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. Alan

    This is not a news story. Why is it on a " news" network?

    March 12, 2012 at 4:15 am |
    • dave

      this is the Belief Blog, not the news dumbo

      March 12, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  2. Nii

    Try the
    Replace your "I love you"s with "I love you" as myself for a week to see if it changes your atti.tudes towards people.

    March 12, 2012 at 3:36 am |
  3. Nii

    If u'll pick n choose then de Bible asks us 2 pick "love your neighbor as yourself". This is not by Jesus of Nazareth but by Moses. We don't just pick n choose ourselves. The Bible tells us what to. Otherwise Satan's words will be God's. "I love u as myself" differs from "I love u". Try it.

    March 12, 2012 at 3:28 am |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      So if "Moses said it", it has more value ? Where EXACTLY did Moses say that ?

      March 12, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  4. Angry American

    I couldn't sleep thinking about how atheist and Muslims and illegals are ruining this country. Load em all up and ship em to gitmo!

    March 12, 2012 at 3:16 am |
    • RD

      Ruining the country? You seem to forget that this country's First Ammendment gives freedom of or from religion. Saddly, it is people like you who are actually ruining this country. You persecute those who don't believe what you believe, and say they should be shipped away. That statement makes you no better than any Muslim or Christian extremest.

      March 12, 2012 at 3:32 am |
    • BubbaCo

      Atheists are the least of your worries. We don't push our agendas on anyone, and we just want the same in return. Plus, we ask to be governed by common sense...which is rare is this stupid country. Non-believers make fun of the stupid christians...ya'll are like that weird 7th grade kid who's parents still haven't told him that Santa Claus is a hoax, and he still keeps believing.

      March 12, 2012 at 4:11 am |
    • Chip

      Please do send me to Gitmo. Free room and three meals a day! I hear they're getting a brand new soccer field!
      I bet I can even request a vegan meal plan!

      March 12, 2012 at 4:13 am |
    • dpcfoh

      Are you sure you're an American? I thought America was the land of freedoms. Freedom of religion, freedom against oppression. Sounds like you don't think that others should have the same freedoms as you if they don't believe exactly as you believe. That's very un-American.

      March 12, 2012 at 7:21 am |
    • Angry American

      A Muslim can't be an American anymore than a rat can.

      March 12, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Get help, before you go off at a McDonalds. There are pills for that.

      March 12, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  5. Nii

    Tooth fairies don't exist in my culture, Sir! We just throw the tooth onto the roof and as it rains our tooth grows back. The things that people believe in. I am not using ancient Bible verses but some posts here sound more like God-hating than God-ignoring. Zeus is not a Creator. Wrong comparison.

    March 12, 2012 at 3:10 am |
    • Tallulah13

      It would benefit youth believe in the reply button.

      The tooth fairy was cited as an example of a cultural myth, as was Zeus, the point being that you do not have to hate something to not believe in it. I'm sorry. I did not realize that your contextual grasp of English was so limited. Let me put it simply: Atheists do not hate god because they don't believe in god. That's all.

      And if your reply was meant for me, I am a woman, so I am not a "sir". If you were not responding to me, never mind.

      March 12, 2012 at 3:50 am |
  6. ToughPoo

    Count cards all you want!!! Suck it Casino's. Find a new game. You will. How did this topic turn religious and how did the bible-thumpers turn their radars on the Casino side? You really support Goliath? You're nuts, plain nuts.

    March 12, 2012 at 2:47 am |
    • dpcfoh

      I agree, just because an individual is able to turn the tide in their favor doesn't make what they're doing wrong as far as I'm concerned. Just like the casinos have it in their favor to win most of the time doesn't mean that the few that have the gift to turn it around should be punished.

      March 12, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  7. Nii

    The Bible is learning no matter how u look at it. If it is true it works. If it is pure fiction it works. Why? It teaches a path to emotional maturity n moral fulfilment for man. I follow it happily on Earth. If it leads to an after-life all well n good otherwise I enjoyed my life anyways.

    March 12, 2012 at 2:42 am |
    • Observer

      I'm not sure that most thinking people would consider it "emotional maturity" to support slavery or the inferiority of women or discrimination against the handicapped.

      March 12, 2012 at 2:45 am |
    • Psst


      You could have saved a letter character there - the correct word is 'anyway', not 'anyways'.

      March 12, 2012 at 2:51 am |
    • Nii

      OBSERVER I am a student of the Torah. All your charges are baseless. If u think it will pass because u say it enough times then u have to think again. There r better things than to slander the Bible like actually loving ur neighbor as yourself.

      March 12, 2012 at 2:54 am |
    • Nii

      I know that u think u r 21st century enlightened but unfortunately Science sides with the Bible on this one. a) u r an emotional animal
      b) The brain has not changed much since the advent of modern man
      c) The Bible does help people to live a more fulfilled life.

      March 12, 2012 at 3:01 am |
    • C'mon

      Nii: "There r better things than to slander the Bible..."
      - If the book can't stand up to scrutiny, it isn't much. Nobody can slander gravity.

