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. xeno

    I really know nothing about casino games, so can someone explain why counting cards is stealing? I mean, if someone uses their brain and nothing else in order to figure out how to win a game, then how is that stealing? I understand that it undermines the whole "game of chance" thing, but, if someone can use their brain to beat the game, it never really was a game of chance.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  2. Laura

    Just proves that anyone can justify anything they want to do with any kind of reasoning that sounds "spiritual". I can't argue with this guy because, hey, card counting may be God's will for his life! Well, congratulations. Or something.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  3. Blessed Geek

    The thief and burglar say – I am not cheating or gambling and therefore what I am doing is not sin.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  4. Jeff

    If breaking the rules and cheating is OK for a christian, it yet another piece of evidence as to the fallacy of religion. Religion is such BS...it is the biggest and longest running hoax of mankind. It is nothing more than a cover and for weak people to feel good about themselves. Just go to Youtube and search for George Carlin's Religion is BS. He will tell you how it is.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • nwatcher

      Thank you Jeff...I have been on a spiritual quest to find someone to follow, someone with the answers to life's questions! I've been torn between George Carlin and Lady Gaga but you have shown me the light

      March 11, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  5. psychopath

    The conscious of a card counter??? That is very hard to describe. I don't feel anything when I'm counting cards except the excitement of winning and not getting caught.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Huh?

      "The conscious" ???

      March 11, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • psychopath

      conscience or conscious, not much difference. They can both be used to describe what i'm trying to say. Know i ask you, what were you trying to get across????

      March 11, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • psychopath

      If your life resembles all those question marks, i wish i knew you in life.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  6. nwatcher

    hmm...so stealing form a thief isBiblically sound theology now?

    March 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • nwatcher


      March 11, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Casinos are legal businesses. No one agree not to pay attention to the cards when they enter. ALL your premises are false.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Chris

      Card counting is legal, and therefore not stealing. In fact, it was on the premise of such skills as card counting that casinos were able to win the right to operate legally in many states by claiming to offer games of skill rather than pure chance.

      Casinos would likely not exist in the US legally, anywhere, if not for the recognition that card games can be played as games of skill rather than chance.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  7. denny

    Gambling is a sin. These alleged Christians should be ashamed of themselves. President Santorum will put an end to sin in America by restoring God's Law to America.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • isis1moon

      ummmm he's not president – he's a candidate. any rational human being with a remote idea of how our electoral system works knows that santorum won't win. you're delusional (much like santorum). and stop forcing your myths on the rest of us.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Sanctorum will never win.
      He could never close down Vegas, and if you think he could, you're even more delusional than you appear.
      Where does Jeebus say you can't play games ?

      March 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Barbara

      Actually, no. Sin is a root issue, not a fruit issue. You can't regulate the human heart. The only one who can put an end to sin in anyone is the Holy Spirit through regeneration, sanctification, and, ultimately, glorification. The end of sin is the hope of Heaven, not of this earth.

      As to the young man who wrote this article and is clearly deceived,

      And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him:
      (1 John 2:3-5 ESV)

      March 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • JD


      March 11, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • RandomUsr

      Are we livining in middle age England? Restore God's Law to America? That means he's free to interpret the law any way he wants whether it helps you or not. Seriously, if someone came to your neighborhood and burned it down because it was interpreted to be God's Law, would you welcome that type of evil?

      So a few folks want to gamble, and they happen to be Christian. Who made you Pope? And last I checked, it's not only Christians going to the Casino. What about Buddhists, Muslims, and many others? Are you going to interpret what God means to them?

