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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Christians = The Original Hustlers
Go you guys. Beat the house. I'll pray for you to keep winning.
I am an atheist and this is one of the rare times I am going to defend the Xian. I do not believe card counting is cheating. The odds are in the casinos favor. If once in a while someone is smart enough and disciplined enough to profit from the corporate gambling system than SO BE IT.
I'm not even religious but I'm becoming increasingly annoyed with atheists.We get it.You don't believe.Good for you.Stop acting like you've just discovered the cure for AIDS.Since when is saying you don't believe in something an accomplishment?? I've noticed a pattern over the last 5 years.Anything majority white gets ridiculed and branded backwards.Live in a majority white community, you're unprogressive and backward.Believe in God and attend church with christians, you're backward and nuts.Funny how these same people never dare to chastise muslims or jews.Isn't it funny how that works out ? Atheists are cowardly little lions who only stay in the shallow end of the pool where it's safe.They never swim in the deep end.I'm sick of these people.Again, I don't follow any religion so I have nothing to gain by making this statement.
You've nothing to gain but yet you still posted. Atheists have no more to gain than you have in posting here. This is an opinion piece and we're all here posting our opinions, including you. Take everything you posted and exchange don't for do and believe for not believe & that's how we atheists feel. We're just as annoyed by "believers" as you are by those who don't believe the particular religion of the times.
Oh boo hoo. I had no problem really with what you were saying up to the point where it became a poor little Christian thing. You're such a martyr. Atheists do not think anyone that is Muslim or Jewish is any brighter when it comes to rational, logical thought. However, if you really want to know why Christians get it in their face so much, its because they are trying to shove it down everyone's throats. You also seem to be ignoring the fact that those activist atheists(whatever, they are boring) are also busy angering Jews and Muslims. Nicely ignored for your agenda's sake.
The only reason you are hearing from atheists is because we are hearing from you and we do not like it anymore than you do. Get the picture yet???
Muslims and Jews are not daily trying to make our government their state house!
You must be aware that lies, repeated often enough, tend to become "truth". We atheists are simply trying to get our voices heard among the cacophony of religious fantasies that pervade American culture and media, from this sort of "WWJD?" drivel, to reports of "miracles", to the latest boasting of politicians about how their worldview is more based on "faith" (=ignorance) than their rivals. The religous meme will continue to persist as long as more rational minds are silent.
I just read the end of your post and notice you claim not to have a religion, yet you seem awfully defensive of Christians....
Thanks for judging all of us. How very pious of you.
methinks you protest too much – walk a mile in his shoes, friend. Religion, especially Christianity – everywhere, all the time, one variety or another of true believer promoting Jesus, God, whatever as the best thing since sliced bread. All well and good for them, just please remember you/they are NOT the be all and end all of this country or the world. Gets a little much.
Gambling promotes greed and lack of love, selfishness.(Matt 24:12) The apostle Paul wrote: "Let each one keep seeking, not his own [advantage], but that of the other person."(1 Cor 10:24) In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave spiritual direction that was taught to him by his heavenly Father, Jehovah, saying: "No one can slave for two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will stick to the one and despise the other. You cannot slave for God and for Riches."(Matt 6:24)
To reason that gambling is okay goes contrary what Jesus said in verses 22, 23: "The lamp of the body is the eye. If, then, your eye is simple, your whole body will be bright; but if your eye is wicked, your whole body will be dark. If in reality the light that is in you is darkness, how great that darkness is! "
Many will rationalize, saying that the word gambling is not in the Bible nor is it wrong. However, Jesus gave principles that guide a true Christian.(Luke 16:9) Unless a person keeps a ' simple eye ', completely focused on God's kingdom and its clean moral standards (Matt 6:33), "seeking not his own advantage, but of the other person", then this one will convince him or herself that gambling is okay. However, Jesus said: "If in reality the light that is in you is darkness, how great that darkness is! "
The supposed "light" that they feel is right is in fact "darkness", being blind to a true Christian's spiritual direction of showing agape love (John 13:35), "how great that darkness is", and thus having a "wicked eye".
These thus fail to recognize what God loves and what he hates (Ps 15), completely disregarding godly principles that Jesus established, with him speaking of the "deceptive power of riches."(Matt 13:22) Yes, money can deceive a person, causing them to cast aside any moral restraint and yet feel that God will bless them. What blindness !
Clearly Drury is not really gambling. But his occupation - counting cards to produce money for his investors - produces nothing and helps nobody. In essence, he is a leech or parasite on society.
Don't get me wrong - some people are far, far worse. Perhaps he justifies it by spending more time with his family, friends, church, or those in need. Maybe he IS a good person. But his job doesn't really highlight that fact.
