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. Moses

    I am only a messenger of our Lord. God just told me that anyone who steps foot into a casino without being a card counter is a total fool. Casino games are slanted in favor of the house and so gambling in a casino is not what he allowed Jesus to be beaten for. God said card counters are the only intelligent beings that enter gambling casinos.

    March 12, 2012 at 12:32 am |
  2. Observer

    Casinos could eliminate card counters by constantly changing decks. It's the huge additional costs for decks that could be the driving force here. If the costs were cheap, they likely would have done that already.

    March 12, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • svann

      Or shuffle after every hand.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • Observer

      Time is money. Takes too much time and so costs too much to constantly shuffle. Besides, I am not sure customers would completely trust the card dealers when there are so many magic tricks done using and manipulating cards.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:45 am |
  3. dudley0415

    Nothing at all wrong with card counting. Casinos don't like it because it evens the odds for the players. Gambling is guaranteed to pay for the house so why not allow maybe one gambler in 100,000 who has the ability to use this technique to do so?

    Put a limit on what anyone can win to protect the casinos, but hey, if there's a player who can beat you at cards, you SHOULD pay out.

    March 12, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • svann

      The law is long established that a business can reserve the right to not serve any customer with the only limits being discrimination for race etc.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:44 am |
  4. Moses

    I am a messenger of God and he just told me to tell you card counters to listen to the song called "Hair of The Dog" by the band Nazareth. I've never heard of that song but he said that the card counters would understand.

    March 12, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  5. Iqbal Khan


    March 12, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  6. Iqbal Khan


    March 12, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  7. Why so angry?

    The hateful comments on these boards is made overwhelmingly by atheists. Probably around 90%-10%. Thats factual, not up for debate.

    March 12, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • Observer

      Behind most of the believers comments is the elephant in the room: "Either do exactly as I say or else you are such a disgusting excuse for a human being that you deserve to go to Hell."

      Now let's talk about insults.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • Why so angry?

      @observer – i dont think that and neither do many Christians, we want the best for you. Seems your case is more related to persecution complex.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:27 am |
    • Observer

      Why so angry?

      Persecution complex? Try again.

      The constant attacks on gays and pro-choice people center on those people going to hell according to the "Christian" bloggers. Have you been paying attention? Ever see any references to Sodom and Gomoarrah (or maybe all the time)?

      March 12, 2012 at 12:35 am |
    • tallulah13

      I've read a lot of comments from christians on this blog that are offensive, evil and downright lies. Perhaps you should make sure christians are without sin before you start throwing stones.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:44 am |
    • ToughPoo

      Oh shut your piehole, WhySoAngry. You sadistic religious zealots need to get a grip. Card counting is EVIL! Why? Because YOU said so. You know what's evil WhySoAngry? YOU! Imbeciles who walk the earth pretending to be "christian". If you are truly Christian then you get that Jesus loved everyone. His Daddy didn't make mistakes. So, quit your judging sweet pee.

      March 12, 2012 at 1:34 am |
  8. Iqbal Khan


    March 12, 2012 at 12:05 am |
  9. Iqbal Khan


    March 12, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • Angry American


      March 12, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  10. PitBoss

    Card Counting is not cheating or illegal. It is a SKILL that must be practiced and practiced to the point of PERFECTION. The reason that Casiino's don't like is that it takes away the house advantage and gives the advantage the the SKILLED PLAYER over a period of time. The Casino's position will be asking the player to leave because you play TOO GOOD !!!

    March 12, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • tallulah13

      The thing about playing games is that if you are not playing by the rules, you are cheating. If the rules say that card counting is forbidden, then it should come as no surprise that those who break the rules are removed from the game.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:46 am |
  11. Angry American

    These guys are not Christian in fact they are no better than the illegals and Muslims that have overan this country. Ship Em Out 2012!

