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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. svann

    Tempting people to think they can beat the house. A few can, but most cannot do this and will lose big time.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  2. dave

    His eyes are brown, and not from natural color. Why??
    Card counting does give the player an advantage...but its a small one. So, to make "millions" in profits?? I don't think so. I'll wager his book, and that of the MIT team, is more fiction than fact.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  3. By George

    It's well known that the casinos consider card counting to be cheating; you were breaking faith with the contract (signed or not) between the provider of the gambling services and the customers. So irrespective of any other aspect, you were being deceitful, and, by that definition, not behaving in a Christian manner.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • tony

      And all State lotteries describe giving you your $1 stake back for three correct numbers out of 5 as a "win"

      March 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  4. David

    Sin, transgression & iniquity
    http://www.gracetabernaclehyd.org/sermons/?sermon_id=185

    Sermon on the Amount!
    http://www.gracetabernaclehyd.org/sermons/?sermon_id=221

    The deception of Iniquity
    http://www.gracetabernaclehyd.org/sermons/?sermon_id=186

    March 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  5. duckforcover

    This story is not about cards. It's about judgement. There are those people who claim some direct knowledge of God's will. Apparently God wants them to pass judgement on others but allows them to "pick and choose" their particular sins. These are not religious people.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  6. Todd

    Again I will say the world will be a better place without all religion since most wars and mass killings of people have been done in the name of religion. By the way I find it funny that people that say they are Christians do not believe in heath care for all or programs to help all people.I they really believed in what they preach all money would be shared by all and all would have housing.Come on stop with the fairy tale about Jesus and God already no one even follows what the bible the the Romans made up says.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  7. Adam

    David,

    I admit a touch of frustration in reading your justification. While the casinos seek to enrich themselves, and for the most part the advantage is widely theirs because most players treat Blackjack as a game of chance rather than a predictable art, I fail to see how your taking advantage of and growing rich by this system, is a legitimate means of making a living.

    Like the vast majority, I work for a living. I provide a service, I help my teammates, I strive to be productive and useful. There is a legitimate point to make that, because the casinos make money hand-over-fist, it is ok to beat their system, but to live this way? I would feel a stickiness about myself. The casinos should feel sticky, too, but I feel a particular discomfort in seeing this perspective justified through the lens of religion. Morally, is it wrong? I don't know, that's a gray area to be sure. Personally, I feel there is a tinge of dishonesty in it. Even if I had the skill and patience to learn to count cards, I think I would still feel more comfortable earning my way by providing an actual service than taking advantage of a flawed game.

    You've clearly made your choice and feel justified in doing so. I think it's unfortunate you would be rewarded with so much publicity for it.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  8. RDKirk

    "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." And THAT is what Jesus would have against it–that you're taking advantage of someone else, even against that anonymous "house."

    March 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • svann

      quote chapter and verse or i dont believe Jesus said that.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  9. Patrick Friel

    What's good for the goose...I say.
    Casino owners portray their business as :gaming"; folks come to Vegas to "play".
    Well, since those venturing into Vegas following this philosophy; not intending to "gamble"; not intending to allow fate or chance determine their wins and losses then, I say, let the GAMES begin.
    I would not condone the use of electronic devices such as ear pieces allowing confederates to communicate card information to a player at the table but I certainly agree that through the use of their God-given talents of observation...yes, counting cards...then, why not? Unfair, you say? Cheating you say? That's in the eye of those holding the cards.
    It is a moral and ethical decision made by the card player not an activity whereby said card player has contractually agreed to not engage in such a practice.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  10. a disgrace

    the con artist called jesus used the threat of not having a afterlife so well that the scam has survived over 2,000 years! give me your money or you will go to hell when you die!!!

