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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. ipmutt

    This is what you get from mainstream media. Deap thought into the impact of christianity or any religious organization on mankind. This is what made this media outlet the entertainment giant it is today rather than a news source.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:06 am |
    • Steve M

      Nifty thoughts from someone who thinks "Deep" is spelled "Deap".

      March 12, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  2. Joe Sixpack

    Religion is how people rationalize their actions. They can do whatever they want as long as they go to church on sunday and drop $20 in the till. Born agains attacking clinics, ayatollas torturing people, mujahadeen trafficing drugs.. and Al Sharpton.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:04 am |
  3. Patrick

    this is why i'm not christian, theres no frontal lobe activity that says hey this is wrong because it's unfair, the only brain activity in this article is making excuses for BREAKING THE LAW. "All a man's ways seem right to him but the lord weighs the heart'.
    Paul said to respect government, the world will always hate christians who say one thing and do another.
    Wayne I LOVE YOUR COMMENT, religion is totally rationalizing what you want to do, blow up a building, break the law for money, start a cult or marry multiple wives.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:01 am |
    • John

      FYI, counting cards is not illegal.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:07 am |
  4. Billy Sims

    Binions was the last single deck (shoe) casino and hasn't used a single deck shoe in years. You can't count cards on a multi-deck shoe. I smell BS aimed at trying to lure church people in now that Vegas is a waste land and going bankrupt.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:59 am |
    • Sam

      Actually you can. As long as the casino is using any number of complete decks card counting works. In fact it gets more stable the more decks are used.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:06 am |
    • Douglas

      Yes you can, and its pretty easy, You can learn on youtube or read the book "beat the dealer by Edward o. thorpe. I can do it and im no math wizard.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:30 am |
    • bjbigplayer

      Perhaps you should study a bit before you opine on things you have little real knowledge about. Our team is only allowed to play shoes and beats them silly much of the time. (And our getting thrown out of casinos pretty constantly for playing six deck shoes pretty much says that they can be counted).

      March 12, 2012 at 6:42 am |
  5. Jim P>

    Simply proves there is *nothing* a believer will not do and still call himself a moral and religious person.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:54 am |
  6. Matt

    If I was God I couldn't care less about a few people using a SKILL to make some money especially in a city as full of sin as Las Vegas and against casinos that have destroyed many lives over the years

    March 11, 2012 at 4:54 am |
    • k191

      So how do you explain away the source of all that casino money? You just pretend you have no idea how many desperate people throw cash at the glorious altar of Saint Luck?
      Would you buy an iPhone from a company that exploits underpaid workers in hazardous conditions? Those workers could've chosen a different job, so they obviously deserve to be exploited! Nothing immoral about that, right?

      March 11, 2012 at 5:34 am |
  7. yeah right

    It's another bogus mass produced article Vegas regularly sends out to drum up interest in traveling there. Don't believe it. Casinos use multiple deck shoes and NEVER use all the cards before reshuffling as any black jack player already knows. A complete hoax.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:54 am |
  8. JW

    It's a game. Have fun, and don't forget to store the treasure in heaven!

    March 11, 2012 at 4:44 am |
  9. mmi16

    It's not gambling – it's mining money.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:37 am |
  10. Tony

    The Biblical issue with betting is not the gamble, it is where the money comes from. Your big win and great life, comes from somebodies else's catastrophic loss and screwed life. Gambling is a big "up yours" to your neighbor, hardly the golden rule.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:34 am |
    • sam stone

      it's a game of chance. no one is forced to participate.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:49 am |
    • k191

      I agree. How many people have looked at David Drury and been excited by his "winnings"? Then responded by making ignorant bets, placing their faith in luck (instead of God) because they think Drury won through luck (when really, he won by cheating)?
      Casinos make money by exploiting people who are either desperate or greedy. While the desire to win a full week's wage for only 10 hours of "work" might be considered greedy, the big problem is who LOST that money. Casinos don't mind if a few people win, because it stimulates the greed and recklessness of others. Even if the casino lost on Drury as an individual, every casino corporation comes out ahead, every night. And if Drury caused a casino to NOT come out ahead, they just adjust the odds slightly to compensate for whatever was lost. If Drury doesn't feel bad about cheating, do you think a corporation would feel bad about stacking the deck?