The same would apply to the casino, and to many many other jobs and hobbies. What good does it do society that you have a tv in your living room?
Christians decide for themselves what their imaginary jesus would think. They can do whatever they want that way. What a bunch of phoney, brain-washed, hypocrites.
I just always ask myself, What Would Gandalf Do...?
How does trying to model your life after a (fictional) exemplary character make them more flawed than, say, those who don't even TRY to lead a moral life? It is easy to find fault in the flawed actions of christians - but demonstrate to me how they are qualitatively more flawed as moral human beings than non-christians.
I don't see it as an actual asking of what ancient Jesus would do, it's more of a "what would I do if I were a really good person" type question .. they're really asking "what is the current societal norm" on the subject.
Yes – psychologically by deceiving one's self in one area it makes it easier to do so in another. Self deception is a strange and ruthless phenomena. Much is justified when you don't need evidence, or use anything as evidence and call it religious proof.
@Edwin Apparently you have no concept of sarcasm.
You missed Dan's point. Dan is saying that Christians will try to justify their actions, whether good or bad, by interpreting the word of Jesus to their liking. Calling Him imaginary was just something extra.
This is like reporting on whether it is immoral to fart in a crowded room. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but is it worthy of a cover page article on CNN? This is NOT news!
Not supposed to be news. You are on the blog page.
Yet you read it, and apparently so did many other people. Hmm... perhaps CNN knows their target audience better than you do...
Don't know why anyone might consider card counting as cheating. Casinos stack the odds in their own favor, so it's only fair if players want to try to get some of that advantage back. Using their brain while playing is not cheating.
Card counting is legal. All you're doing is using information that's available to everyone at the table, processing it in your brain, and making legal moves. Saying that card counting is unethical is like saying that it's wrong to have exceptional logical thinking abilities.
It is specifically against casino policies - the ones they post about acceptable behavior (no firearms, no unruly behavior, no counting cards). So in that sense, it IS violating rules and is therefore cheating.
It seems to me that everyone at the table is a card counter .. just to a minor degree. You look around at what's on the table, look at your hand and make a judgment based on your chance of getting the cards you need. It's all counting to various degrees.
A good view. Take some time to check it out.
This is the most infuriating article I have read in a long time. To assume that breaking the laws of the land is condoned or blessed by God is absolutely ludicrous. I truly hope the author has come to terms with his faith and no longer continues to lead others astray.
How is card counting breaking the law? The casinos are taking peoples money in a statistical game that they are weighted to win. These people just use their numbers skills to turn the tables.
Didn't Jesus have the advantage of a father who was an all knowing omnipotent being giving him information of the future? The rest of us get punished for "not knowing the truth" but Jesus had direct insider information. Doesn't that make Jesus a cheater?
It makes him LORD
Then the "lord" is a cheater and his father doles out unfair eternal punishments without giving everyone the same advantage.
Why would anyone feel that card counting is immoral? Its a game and if you can bring more skill to the game, you get better odds. It is a myth however that card counting can make you a winner. It has only a very faint affect on the odds. Casinos are quite happy to see card counters, in fact they are happy to see anyone with a system because they know they still have the upper hand statistically.
Morality comes from human society, so the question is does society think card counting is immoral. The answer is apparently not since it is not illegal.
Morality and legality are not the same. It is immoral to spit on a child as you walk past her, but it is not illegal.
True Edwin, but most laws are based on the "morality" of the times. Stealing is immoral and also illegal. I was just thinking that if society felt card counting to be immoral it would be considered like stealing and therefor also be illegal. But I agree with the overall point you've made.
Not sure where you live, but it IS illegal to spit on anyone. AND, whay is "immoral" is subjective and up to everyone's personal opinion.
Most people that try card counting lose money. The casinos dont mind people trying it because they make more money off the suckers that think they can do it than they lose off the few that really can do it.
I'm not actually certain God is even okay with gambling, much less cheating at it. I believe, if nothing else, cheating at gambling would fall under "thou shalt not steal" perhaps? I'll have to actually look at my bible later to see if there's any scripture about it. I'm not a gambler, so I've never actually LOOKED for it.
Is it cheating to use your brain? I think not, I might hit a casino once every few years if whatever particualr vacation choice puts us near one. Ironically the only game I usually play is blackjack when I do. When I play I always aim to sit at what is refered to as 'third base' which is the position that is the last player before the dealer plays his/her hand. That way I can see what cards come up as the other players hit or bust and to some extent I have some control of the table being the last player to hit or stay, etc. If I need a small card, and the last 3-4 hits have been small cards, then I have a better then average chance to get a face card, and vice versa if I need a larger card and the last few cards have been all face cards, chances are that I am going to get something smaller. Is that cheating? Not at all, its using your brain.More times then I can recall I have played based on what I think the dealer has as opposed to what I have, based on the dealers upcard, how the table has been playing over the previous hands and so on. Again is it cheating or is it using your brain and thinking. Is it absolutely fool proof? No. There have been times I have broken even, sometimes I have left a grand or two in the casino and times I have walked away with over $5k with a grin. Bottomline I had a good time and never thought twice about it being I have always set myself a limit before walking in the casino. If I win, great. If I lose, it won't affect my ability to pay my bills and go about my daily routine. Amazing...common sense prevails.