      "... like actually loving ur neighbor as yourself."
      - Sure... and I even get miffed at myself too when I make errors.

      March 12, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • Nii

      OBSERVER my use of "anyways" is not wrong. I am not American. There are other dialects of English too. I don't know why but if u r white then I understand why u want to grade(in my dialect "mark") my English. Just too funny. lol

      March 12, 2012 at 3:17 am |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      It's "anyway"..and it's Pascal's Wager. Both are stupid.

      March 12, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  8. greg

    Faith, God, Religion, Power, Politics, Wall Street . It's all the same. As long as I can take the money from your pocket and put it in mine, it's all legit. When I hear someone say "God's Commandments" I have to laugh. When did they become God's Commandments? The "divine" laws and rules that "allegedly" Uncle Moses came down with in the form of "The Ten Commandments" were well known to Egyptians and others. Did you ever ask yourself how did Moses sell an old idea as brand new to his followers? If a referee in a basketball game stops both teams and says " new rule, every time you shoot the ball from outside that perimeter you get 3 points" What would the league and the players do to him? Moses couldn't have done what's written in the Bible. And how did he know about his own death and where he was burried to include it as well. Faith is a good thing. But based on hallucination it turns into a tool in the hands of the crooks who have been manipulating you for over 5000 years. There is a God. It's called the Planet Earth. The only known originator of all species. Imagine for a second if we were to worship the Eart as God. No Pollution, No abuse, No Bombing, No Dumping. What a wonderful World it Would be, sang Louis Armstrong.

    March 12, 2012 at 2:39 am |
    • ToughPoo

      Well spoken Greg.

      March 12, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • Susie

      Actually they are not the same. Get a dictionary and find out the difference.

      March 12, 2012 at 4:59 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Armstrong didn't sing about 'what a wonderful world it would be.' The lyrics are "What a wonderful world." As in, the way it is. Not how it would be if things were perfect.

      March 12, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  9. Nii

    Aaah so most atheists are people who are angry with God. that explains a lot about what goes on here. Thanks for the insight.

    March 12, 2012 at 2:33 am |
    • Observer


      Atheists are mad at God?

      March 12, 2012 at 2:41 am |
    • C'mon


      Aaah, you are suffering from memory loss at such a young age? Tragic.

      For the umpty-umpth time, non-believers do not hate an ent'ity in which they don't believe, any more than you hate Zeus.

      Thanks for the insight on your condition... it explains a lot.

      March 12, 2012 at 2:47 am |
    • Nii

      OBSERVER this is according to the story of one Bishop Pickering.

      March 12, 2012 at 2:47 am |
    • tallulah13

      It seems some christians are very confused about atheism. Most atheists are people who have looked at the facts and realized that there is no proof of any god, and thus no logical reason to believe. Why in the world would we be angry with something we don't believe in? In fact, I was kind of sad when I realized that I didn't believe in god, but I can't make myself believe in something for which there is no proof or purpose.

      Do you need to be angry at something to not believe in it? Are you angry at the tooth fairy or Zeus?

      March 12, 2012 at 2:48 am |
    • Chip

      I am angry that I have to walk around in a world with so many idiots who believe in god.

      March 12, 2012 at 4:21 am |
    • rarrbear

      you can never prove that there is absolutely no god. just the same that you can't prove there IS a god. you can BELIEVE it to be true that god exists, or you can believe there is no god by way of science. but there is absolutely no proof that god does or does not exist. a true atheist would know he can't prove god does not exist, but he can discount man-made religion any which way he can.

      March 12, 2012 at 4:35 am |
    • dpcfoh

      I guess I missed where you got that atheists are angry at God. But, using your logic they must be angry at Santa, the Easter bunny, and the Great Pumpkin too (among others).

      March 12, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  10. iwish

    I wonder why other businesses aren't allowed to serve you unlimited free booze. Doesn't seem fair.

    March 12, 2012 at 1:29 am |
  11. iwish

    Do you know the story Bishop Fred Pickering, He was an avid, avid golfer at a prestiogus country club. One day he squeezes in an afternoon round and is on a fire, in fact he was on track to set the course record - anyhow a huge thunderstorm rolls in and the caddy begs him to come off the course. The Bishop presses on in horrific conditions still on pace for the record, well on the last hole a bolt of lighting strikes very near to him and he is forced to abandon the round. He retires sopping and disheveled to the bar and proceeds to get completely smashed . Finally he is confronted by the club president who reminds him he is a man of God. His response "God, God! There is no God!!!" And the is the true story of Bishop Pickering becoming an atheist. Google it.

    March 12, 2012 at 1:23 am |
    • Chip

      It's in the hole.

      March 12, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • Momof3

      Wasn't that in the first Caddyshack?

