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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. Mark

    Anyone who thinks that Jesus would be ok with gambling in any form should keep his mouth shut about the bible altogether. I guess at CNN the more ignorant you are of what Jesus was about the more likely you are to get your opinion plastered on the front page.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Charles Darwin

      Yeah, tell that to the Catholic church when they're having their Bingo games.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Mark

      Telling the Catholic church anything is a complete waste of time. Pretty much everything the do is in direct conflict with what Jesus taught.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Jesus was a good Jew. Everything Christians do and teach is what Paul taught. He founded Paulianity.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  2. MissusPowell

    I have just read bunches of posts on here and you know what I thought--IF THERE IS A HEAVEN there are going to be bunches of people surprised to see who is there with you as well as bunches of people wondering how they got there, anyway!!

    March 11, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • Matt

      You are indeed correct, that God's Kingdom will be filled with all sorts of people who were crazy, criminal, immoral, and wretched. In fact, those are the ONLY kind of people allowed in the Kingdom because those are the only kind of people that exist. Including you. And me.

      The difference is whether or not the person in question has consciously turned away from their immoral life, chosen consciously to become a follower of Jesus Christ making Him the one and only Lord of their life, and they seek to clean up their lives by His power.

      If "getting saved" required someone to be a nice, moral person to begin with, I'd be in one hell of a lot of trouble. And grace wouldn't be grace, and mercy wouldn't be mercy.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  3. jayare

    Casinos always win; however if you are smart enough to establish a winning strategy (count and remember cards already played)you can overturn their edge, and give it to yourself. Think of bridge players. They HAVE to remember all cards played, or they will never be champions. Perfect analogy, It's not cheating; it's superior play. It's not illegal; casino will expel you, but no criminal charge. They can expel anyone they want.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  4. Steve

    I'm 100% sure that if I went to confession the priest would make me say a few Hail Mary's for gambling.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
    • Lillith

      That would be the day after bingo night in the church basement right?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
  5. Sam

    Mars Hill Church Downtown Seattle is hosting a showing of this film with a Q&A with some of the people in the film this friday (3/16) at 6PM

    March 11, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  6. Julie

    So what's the point?
    Casinos play dirty games so it's OK for you to play dirty too?
    Wrestling with those spiritual and moral questions are we? Or is it just those stacks of cash your'e wrestling with?
    I don't care much about your immortal soul – that's your problem. But what's rotten about you is what you do to others with the way you poison Christianity with your rationalizations.
    Christ more than once spoke out the corrupting influence of wealth on ones soul. The only time he ever engaged in anything like violence was to turn over the money changers tables. He extolled the virtues of non-materialism, of treating others as you would want them to treat you – not just AS they treat you.
    And there you are – money-grubbing like a big ol' pig.
    So what'd you do with your money Robin Hood?

    You just keep working on those justifications, you just keep on distorting the true nature of Christianity so others think it's OK to be like you.

    It'll come back to you.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • josh

      You just keep on judging people you know nothing about, Julie. I'm pretty sure Jesus said a few things on that subject, as well.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  7. Tribeof1

    Did R Kelly really P on people ?

    March 11, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  8. WhiteWomenAgeInDogYears

    5+5=10

    March 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  9. denny

    Jesus will support President Santorum as he puts an end to sinful practices such as gambling.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Charles Darwin

      Yes and the really sinful practice of using contraception. What a horrible thing!

      March 11, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  10. catfishharold

    I just farted and it smells really bad you guys.It smells like a giant meatloaf if it were left out in the desert heat for 4 days.Very very bad.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • bpadraig

      Bless-ed are the fart makers.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • NNx592QA

      Jesus supports farting.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
  11. choppertrash

    Seriously? This is the most idiotic thing I have ever read...

    March 11, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Tess Tosterone

      Apparently you haven't read the bible.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  12. SueEllen

    Glad that god hating liberal atheist have hijacked this forum once again.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Dan in Canada

      Well, personally it's not god I hate. It's his fan club!

      March 11, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • bpadraig

      I don't hate God, just his sales reps.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • I Don't Get It

      SueEllen,

      Do you hate Zeus?

