wife: she was of those who lagged behind. (83) And We rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): then see what was the end of those who indulged in sin and crime!

      March 11, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • RhondaMO

      Now let's ge Muslims down to 0!

      March 11, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Please ignore the person who stole my name to praise islam. This person is a coward who is too afraid to make up his/her own name and must use my name to tell lies. I have made no secret that I am an atheist.

      If this person is a christian, he/she must think that their god is pretty stupid if they think changing a screen name to tell lies will fool him.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  13. Father Michael

    WWJD ? What would Jesus do ? Good question, though.. Although a pair of dice, back in their days, would probably be the game of choice and play. Those Romans'.. WWJD ?

    March 11, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • Jack

      You mean those Jews ..

      March 11, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  14. Scared for the future

    We shouldn't be counting cards. It's bad I got kicked out of the cvs once for knocking over a display case of cards because they were all singing different songs to me. Wake up people hallmark is tapping into our brainwaves and telling us to buy buy buy these worthless pieces of paper. I didn't get my lady a valentines card and she screamed at me so I threw the tv out the window because that's how they spy on you. It's all the illuminati man we need to get with it because it's only getting worse!

    March 11, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
  15. ToughPoo

    With you leading the way Mr. Brainiac!

    March 11, 2012 at 9:45 pm |
  16. RhondaMO

    These men call themselves Christians?

    March 11, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • GodPot

      Right, followers of Christ who do as he did and go into the temple money changers and learn how they make their money and outsmart them at their own game!! What was that he said, "Blessed are the bet makers.." or something like that...

      March 11, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • bff

      So do all the women who use birth control.
      Catholics are basically people who like to have their cake and eat it too.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • sccl

      It is only considered bad because the theives that own the casinos don't want to include you into their stealing ways

      March 11, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  17. Scared for the future

    I've been saying this for years. The more Jupiter strays from its orbit and the more the oligarchical muslim underground continues to subliminally influence our purchasing habits things like this are going to keep happening. The answers are out there you just have to read between the lines, use numerology as your key, and refrain from listening to the radio in your shower!

    March 11, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      OMf'nG
      If you are serious..there are pills for that.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  18. Jay

    Are you kidding me? The only people that are honest when it comes to money in these United States are the retarded. Our ultra rich, like the wall street bankers most recently, get taxpayer bailout welfare when they break the law because they are "too big to fail"? If I get a misdemeanor not only do I get prosecuted but I have a tatoo on my forehead for the rest of my life that says I can't get have a career in this country. Bank robbery is immoral but mortgage fraud is ok? bs...

    March 11, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
    • Credenza

      Thanks Jay, that sums it up pretty accurately. Cheers.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, shut your drawers, Credenza, ya moron.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
    • Mike

      How do we get Jay elected?

      March 11, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  19. mudbone9

    The only people that don't like card counters are the mobsters running the gambling joints. If cards can be counted to give an edge over the house then maybe there is a problem with the game. Can't blame the gambler for trying to win with his brain. It should be all good if they aren't out right cheating.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  20. Keith

    These comment sections show me that America is on the path to ruin.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • Jay

      It's not just on the path, it's arrived.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
    • Scared for the future

      Youre crazy man

      March 11, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
    • Ashrakay

      You don't have to read these comments to figure that out. Just look at the republican candidates for president.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • RhondaMO

      With the illegals and Muslims running amok in this country it's already in ruins 😦

      March 11, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      So why is you powerless god letting this happen to her "christian nation" ? So much for her plan.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Scared for the future

      Rhonda baby check it out 2/3 o the USA is Muslim?!?! They've infiltrated our pork industry and have put nanites into our food that are slowly making us think like them! The only way to stop this is to adapt a bread only diet (I read somewhere Muslims don't eat wheat!) and to purify all your water.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • RhondaMO

      My grand babies will not get to grow up in the America I did and that's sad

      March 11, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • Illegal posing as a Muslim

      Please leave America so I can have your house.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Illegal posing, Keith doesn't have a house. He lives in a trailer down by the river.

      With his mother.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:50 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.