      March 11, 2012 at 5:22 am |
    • John

      It's difficult to judge. Certainly a lot of people gamble for entertainment knowing that they will likely lose some money. But then there are addicts that suffer from gambling. It's a lot like drinking ... some drink in celebration and joy, while others are are destroyed by it. It's good for some and bad for some. It's not possible to generalize.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:16 am |
  11. Joe B-b-b-b-bob

    I don't have any problem with this, but such a lifestyle can hardly be considered a "calling," or making any kind of positive contribution to the world. It is purely self-concerned (like almost everyone's lives). While I don't see anything particularly wrong, neither is there anything exceptional or praiseworthy here.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:34 am |
    • sam stone

      i agree

      March 11, 2012 at 4:50 am |
  12. bigeasyman

    Odd to read an article about someone bragging about all their money.... he must have lost it all and now has nothing left but stories.....

    March 11, 2012 at 4:26 am |
  13. bigeasyman

    Looks like he finally lost, everything including his soul.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:24 am |
    • sam stone

      and you are qualified to determine this how?

      March 11, 2012 at 4:50 am |
  14. Ferit

    nowhere does he explain why Jesus would be OK with it.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • Joe

      WHo cares he made millions.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:34 am |
  15. toadears

    Loons.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:23 am |
  16. Marley

    "Jesus" of the Bible cannot have an opinion.

    He never existed then, and he certainty does not exist now.

    So stop using imaginary Jewish people to make you feel better about your issues.

    March 11, 2012 at 4:19 am |
    • Michael

      BUT DUDE HE PROMISES YOU MAGIC UNPROVEN AFTERLIFE IF YOU TELL HIM HE IS YOUR JEWISH ZOMBIE MASTER BRO!

      March 11, 2012 at 4:22 am |
    • toadears

      and of course the holocaust was not real and Jews run the entire world. Got a few myths of your own, huh?

      March 11, 2012 at 4:24 am |
    • SSampson

      Well – He very probably existed (The Bible is really a historical record....)..... However the whole 'god' and 'Son of God' thing is another story... Man's quest to understand his purpose and to aleviate the fear of death....

      As an atheist, I have NO idea why some atheists (very few) toss out the various texts of the Bible entirely as fiction...Many stories are based on fact interwoven with faith based interpretations.... Keep the history – toss out the fantasy

      March 11, 2012 at 4:32 am |
    • Joe

      What does not beleiving in a story book charector have to do with believing in the holocaust?

      March 11, 2012 at 4:36 am |
  17. polycarp pio

    All mamon is unrighteous,yes, even the money your paid when you work a real job,ITS ALL UNRIGHTEOUS, as long as you did not steal it you can use it. I dont recommend going to a casino because of the types of people who frequent those places. Will you go to hell for card counting , no, you go to hell for not believing on the only beggoten son of God, the LORD JESUS CHRIST. Just my 2 cents. PP

    March 11, 2012 at 3:57 am |
  18. JimmySD

    Usually the jeebus types don't seem to be interested in statistics of facts.

    I thought they bet by going with the "lucky" machine or the table that's "on a roll".

    March 11, 2012 at 3:56 am |
    • Joe

      I bet these so called jesus freaks play the lottery but that is ok because it is diferent some how.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:37 am |
  19. Wayne

    Religion has always been about rationalizing whatever you really want to do.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:50 am |
    • Al

      And anti-religious bemoaning has always been about promoting one vice and smearing it over everything else that is good.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:10 am |
    • Michael

      @Al that goes double for religion. Please read up on the crusades, Salem witch trials, Lord's Resistance Movement (lol@ those who didn't know what it was before the stupid kony video), and manifest destiny. What atrocious, murderous things have American Atheists done?

      March 11, 2012 at 4:19 am |
    • Michael

      @Al oh that's right you see anyone who believes anything that contradicts your fairy tales as a direct personal attack. You over exaggerate it to get people on your side while babbling in foreign tongues and rolling on the floor screaming HELP ME JESUS!

      March 11, 2012 at 4:20 am |
    • Al

      @Michael As I said, thousands of years of existence, billions of believers, unendless acts of kindness and goodness, and you come up with how many examples? Judging from your tone, like you're the one taking the attacks personally.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:26 am |
    • Al

      @Michael I'd like to rip the heart outs of certain Popes and Kony myself, dont care if that sounds not loving. But another tragedy is letting these animals be used to smear the many good that others have done in the name of love and forgiveness.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:40 am |
  20. Steve

    How can Jesus support card counting? He's about giving not gambling.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:46 am |
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About this blog

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.