      If so, I wish you good luck.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • tempestbourne

      Agreed. The world will stand in awe when he starts rolling on the floor and speaking in tongues at his inauguration.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  8. WilmaRidesAPony

    Because I view all CNN posters as my extended family, I will give you guys first dibs on my newest clothing trend. I have every NBA team adult onesies.Now you can show your passion in Detroit by sporting the Pistons adult onsie.I suggest you wear the onsies with high top sneakers.It looks marvelous.You can show your passion in LA by wearing a Laker adult onsie.Think of this.You're in Atlanta pumping gas into your car.The station is on a busy street with many cars passing by.You really wanna let the world know that the Atlanta Hawks are your team.Well bam!!! You're wearing the Atlanta Hawks adult onsie.Everyone will know that you're for real.Boom!!! You got your Hawk onsie and some red high top LA Gears or Nike's to match them.I'm getting chills just thinking about that scenario.Just let me know and I'll post the info on how to order.Act now.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  9. kamana kapu

    Selfishness is the root of all evil and poverty, misery and slavery are the fruits of that evil. However much the christian card counters may attempt to justify their actions the fact remains that their actions were deceitful and selfish.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Chris

      The Casinos won the right to operate legally through the claim that card games are games of skill rather than chance. Card counting is exactly the sort of skill that won the right for casinos to operate in the first place.

      It is not stealing to count cards, and it is not cheating. Casinos don't like it, and they can choose to stop playing with someone if they find out that the person is counting cards, but that is only because the casinos want to play with people who lack the skills that historically allowed card games to be viewed as games of skill. Is it against Christian beliefs to not be a sucker?

      March 11, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  10. ricardo

    Regardless of faith or agenda, it's good to see the Las Vegas machine and all its mobster cronies take a bath. These people have been preying on the desitute and ignorant for decades. People lose their home, indeed their very lives
    in Las Vegas, Reno, Atlantic City (Ick-Donald Trump getting yet weatlhier). Go Mark and your associates, go.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  11. .

    CNN has run this idiotic story all day for no reason other than to allow the type of hate-theist bigotry that it not only approves, but encourages as well.

    Liberalism is a mental disorder. And two guys sodomizing each other do not form the basis of a marriage.

    Get it?

    March 11, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Mastodonrocks

      Believing in the make believe world is also a mental disorder.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Mastodonrocks

      Get it?

      March 11, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Your brain is as big as that dot..coward. Get back in your double wide.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • ,

      Why? Because a book with tall tales about talking snakes and dead people coming back to life says so? LOL!

      March 11, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • tallulah13

      You are certainly welcome to your opinion. However, if you wish people to take you seriously, evidence must be provided.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Zeke

      Inept trolling does not form the basis of a worthwhile activity or of successful humor.
      Get it?

      March 11, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Get Real


      That dot signifies the amount of time +. that I spend thinking about the se.x lives of any consenting adults. Do you look across the street to your hetero neighbors' house and wonder what they are up to?

      March 11, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • kamana kapu

      Dose a man and a woman sodomizing each other form the basis for a marriage?

      March 11, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • .

      Why don't all you guys go back to bed, give your boyfriends a big wet kiss - and chill out! Maybe he'll sodomize you.

      Have fun sitting down! Bwaaaaahaaaaaahaaaaaahaaaa!

      PS: The peg doesn't go in that hole.......

      March 11, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Zombo

      Believing in an invisible sky wizard isn't a real sign of mental health either. Stop dragging 'liberal' and 'conservative' tags into this. It's pure idiocy – so-clled Christians were/are CHEATING. I think Jesus would punch you out for being such asshat.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      BTW, straight people, according to studies, "commit" sodomy more than anyone. Grow up.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Zombo

      What about two women? Does that qualify?

      March 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • Get Real


      and there you go fantasizing about it still - what's with you?

      (p.s. not that it matters, but I am hetero)

      March 11, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • Chris

      Pharisee much?

      March 11, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  12. Randy

    Bunch of B.S. by a common cheat. Throw his ass in prison or tune him up the old fashioned Vegas way.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  13. RandomUsr

    Religion is right in it's disregard for gambling, because it's uncertain and risky. If the odds can be close to 50/50 because someone is able to do some quick math, then more power to them. The tricks, +/- AKA High/Low, Shuffle tracking, and Swing betting are possible due to the nature of the game. It's ok for the casino to swing the odds, but not the players? So long as math is legal, then why not? Oh Wait, the Owners of the country need their take – Business Men, Government, and Banks with many fees? This is part of the story of how the casino jusitifes a massively unfair advantage, thus I will count while I'm able!

