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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. harry

    Jesus would not be Ok with GAMBLING, much less card counting. You must be crazy to think that Jesus will go this far.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • EvolvedDNA

      Harry..faith by is very definition is a gamble, there is no difference..you cannot say truthfully that god exists with 100 percent accuracy ...you are playing a hunch passed on to you by most likely your folks..Life is a gamble some make it some do not..welcome the real world.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  2. jls

    As many have pointed out, the counting card era ended before this guy made his "millions". This is obviously fiction, but the author wisely recognized that it would sell better as nonfiction. The juicy Christ connection is the only thing that makes is salable. I don't doubt he visited a few blackjack tables as part of his research.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  3. Qev

    Why not...apparently he supports Bingo...and soothsaying...and bearing false witness against thy President.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Qev

      Oh, and lest we forget–pedophilia.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Beth

      And lets add wiping out whole cities, innocents and children alike, because some of the people "sinned". The story of these card counters are like a Dr. Seuss book compared to the ruthlessness and bloodthirsty nature of the Bible, particularly the Old Testiment. In fact when compared to the Crusades, Salem Witch Trials, and numerous atrocities carried out in the name of God, these card counters are pretty whimpy Christians if you ask me.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  4. Colin

    That's the beauty of religion being totally made up. One can assign whatever personality traits one wishes to its cadre of supernatural beings with zero risk of being proven wrong.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  5. Joshua Ludd

    Gambling, lying, and cheating. Whats not Christian about that? Oh yeah... literally everything. Even the non-religious could tell you that what this man is doing is wrong, and I say that because I am one of those non-religious people. Its a great illustration of how religion can be used to legitimize conduct that is wrong.. lying and cheating. Just because you can fool yourself into thinking your supposed messiah would be totally cool with what you are doing doesn't mean its not wrong.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  6. S-Hug

    My take: "Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers... "

    March 11, 2012 at 10:56 am |
  7. barbara

    Like the man said, playing the stock market is much more of a gamble. He was simply approaching a game with logic. To know how to use logic and not apply it, is plain stupid. Hats off to him. I see nothing wrong with anything that he did. He was being a professional gambler and he was reporting his winnings and paying taxes.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Qev

      Well put...Bravo.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  8. Mark Billings

    I played blackjack from 1981-1996, and have basically been barred from playing everywhere.

    Ironically, one of the things that caused me to reject religion altogether is the reality underlying the game of blackjack. There is a correct way to play any given hand vs any given dealer up-card, and it doesn't matter what you think! Of course, you allowed to think anything you want.

    However, if you act on an incorrect belief, you will lose in the long run. A nice encapsulation of life, i think.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • GodPot

      "reject religion altogether is the reality underlying the game of blackjack."

      You mean a card praying team would not be as successful as a card counting team? What? Maybe they just aren't praying hard enough if they keep losing...

      March 11, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  9. greg

    With enough thought you can pretty much justify anything, but we know right and wrong. Was this right or wrong, I think it was wrong and this mans search for approval just seals the deal for me.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Why, EXACTLY, was it wrong to use his brain to beat a beatable game ? The cassinos want to cater to the stupid. If, once in a while THAT is not true, too bad. They are in business. There is NOTHING immoral about using your brain.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • Matt

      Why is it wrong? The house is betting on their advantage to take money from the players, The player is betting on his advantage to take money from the house. They are both in effect playing by the same set of rules/

      March 11, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Robert

      Gambling winnings are dirty money because they take food off of families' tables, clothes off families' backs and mortgage payments that need to be made. It also contributes to people's gambling addictions. Family break-ups occur. Marriages are destroyed. If this fellow believes that Jesus approves of activities that contribute to peoples' destruction, then he does not know our Heavenly Father the way that I do.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • rob2tall

      right VS wrong-but who decides is the important factor.Are the casinos right by taking all your money on a promise that you may win more than you spend? Or that you may win at all?
      In the mid 1970s I worked in several casinos,card rooms,in the San Francisco Bay Area-in security. I learned pretty quick that there is only 1 game in the house that you have any odds against-its blackjack-and many of the other games are rigged-regardless of any BS any gambling commission states,there are loaded dice,weighted roulette wheels or magnetic ones.There are far more dishonest manners at any casino to rob you than any card counters.And as a guard I had profile sheets,with pictures,descriptions,profiles of all known card counters. The casinos monitor you from the moment you enter any casino-they share data-PIs follow you around or casino security.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  10. palintwit

    "Getting Rid of Teabaggers" or "Palintwit's Final Solution"

    1. Walmart advertises a big sale in the gun, knife and ammo department.
    2. Walmart promises a free autographed copy of Sarah Palin's crosshairs poster with every weapon sold.
    3. Walmart promises plenty of free trailer parking.
    4. Hordes of teabaggers inundate Walmart. Birthers show up too.
    5. Nuke Walmart. Simple.

