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. OS Bird

    Yawn...Just another attempt by CNN to get people all stirred up.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Brandon


      March 11, 2012 at 1:51 am |
  2. god is a imaginary toy for mentally retarded pinheads!

    jesus gave rimmers when he got h u mp e d by men

    March 11, 2012 at 1:40 am |
    • Sweet Pee

      Our Lord just instructed me to tell you, please, please, just don't say anything bad about the Virgin Mary, like anything saying that she was not as pure as the mid-winter's snow. That is so, so, very, very important to know that the Vegan never, never fooled around.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
  3. Damo

    CNN really needs to get rid of this Belief Blog. The attempts to find "news" about ancient religions are getting ridiculous.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • Mark

      And yet here you are posting on it despite many other stories you could have focused on.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:38 am |
    • Doooglas

      I found this article because it was on CNN's home page, not because I was searching the "Religious Blog." whatever the heck that is. I am also more interested in blackjack than religion.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  4. allanhowls

    This has to be the most ridiculous discussion ever, no matter which side you're on, or what beliefs you hold.

    Next week: Do My Little Ponies support veganism?

    March 11, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • Brandon

      I'm not even sure what there is to gain from this article. I should quit my job and start writing for a news agency, doesn't look like a very difficult job.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:53 am |
  5. Spangler

    The word 'abomination' is used 65 times in the OT and 2 times in the NT. The only named abomination in the NT is Luke 16:5 where Jesus calls the love of money an abomination.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • Sweet Pee

      Our Lord just instructed me to let everyone know that that was a mis-interpretation of his words. He told me to let you know that what he actually said is that the "lack of money is the root of all evil".

      March 11, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
  6. religion is for the sheeple

    jesus was the ultimate magician!
    he made people believe he was an imaginary persons(god) son!
    and billions of people believed him!
    now! that is the ultimate magic trick

    March 11, 2012 at 1:16 am |
  7. kim

    Please. If Jesus has no qualms about drowning thousands of kids in a swift wave of tsunami or crushing them to death in an earthquake, who's he to judge people making a living by arithmetic?

    March 11, 2012 at 1:12 am |
    • JT


      March 11, 2012 at 3:07 am |
    • Tin-foil Hats Inc.

      JT... do you not realize how... I don't even... THE TRINITY YOU DOLT!

      March 11, 2012 at 5:56 am |
    • BR

      Why do Christians need a Bible to tell them right from wrong anyway? If you don;'t know your behavior is wrong before you start it, no book is going to stop you. Plus, quit threatening people that terrible things will happen if they don't agree with you. Sounds like you should butt out of other people's business and start being honest with yourself about your intentions in this world. Quit not taking responsibility for when you know you do something wrong. It's so childish.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Sweet Pee

      The Lord told me to tell you all to not try to understand why children get smashed on a daily basis but to just remember that he let Jesus get beaten for over 2 hours by the romans in order to save you from your sins. And our Lord told me to tell you all not to try to figure out how that makes sense. Just BELIEVE that Jesus getting beaten to death by the romans is more important than the millions of babies that get smashed flat daily on planet earth.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  8. Mike Williams

    In a world without religion evil men would still do evil things while good men would still do good things. But it takes religion to make good men do evil things.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:12 am |
    • CNN Reader

      In a world without religion, there would be no "good" or "evil". Every one would be just indifferent and out for themselves.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:50 am |
    • Gedwards

      You don't think there have been evil people who "found religion" and are now good people?

      March 11, 2012 at 6:56 am |
  9. Maybe11

    The Bible does not apply to modern life. DEAL WITH IT

    March 11, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • kim

      I see what you did there. Well played.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • Joe Schmo

      The Bible is absolutely relevant to life today. There are approximately 1000 verses on finances. Other topics include relationships and work. You can also find passages on biology, anthropology, and astronomy. It's history is also correct. In fact, the Bible perfectly correlates with 1st century historian Flavius Josephus.

