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. sdgman

    That's just stupid

    March 11, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  2. Laura Kuffrey

    NO NO NO Jesus would NOT approve of the poker playing you are involved in to count the cards. If you spent time studying the Bible instead of the cards you would know this. The FIRST commandment says "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Exodus 20:3(KJV)

    March 11, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • svann

      I dont see how you equate playing to win with worship.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
  3. m1sterlurk

    I totally think Jesus would be cool with skillfully pulling money away from the greedy and putting it to good use. I say this as an Atheist.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Mercy

      You are not far from the Truth, my friend.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  4. sabuscott

    If anything, Jesus would be against David Drury's taste in suits.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  5. GAW

    Sometimes Evangelicals try too way too hard to be culturally acceptable.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  6. TB

    What I am sitting here thinking goes beyond card counting (to count, or not to count?) and deals more with the bigger issue (as some pointed out) of playing the markets, gambling, etc. This comment isn’t directed at anybody but churchgoing believers: what about just doing an honest day's work instead of obsessing on accruing wealth, whether through playing the markets, or the casinos, or anything else. The real question ism would Jesus be okay with pursuing wealth. Scripture seems to indicate otherwise. To the rich man he said: "give all you have to the poor and follow me... and the rich man went away sad". I guess Joel Osteen never read this part either.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Brad


      Perhaps a follower of prosperity theology will weigh in, but I think you are quite right. In another context Christ examined money and said only "Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s."

      March 11, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  7. Mr Mark

    Would Zeus count cards? How about Anubis? There's lots of other imaginary gods just like Jesus, but they don't seem to get CNN articles written about them. Why?

    March 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • just sayin

      Those do not exist. All credible ancient historians acknowledge the person of Jesus.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Paul

      Must be the atheistic and anti Christian down stream media. 😉

      March 11, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Allah Akbar. Greeting from the Muslim brotherhood!

      March 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  8. Paul

    I wonder if Mohammed or Allah would okay with it.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Paul

      I wonder if Mohammed or Allah would be okay with it.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • tallulah13

      As a poor old lady with too many litters to take care of there is no need to bring Allah or others into this picture.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  9. Fresno

    If your gambling results in negative effects on others, who are not participants, it becomes their business; if it does not, it does not. IMO, over the course of recorded history, there has been more death and misery caused by organized religion, than by gambling. Perhaps you should have told the pastor that your will pray for him.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • bpadraig

      Doesn't really make sense. I mean yes the Catholic Church funded murderous exploration of the new world, but science and technology gave us WMD's. Gambling is an individual indulgence, not a power structure.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  10. Nathan

    There's nothing wrong with counting cards, just another way of taking the advantage away from the house. Really couldn't give two sh**s if Jesus is alright with it or not, he doesn't need the money like I do.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  11. bpadraig

    I don't care if people gamble, but they're still just junkies without a substance.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  12. Mike in Montana

    Well.., now were going to have thousands of new Blackjack card counters or maybe not.. The new computer screen Blackjack tables are already being seen in Las Vegas, Nevada. There is NO shoe or deck shoe for cards played with the new computerized Blackjack tables, only monitor screen's to look into and buttons to press for hit, hold, double-down, etc.. There still will be Blackjack dealers to watch and push a few buttons, themselves, (e.g., end of game, start a new game and a few other functions. So we won't lose any Blackjack dealers or jobs.., however, we will lose the pleasure of using real cards and the ability to count cards. With the new computerized Blackjack tables, each screen in spaced, just enough apart, to where you can't see the player's cards. You will see, if they hit, stand, double down, etc.. So maybe, this new Blackjack card counting craze, will come to an end. Because.., you can't see the cards played or the deck shoe of cards played. Sad.., maybe, what they have done, is stop casino's from playing Blackjack with read cards and put in place, the new computerized Blackjack tables with monitor screen's, and button's to press. The enjoyment of playing with real cards and watching other players' with cards is lost. Sad.., but true. Remember.., the casino does not want to lose money, they want to make money, thats why the new computerized Blackjack tables are really being looked at and beta-tested in a few casino's right now, in Las Vegas.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  13. svann

    Its really easy to catch counters. Most regular players play the same bet every time. Counters must change their bets depending on whether the count is favorable. Its really obvious. The difficult part is determining whether the counter is good at it or just another sucker.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  14. Skeptic

    Of course Jesus would approve... I have a beautiful painting on black velvet: Jesus, a German Shepherd, an American Native and a Unicorn playing Poker. Doesn't that prove it ??

    March 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline


      March 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • mark worrell

      Not for anyone to judge; God is everywhere. On the other hand, its kind of flabbergasting people didn't donate a portion to good causes and just kept it all for themselves. That may cause an issue down the line.

      Jesus himself, historically? I wouldn't think you'd be in favorable waters. Just that outfit in the pic is a little repulsive in a starving world, and so is keeping all the money.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  15. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 11, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • It's Groundhog Day!

      again. proven.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • bpadraig

      Especially when you pray to our Dark Lord, as I do.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • Forest Gump

      Stupid is as stupid does, You and your dark lord.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Kyle

      Sadly it doesn't rigorous tests have been done to determine if prayer works, and sadly it doesn't. You can try and pretend that you can explain it away somehow, but the bible is pretty clear. If you ask for it in prayer you will receive.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  16. israel

    im pretty sure none of us have any say in what jesus would or wouldn't have supported

    March 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      ya think? Thank god you showed up, no one would have figured that out!

      March 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I support Sharia and Allah that is all that matters to me and my cats.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  17. The Stock Market

    Christians please stay away from me! You have done enough damage you GOP fuks!

    March 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • bpadraig

      It's going to be a long time for you til November–they're just getting started–God help us.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Ungodly Discipline

      god help us everyone. Merry Christmas Mr. Scrooge.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  18. Spiffy

    I believe the more important question is "Who cares?".

    March 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • just wondering

      Does spiffy even exist?

      March 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Ragged

      I cared once. I had a family, a job and a nice house. Then I became a Christian and all that changed.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Spiffy

      I can be physically observed so, yes, I do exist.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Celery Stalks At Midnight

      Wow @just wondering... are you still at it???

      March 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Nope

      Spiffy does not exist

      March 11, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
  19. Mark

    For the ignorant...card counting is not illegal as long as you are not cooperating with anyone else at the table or observing the table and as long as you are only doing it in your head (you can't even use paper/pencil). Casinos do kick people out for it but there is no legal issue.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • israel

      if you're doing it in your head it's not cheating, its not common but some people are natural math whizzes like that......the casino will kick you out regardless because they have to protect their profits

      March 11, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Mark

      isreal – it's actually not hard. You are not keeping a running count of cards as much as a single value that changes based on which cards are played. Most systems only use a -1/0/+1 range per card. That doesn't take a math wiz just the ability to look at all the cards on the table as the hands end. You then change the amount you bet based on how high or low your count is.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Ragged

      I was a math whiz once. Then I became a christian and all that changed.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  20. yapper

    Card counting is as much gambling as investing in stocks. Both require planning, observation in order to make educated guesses. Both have a measure of risk. But I don't see Christians staying away from the stock market anytime soon.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • tallulah13

      That is very funny as we bring Sharia you will then see how we can change that card game.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:44 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.