    March 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • ib42

      Only the pimp priests who use Jesus' for personal gain name say that.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  11. ThinkAgain

    Card counting is cheating. Jesus would not approve. These so-called "Christians" are like so many "Christians" today: using their supposed faith to justify all their bad behavior. History is littered with the destruction left in the wake of these jerks.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • tony

      Roulette is just a slightly modified collection plate.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • PantyRaid

      Counting cards is NOT cheating. You're just playing the cards according to what is thrown in front of you. Kinda like real life.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  12. stickyd

    More Christian bashing by CNN. It seems like a weekly occurrence where CNN headlines stories with praise and glory for Islam while trying to find every story they can that bashes Christianity or puts it in a bad light. Screw CNN and Liberal media.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • CRMays

      But it's perfectly fine to manipulate under the guise of religion? Doesn't matter the form of media this article was brought to light with. The story is still the same: Stupid Christians use bible to justify making money through manipulation. Way to go jackwad!

      March 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • stickyd

      why aren't you so critical of Islam and it's barbaric teachings and treatment of women. I'm fine with anyone not agreeing with a particular religion, but to bash Christianity while glorifying or giving a pass to Islam is reckless and biased!

      March 11, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • BR

      You have got to be kidding. You are defending "Jesus would be ok with card counting" as bashing Christianity? You have made outsmarting casinos a religious issue to rationalize gambling? No wonder intelligent people don't take fundamental Christians seriously. What a bunch of scheming hypocrites. The nerve of you to defend this by resorting to name calling of those on a different political side than you. Wrong is wrong, buddy, and you should be ashamed of yourself to manipulate your religion.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • BR

      Islam? The article is not about Islam, good, bad or indifferent. Quit dodging the issue. It's about justifying your bull *hi* with your religion. Why? You want to count cards, rob banks, whatever, go ahead, but why would you bring in Jesus? To pretend your not dishonest? I'm not even Christian and I'm embarrassed for (and laughing at) you. ps-I'm not Muslim, either.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  13. migeli

    Funny how all these followers of Jesus are not in favor of health care for all,they are "pro-life"but if the kids can't afford insurance I suppose they should just suffer and die.Christians in name only.All I hear from some is how we are headed down the path of that dirty word "socialism".Jesus was a socialist in case no-one noticed.How about living by his word instead of making up what it is to be religious.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • stickyd

      wow, your ignorance is bliss! It's evident you are not a Christian and have never really read the bible. You're just one of these minion Liberals that spews what you've read on a Liberal blog site. Enjoy your tract to Marxism and Socialism.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  14. tony

    What's religion got to do with anything?

    March 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  15. Reality

    And this is news? Must be a slow day. Card count all you want, better odds as the house always takes priority. Leave religion out of things for once.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • PantyRaid

      You obviously didn't read the article.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  16. One one

    Jesus would be awesome at blackjack . If he can walk on water, turn water into wine, cast out demons, and raise the dead, surely he could get 21 every hand.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  17. pelegrim

    No more or less than any other fictional character

    March 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  18. big banjo

    if "JESUS" were here he'd slap the crap out of most of you on this forum......but since he isn't and wont be is further proof that he is A MYTH.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Reality

      Yeah, seriously. To each his/her own but it's amazing how people can believe in things derived from hundreds of years ago when everyone was drunk telling stories. Over time, I'm sure these stories were changed so much and since no one knew what happens after death, the stories/religion began. The thought of death makes me sick to my stomach, but this religion stuff....well, just think how better the world would be if there wasn't any in the first place.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • stickyd

      What's funny is how it's evident you folks, and most on here, haven't even read the bible. If you had, you would see many of the very things it speaks of that are happening this day and time. Instead, you dismiss it as "fairytales". Read Revelations and then tell me it's not spot-on with what's happening today here, in Israel, and the rest of the Middle East. I know you folks won't read it, but just continue to bash religion and what you're told via the media. Carry on

      March 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • ib42

      Only the guilty need to defend themselves. He wasn't, ever.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • BR

      stickyd: it's not about how true you think the Bible is or asking people to agree with how spot on it is. What people are saying to you is that the more you bring in Christianity to defend screwing casinos, the less people believe what you base your twisted logic on.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  19. jj

    Bringing Jesus into a card counting discussion is kinda rediculous. Card counting is legal, and it is in fact the smart thing to do if your going to play Black Jack. Card games are games of percentages...so why wouldn't you want to know the percentages when playing?

    March 11, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  20. PantyRaid

    I would rather play Jesus at Texas Holdem. I bet he bluffs all the time.

    March 11, 2012 at 12:25 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.

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