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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. xesor

    Their making Baby Jesus CRY!! Stop the cheating...

    March 11, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  2. Chips

    Soon the casinos will have those "flashy thingies" from "Men in Black" to use on the players after each hand.

    They only want folks in there who need to take off their shoes to add to 21 (doing so in your head is cheating). Those people with 6 toes on one foot have a definite advantage, and perhaps will be banned.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  3. svann

    Jesus "The casino is a house of profit. But you have made it into a den of counters"

    hehe just kidding. dont strike me down JC

    March 11, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  4. svann

    Truth is – most people that try counting still lose. Casinos know you are counting – its obvious when you keep changing your bet. They allow it until they determine that you are good enough to be a threat.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  5. Angela

    if this guy is using the money for a good use then i am sure Jesus will welcome him. but if he is living a rich life and on the other side he is preaching or going regulary to church Jesus would not welcome him. when Jesus was in Jerusalem he did not welcome the jews because they did not have the truth in them.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  6. Puzzled in Peoria

    The most comforting part of being an atheist is that you're incapable of ever being wrong.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Observer

      The most comforting part of being a believer is that you can pick and choose what you want from the Bible and hypocritically ignor the rest.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      I don't agree. The most comforting part is simply being right.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Larry

      Observer, Go twit your liberal twit elsewhere.

      Then again, you fit perfectly with this Liberal crap. They all like to twit their twits. Now THAT'S what ultimately matters. No CO2 emitted here. Or not much more. It's OK, GoreBull won't mind. He's probably out twitting his twit with some other woman (or man).

      March 11, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • MissusPowell

      Well–MAYBE and MAYBE NOT?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Observer

      Larry,

      Christians do pick and choose what they want from the Bible. That's why they trash the "abomination" (like eating lobster) of being gay while IGNORING the MUCH greater number of their own who commit the Ten Commandment SIN of adultery by divorcing and remarrying.

      TRUTH hurts, doesn't it?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Perfect_Atheist

      If that's the case why haven't things gone how you would perfectly want them? It's not wrong to you because you've accepted to be wrong.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Nope. The nice thing about being an atheist, is that science is always evolving. We know we don't have the "whole truth", and our house of cards doesn't all fall down, when another piece of science is discovered, unlike beliebers, where the whole thing crashes when new things are discovered.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  7. Reality

    Christianity really should be named for The Five Voodoo Doctors aka P, M, M, L and J ( "The Pauletaling") with their changing of wine into blood and bread into living tissue and the raising of at least two dead people. Is card counting voodoo? Of course not but believing that Jesus would really care about it one way or another definitely is voodoo!!

    March 11, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  8. MissusPowell

    "And they will know we are Christians by our Love...."

    March 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Observer

      Except, of course, if you are gay or pro-choice.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  9. joe

    With religion ANYTHING can be justified. Makes you feel better for a worthless life.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Anthony B

      Yep. Jesus said the same thing. Good thing He hated religion as well.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  10. Larry

    This story is typical Liberal Lies and Deception.

    It's simply amazing the Liberal Crap that this website spits out.

    Total Garbage. Like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson and Pelosi and Reid and Hossien.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • palintwit

      Larry, if you get back in your trailer and behave I'll let you play with your Bristol Palin the Dancing Cow Doll.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Larry

      palintwit: twit your thing, and quit being a liberal. that WILL make you happy - that's all you libs think about

      March 11, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Observer

      Larry,

      Did you mean Whitney Houston who the REPUBLICAN governor of New Jersey gave the SAME honor as our war dead?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Larry

      Observer, Thank GOD for the REPUBLICAN governor. Yes, GOD. Something you Atheists do not believe in.

      Your Liberal governor would be out twitting his twit with some other woman (or man, or both).

      March 11, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Waiting

      Why do you call it liberal? Is it because you disagree? If it is the truth, why does t have to be conservative or liberal? I would think as a Christian you would want to know what is going on in the name of our savior!! It seems anytime the conservatives don't like something they say it is liberal. The truth matters, at least to me.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Observer

      Larry,

      First of all you ignorantly assumed I'm an atheist. I'm not. I'm agnostic.

      Secondly, you apparently believe that Whitney Houston deserves the same honors as the brave soldiers who have died for our nation.

      So much for your priorities.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Larry

      Observer, You have the arrogance to compare Jesus and Santa Claus. That says it all.

      But then again, you fit right in with this liberal crap. Go twit your twitty.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • palintwit

      ????? No dinner for you tonight Larry.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Observer

      Is reading a problem for you?

      I NEVER mentioned Santa Claus. Is he very important to you?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  11. LuisWu

    Who cares what a mythical being thinks? Do you care what Santa Clause would think?

    March 11, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Tess Tosterone

      Just like Santa, Jesus is based on an acutal person who lived .. also just like Santa, Jesus had no majical powers and is just an exaggerated story for the entertainment of children (and child-like adults). Now God, there's a mythical being!

      March 11, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Tess Tosterone

      Just like Santa, Jesus is based on an acutal person who lived .. also just like Santa, Jesus had no magical powers and is just an exaggerated story for the entertainment of children (and child-like adults). Now God, there's a mythical being!

      March 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Larry

      Hey Tessy, looks like you need some free contraception. The Libs are looking for people to testify....apply soon before it's too late.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Anthony B

      So I gotta know, did someone in the church hurt you when you were young? If so I'm sorry. I just find it interesting that you would choose to spend your time clicking on, reading and responding to articles of a religious nature. Maybe this means you're at least wanting to have a healthy, respectful discussion about faith? I would assume from your comment that that's probably not the case, but I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Russ

      @ Tess:
      interestingly enough, the real St. Nick slapped Arius for claiming some of the very things you are advocating.
      http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/bishop-nicholas-loses-his-cool/

      March 11, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Tess Tosterone

      Larry, quick look up .... the point just went over your head!