      March 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Charles Darwin

      I don't hate a mythological invisible fantasy being. And I don't hate religious people. I hate the IDEA of religion. It's just ancient mythology and it sucks people into a fantasy world. That would be okay, but they then try to force their nonsense on everyone else. The evangelical types want to legislate school prayer, where they can indoctrinate children into their fairy tale world. They want the pseudoscience of intelligent design taught in schools to further indoctrinate impressionable children. Keep your ignorant superst!tious nonsense to yourself and there will be no problems. Try to force it on my kids and you're going to be in trouble.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Johnboy

      G'night SueEllen ..

      March 11, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • SueEllen

      Charles Darwin I feel sorry for your kids and where they'll en up in the afterlife

      March 11, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Get Real

      SueEllen,

      Nobody has any verified evidence that there *is* an afterlife or who goes where even if there is one - NOBODY!

      March 11, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      SueEllen .. are you saying your God(s) is going to punish Charles Dawins children to eternal fire for what their father writes on a blog? That's a terrible God(s)!

      March 11, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Get Real

      We can perceive so much about a person's character by the way they say that their imaginary god behaves.

      March 11, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  13. svann

    Articles like this are really just intended to tempt people to go to reno and lose their money. Most people that try card counting lose. If it were easy the casinos would be broke by now. Its not like this is some new secret system.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  14. lol

    Jesus should get a life and stop cluttering up the news.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  15. RAMBLE3144

    Jesus did not support socialism. The 9th commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's." So, the Occupy who do nothing but covet are thieves and immorals.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • lol

      It's too bad that's not what the word covet means or else you might get a serious reply.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • bpadraig

      You should look up "covet" it's to desire–spreading the wealth is not desiring.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • svann

      He is right. Jesus told you to give to the poor. He did not tell you you should force everyone to give to the poor.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • bpadraig

      svann–read the thrashing of the temple–that's what Jesus thought of gambling. I love Christians who don't get their own religion.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • JG

      All I can say is that if you really think that The Bible does not command people to share and to be open handed towards the poor you need to read it again.

      Here is a link to Deuteronomy 15: http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/0515.htm

      Lets see:

      all debts forgiven every 7 years,

      therefore I command you, saying, “You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.”

      So, please find me the verse supporting trickle down economics and I guess you would at least be bringing something to the discussion other than ignorant ranting.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • svann

      bpadraig – the thrashing of the temple had nothing to do with gambling.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  16. Adam

    Doesn't it imply in the bible that gambling is wrong? Our ability to reason as human beings can really get us into trouble. Just b/c we say it's in the name of Jesus doesn't mean it is. What would Jesus rather you do, feed the homeless, care for the sick, spend time with the dying or counting cards for a few bucks. As Christians, our best effect is in our communities. If we're busy gambling, we can't spread the love that is Jesus Christ. God doesn't care about money, he cares about the degree to which we love one another. That's what gets me about these Evangelicals, they're against national health care (caring for the sick), they're against social welfare (caring for the hungry, even though they've made mistakes), and they're for war. Brutal.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • svann

      "Doesn't it imply in the bible that gambling is wrong?"

      Uh, no I dont think it does. What chapter/verse were you thinking of?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  17. Steven A.

    "It started when I met a guy at church named Ben." Hmm, my church's name is Jim.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  18. Mercy

    Great piece. It's really all about a relationship, how ready we are to wrestle with life's difficult questions and how willing we are to follow His leading. Beyond that it's freedom all the way!!!

    March 11, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • bpadraig

      Or you can just avoid it because it's bad for you without Him.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  19. bpadraig

    And watching gambling on TV! Boy is that fun!

    March 11, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Get Real

      Yep 🙂 I sleep with the tv on and I had to find another channel to sleep by when I'd hazily awaken to Texas Hold 'Em games - aaarrrggh!

      March 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  20. paganguy

    The lust for money makes you a slave of money. Observe any rich guy.

    March 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • .

      Whaddaya mean "rich guy"? You mean like someone who has worked hard all his life to build something and actually make a life for himself and provide for his family?

      As opposed to some over-inked, excessively pierced, occutard defecating on a sidewalk?

      Get a life, paganguy.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
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