      Most significant is its writing on morality and the state of humanity.
      God writes that when he created the world, he made it perfect. "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." Genesis 1:31b. But humans completely messed up the world, and now we live in a cursed world. (Genesis 3). Now we are in this corrupted state. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" Romans 3:23. Because we are in this corrupted state, we are unable to keep God's law. “No one is good—except God alone." Luke 18:19. When we stand before God on Judgement day, the day he makes everything right, we will give an account to him. "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.

      This is a picture of what Judgement day will look like:
      Matthew 25:31-46
      31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
      34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
      37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
      40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
      41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
      44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
      45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
      46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

      If you are unable to stand under God's law, he already has provided a way out for you. "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 7:44 pm |
  10. KAlizhada

    Soooooo, its ok for the casino to cheat you, but you can't cheat the casino? If your stupid enough to play in a casino game you deserve to lose your nest egg, that's why I play poker, play against the players, not the house.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:09 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      It's not cheating; it's only playing with strategy and advanced skill.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • Andrew

      Technically, it really isn't cheating the casino at all, nor is it illegal. The casinos however are a money making private business, so they could kick you out if they even suspect you're counting cards because as far as they're concerned, once you take away their statistical edge, they don't want you on their premises. Cheating has such a nasty connotation, card counting is just skill and practice. Casinos don't like when you're well practised at their games.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  11. asha

    Just ignorant.....

    March 11, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  12. Rogue351

    Wow, Bottyfunk way to make a point. I was not aware of some of these. My main question is how the followers of these teaching can discount these writings while full embracing others. If the bible and Jesus are true I don't think they are pick and choose. This is why I have always said that organized religion is not about salvation it is about power control and most certainly money. If it was not about money this story would have no legs in the first place because it would not matter if these card counters are Christian. I am so sick of this "higher" moral standard that most religious people project on others when in fact they are hypocrites trying desperately to control everyone.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:02 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      It's like their att.itude towards drinking; because SOME people have a problem with alcohol it's bad for EVERYONE to drink. Not everyone will develop a gambling problem. Meanwhile, people can become addicted to almost anything, so targeting particular activities doesn't seem to be the smart approach to this problem.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:11 am |
  13. Robert O.

    Being an atheist aside, I don't see card counting as "cheating" or "sinful". It is simply Applied Math, or using Information Theory to your advantage. It isn't even "gambling", because you already know the result ahead of time: i.e., over the long run, the law of large numbers guarantee that you will make money.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  14. tallulah13

    Of course Jesus is okay with card counting. Jesus approves of everything his followers want to do. That's what's so cool about inventing your own messiah. He likes what you do.

    March 11, 2012 at 1:00 am |
  15. Steven

    Gambling isn't a Christian activity in my book, but their relationship with God is their business. No one has a right to judge another man's or woman's religion.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:55 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      Losing money and putting your life in hardship through addiction are valid concerns morally, but being a successful card counter doesn't necessarily result in this, right? On one level it's no different than being a successful stock trader and investor. Is there something "sinful" in being able to predict correctly?

      March 11, 2012 at 1:05 am |
    • Gumby

      Interestingly, the Bible says nothing against gambling.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  16. pop CHEESE

    Jesus doesn't gamble or play cards.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:51 am |
    • Oh Yeah

      By preforming miracles he clearly demonstrated a disrespect for allowing chance to dictate outcomes, so I gotta disagree with you there.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • OS Bird

      How in the world can you know?!? What a statement!

      March 11, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • abaddon

      Jesus does to gamble, he was playing 3rd base at a bj table in the Belagio last night. Did pretty well.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • spiritbad

      Jesus also doesn't have an iPad, but that's not relevant either.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  17. jim

    being a good christian and an avid gambler I say absolutely... but i learned to card count from my mother... she was plain evil to play cards with.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:51 am |
  18. mickey1313

    First off, to automatically place jesus on the high moral ground is not historically acurate. Second who cares what a cult leader whould have done. 3rd card counting is not cheating, it is card counting, and while not illigal, it is something they (the casinos) can throw you out for, it is a private business and they can allow or disallow anyone they wish.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:37 am |
  19. Oh Yeah

    I never could understand why card counting was considered "cheating" by the casinos. It's just math, granted math that not everyone would have a talent for doing, but I can't see how any moral person would think it's wrong. If you can consistently make money by doing it then it's not even "gambling". If enough people do it, making it too risky for casinos to play blackjack any more, then that can only be a good thing from a Christian, anti-gambling perspective, right?