      March 11, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  12. Dood

    I don't see a problem with it. One is just using statistics which is perfectly fair.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  13. Tess Tosterone

    Card counting does not require you to be gambling .. so is card counting still bad?

    March 11, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Observer

      Casinos don't care if you count cards while NOT gambling. What was your point?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Russ

      Church leaders are called to be "above reproach" (1 Tim.3:2).
      "Living in the gray" (as the video says) is almost directly contrary.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • Tess Tosterone

      Observer .. the story is about wwjd about card counting not casinos. My comment was in that regards, you must have lost the point of the story itself. My point was to question what is actually wrong with the scenario .. cheating or gambling.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • svann

      It is still gambling. You just increase your chances from something like 48% to something like 51%. You lose a lot and win more. You still have winning streaks and losing streaks. You can still bust out. That said, I dont remember anything in the bible against gambling.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • NaySay

      Specious logic, Observer. Casinos are a business that makes money because they are NOT gambling, to begin with. They are playing the percentages, which are purposely stacked heavily to their favor. Theirs is as precise an enterprise as sending a rocket to the Moon. But in order to do that, people have to play by the house's percentages. Casinos call that "gambling." You could just as easily call it "losing." It's a big business. But there's a flaw in blackjack - the decks. They can be predicted, over time. It's not the players' fault that this is so: it's the casinos' fault. Would you fault a poker player for playing better than the next guy because he knows more and has a better head?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  14. David

    If CNN and this reporter believe in God you're shameless blasphemer and should read your Bible, if not your idiots for thinking atheists would even click on this link.

    How about a merger of CNN and MSNBC so you're choice of stories, poor spelling / grammar and most of all anything remotely close to true journalism. I don't watch or listen to Fox News either and finally gave up reading newspapers.

    Walter Cronkite would not only roll in his grave he would actually wish that he could come back in kick all of you pathetic journalism hacks in the teeth.

    I know this will not be posted but I beg the person that reads this, "Get out while you can, go into a more honorable profession like an ambulance chasing lawyer.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Tess Tosterone

      WWWalterCronkiteDo .. apparently he would ".. kick all of you pathetic journalism hacks in the teeth."
      Sounds like a Christian using someone else's name to say what they want to do .. if they weren't so good and christian.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Observer

      You were free to select any of the OVER 100 other stories on the main CNN news page.

      Don't trash CNN because YOU wanted to read their story.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • David

      "you're a", I acknowledge my grammatical mistakes as well as any other ones noticed by posters.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • David

      How about an atheist who is brave enough to click on this disgusting link and call CNN on their pandering to religion with the full support and encouragement by those that actually despise it. It's hard to believe that someone who has the audacity to use Mr. Cronkite's name in some pathetic show of journalistic integrity, is completely oblivious to the fact that journalism died a long time ago.

      You are obviously the apologist for the state of journalism today and I applaud your complete and total devotion to the role.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • David

      Tess Tosterone,

      Ad hominem attacks are so beautiful in their insight into the soul of the person offering them. I just realized, unless you like me were brave enough to click on this link to restore the true secular news and separation of Church and State, you are a very confused Christian.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      What a bunch of crap. So the secular press can't report on church crap ? Grow a brain.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  15. Jesus

    NO

    March 11, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  16. Charles Darwin

    I just had an idea for a book! I'll call it "Nine Months BC" or "Joseph Will Believe Anything!" Heh heh, Mary gets knocked up and tells Joseph "God did it." He's like, "Ok, whatever." The most gullible guy in history.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • LuisWu

      Like^

      March 11, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Actually, if you read Matthew, he spends ALL of chapter 1 laying out how Jeebus was in the lineage of Joseph, (the Davidic line), then at the end, does his Maury thing.."Jospeh was NOT the father. Woops.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  17. Awesome

    Great story. This is a good topic to talk about.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  18. Faisal

    Does Jesus support cheating? No. Jesus would say "why do you tempt me?" if you asked Him this question. This article is a blaspheme against anything Holy.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • plush

      How is counting cards cheating? Do you not look at the weather report to determine if an umbrella is needed, this must be cheating also. You are just gathering information that is available that the casino does not want you to know as it goes against their favor. You are just gathering facts right in front of you.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • NaySay

      Of course it is immoral to cheat. But it isn't clear that these people were cheating. To me, they were just playing the game better than other people. If I play bridge, or Scrabble, or chess - and I've spent a lot of time analyzing the winning strategies for those games and I happen to have a good mind for playing them better than my opponents - is that cheating? There is nothing inherently wrong in counting cards. Nothing.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • svann

      Wow. Just wow. Your position is that counting is blasphemy against the holy casino?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  19. Faisal

    Jesus recognized illegitimacy when He saw it. the business the Holy Father gave Him was to protect the church from illegitimate "players" who turned God's church into a game. Try turning driving into a game, see what happens. Drive on red. Blow stop signs. See what happens.

    March 11, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • bpadraig

      Yeh, no players in the Roman church.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm |
    • svann

      Are you now equating a casino with the temple?? Have counters corrupted the holy casino?

      March 11, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      There wan no "church" in Jeebus' day. Nice story.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
  20. ChrisG

    News Flash. Jesus remains dead for past 2000 years.

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

      If here at all.

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

      Yep. Still dead.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
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