    This method of attracting baggers works equally well at a nascar track.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Common Sense Chuck

      Typical liberal nut job response!

      March 11, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • rob2tall

      have you ever considered a course in anger management?

      March 11, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  11. across12

    you can do whatever you want with your life, nobody cares.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  12. Use sense people

    First off it is gambling so no, or at least supporting the gambling industry.

    Secondly people really need to read their bible and get off of this idea that only God can judge. If only God can judge then no one has the right to say hey any terrorists, pedophiles, etc.. are wrong. Its all about where your judgement comes from. You shouldn't judge in a demeaning manner, but in a manner backed by the bible with love and compassion. To often judgement comes from someone looking to better themselves, we are responsible to tell each other when we are doing something wrong. Even if not for biblical reasons, but as a responsibility to society.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  13. Lee P

    It is your money, and we are in a democracy, thus you do as you want, as long as is legal and nobody can tell you anything about it. In Las Vegas, well, you can take a few thousands and either gamble away or just pay for s.e.x. with it. Its all legal, and you are not hurting anyone. People often jump the gun very quickly to judge others, instead of concentrating on themselves.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  14. jon

    hello everyone,
    are you aware that the name jesus is only 500 years old and it isnt the true name of the messiah that people call jesus. it is YAHUSHA! I ask you to research this out. jesus is a greek and latin name. the messiah wasnt greek or latin. he was hebrew. i ask you to search this out. if you search it out, in the hebrew strongs concordance 5483 the only part of jeSUS that is hebrew is the sus. sus means horse. it is a created name. and the name god isnt the name of the Creator who created you. it is YAHUAH. god means the deity of fortune and wealth. this is all apart of the deception among the deceptions that are going on in this world. christianity is a religion of rome who was created by sun worshipper constantine. again i ask you to search out the name of YAHUAH and YAHUSHA.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Name*Chedar

      No Jesus name in east when he took the "silk" road to travel to India and Tibet to learn Buddhism is "ISSA"

      March 11, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • KnowTheTruth

      Only too true and most don't even know it. Constantine was the biggest con-man in the history of the world. He did change Christianity to save Rome and it didn't work. Its about time to tell the truth of the manipulation done to Christianity and how the teachings of the Christ have been perverted. The Jewish god is also a work of fakery and stranger than fiction. Christianity as we know it will have to change or perish as will Islam who piggy backed onto Jewdaism. Christ did not call God jahweh or allah, he called him Father. Think about it. And I don't think Christ would care about that gambling either.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  15. lilylol

    Oh, hahahahahahaha! The Onion is always so funny! Wait, what?? This was reported as actual NEWS on the front page of CNN??? What the flip is this country coming to? This. Is. Not. News. It. Is. So. Stupid.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Common Sense Chuck

      I agree with you 100%

      March 11, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  16. reason

    @Knightsix, they were using statistics to make a living off casinos. They were not gambling.

    Also who are you to judge? Christian theology says only God can judge. Christians should be among the least judgemental yet more often they seem to be the most.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  17. Charles Darwin

    Who cares what a mythological dead guy would think about anything?

    March 11, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • reason

      A lot of children care what Santa Claus thinks.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  18. downinfront

    I love cnn.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  19. Lawrence Thompson

    Card counting is no worse than what the casinos do, they just have the protection of law. Mind you, I am not condoning the counting or cards or the gambling lusts of Vegas either.

    As for the question, "What would the casinos do?", they would simply break your hands or just kill you. What happens in Vegas stays six feet under in Vegas.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  20. What would jesus do?

    slap a bar maid's hind end. give two thumbs up. and a Hallelujah!

    March 11, 2012 at 10:30 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.