      March 12, 2012 at 10:23 am |
  12. Jeff Lucas

    I don't think the Bible explicitly calls gambling a sin. I suppose one could say a gambler isn't being a good steward with his blessings, but does that still apply if the guy wins? That can't be right, it's too inconsistent.
    I haven't heard the reasons why Preachers think the Bible implies that gambling is "unpleasing" to God.

    On the other hand, I've heard ALL of the reasons Preachers give to support abstinence from pot, and to be frank, they're wrong, and I'm right. And when we discuss the issue, we see it the same way, and understand each others position. A person can think they shouldn't smoke pot, and that's ok. A person can think it's ok to smoke pot, and That's OK too! It's not about whether you eat or drink, it's about the Glory of God. Are we staying true to our convictions? That's what's important, staying true to one's convictions, because that's where Holy Spirit counsels us.

    March 12, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • Jeff Lucas

      And the same is true of these card counters. Are they staying true to God from the bottom of their hearts? Are they following the command of God on their hearts from the depths of their inner life?

      Are they doing what they think and feel God wants them to do, or do they feel they're doing something God would rather they didn't do? And do they stay true to that conviction. That's what's important.

      March 12, 2012 at 1:26 am |
    • Jeff Lucas

      the same is true of these card counters. Are they staying true to God from the bottom of their hearts? Are they following the command of God on their hearts from the depths of their inner life?

      Are they doing what they think and feel God wants them to do, or do they feel they're doing something God would rather they didn't do? And do they stay true to that conviction. That's what's important.

      March 12, 2012 at 1:27 am |
  13. Jeff Lucas

    Jesus Loves me this I know,
    for the bible tells me so
    and it also tells me that
    if you smoke pot He's cool with that.

    Yes! Jesus Loves me!
    Yes! Jesus Loves me!
    Yes! Jesus Loves me!
    the Bible tells me so!

    March 12, 2012 at 1:15 am |
  14. Jeff Lucas

    If pot was legal, we wouldn't be having this problem.

    March 12, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  15. iwish

    At least the casinos serve you unlimited free liquor while you make your financial decisions. The reason it's not allowed is because they would all be bankrupt within a year.

    March 12, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  16. Jeff Lucas

    Je---sus, hold my hand, I need Thee ev'ry hour
    Thru this land, this pilgrim land --By Thy saving pow'r
    Hear my plea, my feeble plea, oh my Lord, Look down on me
    When I kneel in pray'r I hope to meet you there
    Blessed Jesus, hold my hand.

    March 12, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  17. Jeff Lucas

    As I travel through this pilgrim land there is a Friend who goes with me.
    Leads me safely thro' the sinking sand, it is the Christ of Calvary.
    This would be my pray'r, dear Lord, each day to help me do the best I can,
    For I need Thy light to guide me day and night, Blessed Jesus, hold my hand.

    March 12, 2012 at 1:10 am |
  18. kopetzj

    Give Us This Day, Our Daily Debate: Is Religion Good for the World? – http://www.preludetotheendoftheworld.com/2012/03/give-us-this-day-our-daily-debate-is.html – You have a voice. Why not use it?

    March 12, 2012 at 1:10 am |
  19. RichardSRussell

    Gambling is God's way of punishing people who are bad at statistics.

    March 12, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  20. cyberCMDR

    Personally, I wouldn't worry about the morality of card counting. The casinos set up the rules of play, and counting cards just enables you to be a better player under those rules. As for using the Bible as a source of morality, read it thoroughly. You'd be amazed at some of the morally bankrupt things attributed to God, or to the Israelites under his guidance. For example, God sent two bears to kill 42 children for teasing one of his prophets. The Israelites were commanded to destroy towns, kill all the inhabitants and animals, and burn everything to the ground. According to the Bible, parents should be able to kill their children if they get too disrespectful. And then there are all the passages condoning slavery. This book was written during the bronze and iron ages, and the moral guidance in it often reflects the level of civilization of the time. To use it as a standard for moral behavior in the 21st century shows a deep lack of understanding of what is actually in there. In church, they only read the nice parts....

    March 12, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • RichardSRussell

      According to the most devoted accounts of his most devoted believers, Yahweh is the most barbaric, cruel, heartless, sadistic, torturing, butchering, murderous, pettily vindictive, unforgiving archfiend in all of fiction. Good thing he's not real.

      March 12, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • Nii

      The two of u sound like sadistic, whiners without the ability to understand simple works of literature. On one hand u sing Bronze Age on the other innaplicable to the 21st century. If we did that we wud be reading only books written in this century though most of their fundamentals were ages ago.

      March 12, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • Nii

      In Church they read the whole Bible but seems u didn't stick around long enough to understand a word. Now u take a blogpost to be a summary of 66 books. The real significance of being a spiritual Xtian is that I don't sit in church n play. If u did don't blame anyone.

      March 12, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • Observer

      Everyone just picks and chooses what they like from the Bible and ignor the rest. That's why there is so much hypocrisy by many Christians. When picking and choosing doesn't work, they use wishful thinking instead, like pretending the Bible ever mentions abortion.

      March 12, 2012 at 2:35 am |
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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.