    March 11, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • RandomUsr

      I know, I'm replying to my own post... But here's something else I meant to comment about, Christians or any other religous groups all want to tell you how to live in some fashion. It comes down to whether the people studying/practicing relgious beliefs are they themselves good decent people/human beings. The issue is that, we are in fact human. So, when I hear non-believers say they hate christians for a particular practice, that puts them in the same class of people whose morals should be questioned as the practicing Christians that are hypocritical.

      Religion is here for one reason, to divide you, such that the business machine can keep you from figuring out how badly you're getting ________! Thanks to George Carlin for a valid though, though maybe not the popular one.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • isis1moon


      March 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  14. Mr Chihuahua

    Pay the man his money! He beat me.....straight up! lol!

    March 11, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  15. Skyler

    It always comes down to money. Always. Even for christians.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  16. Movie Fan

    Watch the movie "21" with Kevin Spacey and Laurence Fishburne, about the real-life MIT Blackjack Team of the 1990s, based on the book "Bringing Down the House". Pretty good.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  17. MissusPowell

    Is it possible that SueEllen is one of those trolls? OH WELL!!! I just know that nor hell nor high water would ever make me turn my back on a child of mine!!! THAT is NOT WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY CHRISTIAN UPBRINGING! But more to the fact, WE CANNOT PROVE THERE IS A GOD. WE CANNOT PROVE THERE IS NOT A GOD. Atheist have the right to believe or not. Believers have the right to believe or not. I am a believer. Belief is about having FAITH! It isn't about any FACTS. It is like arguing about apples and oranges. What is important is we are FREE TO BELIEVE WHAT WE WANT TO BELIEVE!! LET'S KEEP IT THAT WAY!!

    March 11, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Observer

      Maybe she's just another Christian HYPOCRITE who doesn't believe in the Golden Rule.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      The point is, you DON'T believe in the Spaghetti Monster. You DID use your brain to come to the conclusion that you would suspend your reason. The question remains, ...why, when, and how ? You can't evade or sidestep the question, as you tried.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Mastodonrocks

      Its all well and good to let people believe how they want. I have no problem with that. I DO have a problem with christians telling me I cant have an abortion. They tell me gays cant marry or, for some of them, cant even exist and should be put to death. Starting to see why I hate christians???? The majority of christians DO NOT believe "live and let live".

      March 11, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      MissusPowel .. I agree we all have/need the right to choose. I just personally believe that religion is a personal thing & should be kept that way .. meaning out of my laws & government. "Christians" like SueEllen are the ones that scare all of us.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Charles Darwin

      Missus – I agree, except that Christians aren't usually content to leave other people alone. They feel like it's their duty to convert people. A lot of right-wing, evangelical politicians want to force Christianity on people through legislation, such as forced school prayer, teaching the so-called Intelligent Design, etc. If people want to believe in ancient mythology, that's their privilege, but when you try to indoctrinate school children into believing it, that's crossing the line.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Mastodonrocks

      Also many christians state that its about faith but preach everything as FACT!!! Which is it? They can't be the same.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  18. Bootyfunk

    christians always justify their actions. it's not cheating or illegal, just taking advantage. there is a difference, but to someone not counting cards, it feels like someone's gaming the system. can't count cards in online poker.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  19. David Fox

    Hitler claimed to be a Christian too.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • MissusPowell

      David Fox, I happen to think the Santorums of this world ARE LIKE HITLERS with all the HATE they call TRUTH & THINKING ONLY THEY HAVE IT RIGHT! Not ALL Christians are like Hitler, nor Santorums. I am a believer that there is a POWER, a GOD, a CREATOR, whatever you want to call it/him/her. I do not believe, however, that RELIGIONS were created by GOD, but were created by MAN, (not women only because women had no power in those times). More wars have been fought by religions claiming "in the name of God" or whomever and I do not believe any have ever been rightly claimed! Many Christians do not believe so either.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Chris

      Hitler studied the occult and paganism. I would hardly say that makes for a comparison to the card counter in this story.

      March 11, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  20. drefromla

    i bet the carpenter would say it is not the best way to spend your time.

    March 11, 2012 at 5:19 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.