    March 11, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • TruthIsStranger

      I'm still working on a way of shipping myself out before the inevitable shet hits the fan for the US. Cover up baby, it's comin' and it won't be pretty. Terrorists get smarter and closer to nuclear bombs every day. And they work real hard to destroy their "Great Satan". It's hard to fight a religion that views you as the Great Satan where if they die killing you they get to lollygag around with 73 virgins.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:02 am |
  12. Jennifer Lopez

    "Ain't got no problems in my life".

    March 11, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • TruthIsStranger

      Just give it a little more time. If your lucky enough you'll outlive your loved ones. That's when the heIl really begins and it's on earth baby. Everyone that is lucky enough to live to a ripe old age gets more than their fair share of living heIl. It's just the true nature of life. You're only one top for a very little while.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:57 pm |
    • Angry American

      Go back to messico mud baby

      March 11, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
    • Yes

      In 10 years she'll be having a uterine prolapse and then she can't be singing "Ain't got no problems in my life". My 10 year old daughter died of luekemia 28 years ago. She ain't got no problems in her life. Any of us that live to old age will have to quit singing that song and from what I hear you get old in the blink of an eye. Ask your grandparents how fast it goes by. Ask them if they sing "ain't got no problems in my life". It's very fleeting.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:07 am |
    • dodo

      She lost me as a fan when I saw that commercial. Shallowness is not cool. Ain't got no problems in my life. Dead people are the only ones that don't have problems. You just don't have problems yet. Just give it a little bit more time and you'll join the rest of us that ain't singing "Ain't got no problems in my life". The people reading this that had a child die of cancer, etc, know the kind of shallowness I'm talking about. It's silly as h.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  13. Jeff Lucas

    the important thing is that people stay true to the convictions on their conscience. If you think it's a sin to gamble, for God's sake don't gamble. If your conscience is clear, be thankful!

    March 11, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  14. Jeff Lucas

    CHristians that smoke weed is a better story.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  15. Wilson

    Jesus is real! Peace to all 🙂

    March 11, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
    • real

      Have you ever seen a dead baby smashed flat?

      March 11, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • real

      Thank the Lord that you never have. Just get your bible, read it, and pretend.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • Angry American

      Amen we need to expel all the Muslim garbage from our great Christian nation.

      March 12, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  16. RichardSRussell

    You'll notice that this group of sincere, dedicated Christians, given the choice as to whether to use math or prayer as the way to winning, chose math.
    You know what they call gamblers who rely on prayer to place their bets? Paupers.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • Jeff Lucas

      if you do the math, the odds are that our space, time, matter existence was more than likely caused by a NON space time matter force.

      our caused existence was caused by an uncaused cause. Something that can be self-starting.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:43 pm |
    • Jeff Lucas

      Dreams where, the umbrella is folded.
      and into, the path you are thrown in,
      and the cards are, no good that you're holding
      unless they're, from another world.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  17. The Almighty God

    You card counters are up to you eyeballs in bs now!!! I've got some special punishment in store for you sons a btchs!!! I did not let Jesus get beaten to death by the romans so that you bastuds could be down there counting cards. And I'll tell you mathematicians another thing. You better never say anything bad about the Virgin Mary, like that the Virgin was not a Vegan.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • The Almighty God

      The Virgin was definitely a Vegan. She never touched a piece of meat!!! And don't ever forget that buddy!!!

      March 11, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • The Almighty God

      And I'll tell you another thing that I didn't get put in the bible. My mother was also a vegan. She never even laid eyes on a piece of meat. She was a cherry.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  18. Reality

    Only for the newbies:

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man or a card-counting follower would do or say?

    March 11, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  19. Sweet Pee

    The Lord just told me to tell these card counters know that he let the roman's beat Jesus for 2 hours and 43 minutes to save you from your sins but that doesn't mean that it's ok to count cards.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • We got the Beat...

      So the Romans were just fluffers for Christ? No wonder he still hasn't come yet...

      March 11, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
  20. Publius

    Card counting is not cheating. It is changing the slight odds to the house to the slight odds of the gambler. the next card can bust you or hit 21 – you never know. Card counters are not arrested, but rather they are escorted off the private property and asked not to return.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:43 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.