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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. Milton

    It should be illegal to ban counters from a casino. The casino plays an actuarial game and is betting that, in the long run, they'll win (and they do) yet somehow it is immoral if someone else does the same thing? Then it is immoral for the casino to exist. A casino allows people the opportunity to make money if they are willing to assume the risk. This is the same proposition of ANY business or entrepreneurial venture or holding stocks. These too must be immoral activities. In fact, based on this ethical position, capitalism itself is immoral (and one could easily make the argument that it is-Karl Marx did a good job of that). Let the casinos assume the risk of having card counters if they offer the game of blackjack. Casinos must weigh the probability of making money overall on blackjack given its popularity versus the risk of having "parasitic" card counters play. If the odds of card counters walking in the door is high enough, they can always shut down the game. Too bad. Corporations issue coupons regularly and some find loopholes and use the coupons to actually make money and get free food. Is this immoral? Corporations game the system. Why not us? I'm not making the claim that card counting is immoral, I'm only making the claim that if it is, then capitalism itself is immoral for the same reason.

    March 11, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • matt

      yet you miss the fact that the government gets millions of dollars in TAXES.
      why would the government cut their own nose off to spite their face (yes, i realizes all politians have 2 faces and 1 can be spared, but still)
      to the government and to big business we the people are sheep. to be herded and controlled to justify their ends for the "greater good"
      The example of a casino given here is just 1 aspect of a system that is failing.

      Think on this:
      when america was great it was because the will of the people lifted our great nation to it's heights.
      America didn't begin a downward spiral until the government trampled us underfoot reach is even loftier aspirations

      March 11, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  2. john thomas

    So it is ok to break the rules for your god? cheating for jesus ? Is that like all the killing in the name of god ? what a religion, it only good for certain people like slavery only if you do it proper by the rules of god, all hog wash !!!

    March 11, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  3. Art

    This is really nothing more than a shameless advertisement.

    March 11, 2012 at 7:46 am |
    • opinionguru

      ...Agreed. This is not an article on belief; CNN shame on you for running this. I doubt our Savior would engage in this activity at all.

      March 11, 2012 at 7:50 am |
    • Milton

      What are they advertising? Christianity or gambling? Aren't these the same? They don't call it Pascal's wager for nothing.

      March 11, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  4. unowhoitsme

    Everyone has vices...some just don't admit it and stand around judging others. Get off your crosses; someone needs the wood.

    March 11, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  5. Henry

    Working definition of moral behavior: Take no action that harms others.

    March 11, 2012 at 7:44 am |
    • Milton

      Take no action that harms others is pretty difficult in practice. Is reduced profits of casinos "harm"? Based on this logic, NOT going to a casino is unethical because it "harms" their profits so that doesn't seem to work. In fact, taking this position to a reductio ad absurdum level would result in every person going broke trying not to "harm" any business therefore card counting is not harmful and therefore not unethical since both casinos and card counters are using exactly the same set of rules: both parties theoretically risk losing money but both parties know that in the long run, they will statistically never lose.

      March 11, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  6. DsOpinion

    I wonder if the organizers/investors were all christians as well, or if they just decided that christians were easily manipulated and less likely to walk off with the cash. I also find it ironic that none of the money went to any churches, but instead they donated their "time." I believe its Matthew 19:24 that says "Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

    March 11, 2012 at 7:41 am |
  7. god is a imaginary toy for mentally retarded pinheads!

    jesus was a p_i=m-p!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    jesus s u c k e d more cox than all priests combined

    March 11, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  8. Greg C.

    One can twist scripture to their liking but that doesn't justify their actions and no Jesus would not be ok. Jesus threw out the tax collectors that were defiling the temple and to portray scripture as supportive of a lifestyle of gambling (calculated or otherwise) is as far from what the scripture teaches as black is from white. Whether one chooses to gamble or not does not take away from the pain and suffering it has dealt to so many. There is no justification for Gambling regardless of those it employs and those that have beaten the odds. The countless lives it has destroyed far away exceeds any so-called pleasure or benefit one could possibly derive from the momentary euphoria of winning. Countless lives have been destroyed and families torn apart by its allure. No, Jesus would not condone anything that would lead man to stumble.

    March 11, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  9. ME

    You have a brain...use it...If you are counting in your head..it can not possible be illegal....means you are just playing strategically...

    March 11, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Time Use

      I am a Christian. I count cards too. 17 years in a row on Friday AM during a week-long convention I would begin play at 2 AM and play for about 3 to 5 hours. My loss limit grew from $100 (year 1) to $300 (last time) and was deemed entertainment money. I played the Golden Nugget alone. I won every year from $1700 to $4500 at the two-deck, $5 min. but only alone table. I did not make it a living because God has better use of my time, and money is not my life goal.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  10. Jack Vigdor

    Christians will rationalize the sacredness of any immoral activity.

    March 11, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • UrCorrect

      End of Discussion.

      March 11, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • B

      that is so true! once ppl put the responsibility of their actions on a higher being they will rationalize anything. It's not gambling if you do the math? so sad

      March 11, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  11. Jt_flyer

    The GOP speaks for jesus these days. Ask them

    March 11, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • squawks

      Oh, get off the politics in any article that is printed. I question all the "Christian" members of Congress and anyone else who makes and hoards a million dollars. The greed and use of money as power, is the opposite of anything Christian. It isn't the elephants and donkeys.

      I don't see anything in counting cards as being immoral. The "house" should abolish cards if they don't like it. Insurance is the same thing, counting on collecting premiums and trying not to pay out. And greed goes on.

      March 11, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  12. Rick

    Blackjack is a game of mathematics, so using mathematics to your advantage isn't immoral. Not to do so makes you a sucker. Good for him.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  13. Sandy

    shame on you CNN!! Leave Jesus out of gambling.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:33 am |
  14. Peter Grenader

    CNN: Is your web editor 14 years old? This is one of the most ridiculous arguments I have ever seen published by a global news service.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  15. Jt_flyer

    If Jesus would support newt he'd support anything.

    March 11, 2012 at 6:29 am |
  16. sam

    Karma they are both frauds scamming the hopeful masses!!

    March 11, 2012 at 6:11 am |
  17. yinga

    no sir. no sir I don't like it.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:32 am |
  18. Cameron

    Sorry, CNN, but thats the dumbest question I've heard in a while.

    Thou shall not steal. Done.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:29 am |
    • Jon O

      Don't wear clothes mode of two fabrics. Done.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:52 am |
    • sparknut

      Who says it's stealing? It's calculating risk, which is exactly what the casino does.

      March 11, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • squawks

      What is stealing except for the odds the casinos have set up to get our money. If someone has brains and can count cards, more power to them.

      March 11, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  19. Jay

    It does not matter in the least who does, or doesn't, support card counting. When a dealer figures you are winning so often that you must be counting cards, he can shut you down in an instant...by re-shuffling all the cards for every hand...so you have no discards to count.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:25 am |
  20. bluemax77

    I hear he was sh$t hot at Texas Hold ‘Em, especially when playing the money lenders – kick there ass every time, ‘till he lost one time and freaked out...

    March 11, 2012 at 5:17 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.