I recall an instance in the bible where the hebrew's god favored the cheater. Jacob, son of Issac, was put up by his mom to cheat his brother Essau out of his birthright. He was successful in convincing his blind father Issac to give him the blessing instead of Essau. Once given, it can't be taken back, so Essau was out of luck. Jesus was an authority on hebrew scripture given his royal status so I assume he was okay with cheaters as long as they didn't get caught. My problem is I don't like cheaters. I consider them dishonest and untrustworthy people. I'm half jewish yet I know the hebrew nation was the product of a cheating lie perpetrated by their god. I could never get past it until the light bulb went off in my head. Don't listen or read what other humans tell you if it conflicts with your heart. The hebrew's god is false. Just follow your heart and observe Nature carefully. She's tricky and holds Her secrets well. But She will never lie to you.
The is no god, so don't bother. Why do you people have to have the editors from 2000+ years ago do your thinking for you ?
In the translation of the Holy Quran Chapter 7 verses 80-84 Allah(God) says;"We also (sent) Lut: he said to his people: "Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? (80) "For ye practise your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds." (81) And his people gave no answer but this: they said "Drive them out of your city: these are indeed men who want to be clean and pure!" (82) But We saved him and his family except his wife: she was of those who lagged behind. (83) And We rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): then see what was the end of those who indulged in sin and crime! (English translator Yusuf Ali)
I'm a liberal atheist and I'm so kewl.I also eat spinach bagels and sip Mocha's in underground coffee houses that nobody knows about.It's so low key.Me and my super duper kewl friends go there and talk about how kewl it is to be an atheist.Bill Maher tells me that believing in God is so unkewl.Bill Maher is so kewl for not believing in God.He's such a rebel.Anyways, I'm going to wear my new jeans that are made out of dust particles and hardened soy milk and sport my lime green backpack so I can look different.I'm going for the looking different without trying to look different look.I'm trying to look ironic.I think I'll wear a Mel's diner T shirt that reads " kiss my grits " on the back.I'll look so artsy, trendy, and kewl.Totally.
You OK there Trendy?
I'm a 67 year-old mother of 4 and grandmother of 3, and the only trendy thing I have is my new Logitech backlit keyboard (well, and I guess that cholesterol-lowering statins that I take are trendy?!). I simply do not believe in any god(s).
I'm a holier than thou believer. I think that exactly what I'm doing is exactly OK with God. I have never sat down and read the bible myself, but I would kill anyone that pointed out its inconsistancies. I make fun of others and actively work against them. I steal Obama magnets from the backs of cars, but the end justifies the means, didn't Gos say that? I don't believe the old testiment because Jesus came and made a new covenant, but wait a minute I will fight for the ten commandments to be in the public space even though I can't name them all. I pick and choose what the bible says and I crame it in other peoples face. They must convert or they are inferior. I am a hypocritial believer in what ever suites me today.
"Sarcasm is the last refuge of the imaginatively bankrupt.” -Cassandra Clare
u dum azz.
Were cards prevalent during the time Jesus lived?
Yes. They were made out of stone.
card games yes, counting not so much.
Not sure about cards but I'm sure the dice were loaded. I wonder if that Roman soldier cheated his buddies out of Jesus' bloody rags?
Where exactly in the bible does it say gambling is a sin? The temple moneychangers dont count. They were in business changing one coinage to another. Like changing dollars to yen.
It's not God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit or any high level spiritual being who judges us. We judge ourselves. If what we do makes us feel good deeply within, then that's our choice to continue. If what we do does not make us feel good deep within, then it's our choice to change our behavior or not. Humans judge humans, and we judge ourselves, but I'd suggest leaving Jesus out of it because he simply loves you for what you are. That's who he is.
Wow, that's exactly what I've been trying to say. How come no one listens?
Sorry, but what you're saying is contrary to what the bible explicity says. God hates sin. He hates it when his children sin. He wishes they would stop.
Same as a parents wishes their child would obey and hates it when they do not. They are not disowned, but they ARE disciplined.
What did he mean by this then?
26For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.27And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.28"Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice29and come out–those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.
Who cares what some old book says ? Grow up.