    March 11, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • Snap

      I feel sorry for you that you can't figure out why casinos would consider it "cheating". Stop eating mushrooms and work on your logic structures for once.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Oh Yeah

      Could someone count cards without realizing it? Probably, right, and they'd just attribute it to having a "sense" of when the cards will be in their favor. Are you simply saying that those who have a talent for betting shouldn't go to casinos?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  20. Bootyfunk

    since jesus was a cult leader, and cult leaders aren't exactly known for being honest with their flock, i'd agree, jesus would count cards.
    here's some things jesus did:
    • Jesus tells us straight out his 2nd coming is about violence, not peace. Oh, and he’s here to make family members hate each other.
    Mathew 10:34-36
    34 "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
    35 "For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
    36 and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household."

    • Jesus says you must hate your family to be worthy of him. Cults often tell their followers that anyone outside the cult is an enemy, be they friends or family.
    Luke 14:26 (King James Version)
    26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

    • Jesus doesn’t let a man bury his father or another man say goodbye to his family, but says that preaching the gospel immediately is more important. Sounds like Jesus needs a lesson in compassion.
    Luke 9:59-62 (King James Version)
    59 And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
    60 Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.
    61 And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.
    62 And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.

    • Jesus approves of slavery. Want to go to heaven? Obey your master. In some bible versions, “slaves” has been replaced with “servants” to make it more palatable to our modern (and much improved since the bronze age) sense of ethics.
    Luke 12:37-38 (New American Standard Bible)
    37 "Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them.
    38 "Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.”

    • Jesus didn’t like foreigners. A Canaanite woman wants Jesus to heal her sick daughter. Jesus tells his disciples he only heals Jews. He calls the woman a dog and won’t heal her daughter until she agrees that she’s a dog. What a jerk.
    Mathew 15:21-28
    21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
    22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
    23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
    24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
    25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
    26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
    27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
    28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

    swell guy!

    March 11, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • a person of the Name

      Wow, you took those way out of context. First off, He was saying you need to put your walk with Him first in your life. Say if your wife, son, or daughter walks away from God, you should still follow Him. Secondly slavery was a way to pay off a debt owed, once payment was fulfilled you was free to go or you had the choice to stay. Third, God was making a point and testing her faith.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:05 am |
    • jack lloyd

      Less is better.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:36 am |
    • Brandon

      Way to cut and paste buddy. You must be a very informed person.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:55 am |
    • IhaveID

      @person of the name; Any religion that does not take the bible or any "good book" literally is interpreting it's meaning and taking the stories out of contect to suit their purpose.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:57 am |
    • JT

      "Hate" in this context means to reject, it does not mean to have malice toward. The idea is to choose God before family. The idea of not burying a parent is a cultural reference where the young man wanted to wait until his father died and he received his inheritance before following Jesus.

      Your other examples have similar cultural interpretations if you're willing to look into it a bit more, examine the cultural and historical context, put them back into their textual context, and set aside your own biases and ethnocentric viewpoints. You do not have to agree with Christianity, but you should at least make an effort to represent the historical and cultural events accurately if you expect your arguments to be listened to.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:04 am |
    • Snap

      Its ironic that Christians say you need to read the bible for yourself, but when it comes to these stories they desperately need a translator to interpret it into a more cozy interpretation. Just face it Christians, you say you know because a relationship with God, but in every actual case you know because you believe what a human has told you the book means.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Justme

      So "Snap", does it hurt that a Christian actually came up with a thoughtful answer to Bootyfunk's allegations. Just because they are "cozy" interpretations doesn't mean they are not right. Does it really threaten you that much that the Bible may not be evil like you want to make it out to be? I'm sure if I took one of your posts and pulled out words making it sound like you were pro-Christian, you'd be the first to defend the original statement in it's proper context. So if you can do that, why can't we have the same right to defend the Bible?

      March 12, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
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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.