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. holistic healing

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    October 10, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
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    October 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  3. TPLackey

    Justify it however you want...This is the type of 'end justifying the means' hypocritical action that hurts the faith. Maybe God gave me the ability to cook books or hack systems to take money from 'corporate' criminals'...it's how you use it that defines you. I wish I had a dollar for every person that says God told them or sent them a sign to do something. Usually, it's just to justify something they know they need an excuse for doing.

    October 7, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  4. online casinos us

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    September 9, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
  5. Please God

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    August 20, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  6. Please God

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    August 20, 2012 at 1:41 am |
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  9. James

    You have misrepresented your family, your church and most important God with these activities. You should be ashamed.

    July 9, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
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    May 26, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  11. Freethinksman

    You don't need religion to justify behavior which no one thinks is bad.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  12. Fladabosco

    The author of this blog proves once again that religious people explain away their sins more than they fix their behavior.

    Really, stealing is OK because it's from a casino? Is that what the 10 commandments say? Oh, I forget, to most Christians the commandments are a flag to wave, not instructions to be followed.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • John Clinton

      Curious on your comment about stealing....the casinos offer the game up for anyone to play, and risk the odds of the game just like the players. If the "card-counters" turn the odds in their favor by using their brains, I think they are just utilizing their talents – and taking the same risks as anyone at the table, since NOBODY knows with certainty what the next card will be.
      That it's casinos coming out on the losing end may make it more palatable, but...I don't have a moral problem with the counters opposing anyone who offers this game / these odds to them.
      I'd be interested to hear other opinions...

      March 31, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  13. America is Christian Nation

    In Secularism we Trust, NOT!

    March 13, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Prayer changes things

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things.

      March 14, 2012 at 5:39 am |
    • Jesus

      "Prayer changes things"

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs. .

      March 14, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • Fladabosco

      Anybody who would use the fascist moniker America is a Christian nation wouldn't understand the horrible things religious zealots do when they get into office. Always. They are not reasonable or constructive, nor do they act in 'Christian' ways.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  14. TC

    Interesting article. Card counting is a talent and casinos don't like it bcasue they lose. The most important question to me is when one obtains fortune – is at least 10% given to caring for the poor?

    March 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • JB

      Do you realize where that 10% comes from, and it's applicability today?

      March 14, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  15. Bill

    Seems like many "christians" use the Bible to promote their personal goals.Many a poorly educated,mentally unstable individual tucks a bible under their arm ,and suddenly sees themselves as the true authority on what God wants of us.Have you noticed how many churches now exist?Each and every one claiming to be the only true church.I,ve sat in church,listening to total idiots deliver their ideas of what is right or wrong.And been surrounded by sheep,(well meaning but easily led,poorly educated persons).And no one ever stands up and says,Reverend,You,re an idiot.When the time comes,You will be judged.The fact that You were a Mormon or a Catholic or a Buddhist or Muslim will not be the deciding factor .These religions are only busses,a means to get you from Your departure point to Yor destination.At the end of Your journey You will be met by Your creator.And He will decide where You are going.And that,s one fact You can bet on.

    March 13, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • reason

      The gods of all organized religions, if true, would all be horribly unjust and evil deities to send billions of people to eternal suffering for choosing the wrong one or being born in the wrong place. Looking at organized religion objectively, they are myths from stone age societies that were trying to explain the world, and there is virtually no chance any one is truth.

      Rationally speaking if there is a just god and an afterlife, you will be judged on how you lived your life. Rejecting reason and deluding yourself in blind faith does not help your case.

      March 13, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • fisherwomanforjesus

      Hi Bill. Religion can't save us. All the "to do" lists can't save us. No one born of man has kept God's moral law, except One. Have you lied? Stolen? Looked with lust? Made a god to suit yourself? Coveted? We are already guilty before God! We suppress the truth in unrighteousness, even though we know God is. Creation and conscience are witness against us. Every man has God's moral law written in his conscience. The Judge of the universe will do right! How can God allow the guilty to go unpunished? He would be unjust! Because He's good, He must punish lawbreakers. But there is One born of man who has not transgressed God's moral law-Jesus Christ. He was without sin.He is the mercy seat where sinners may receive the righteousness of God. All righteousness was fulfilled in Jesus. His death was God's judicial punishment for sin.But the Just died for the unjust to bring us to God-to reconcile us to God. When we believe on Jesus, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us! Does it sound crazy, unbelievable? Yes, unless you see the holiness of God. http://www.thegoodpersontest.net

      April 3, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "Because He's good, "

      That's why it killed everyone on the planet but a few because it screwed up, then when that didn't work it killed it's own son. That is not a good god! Only a delusional fool would think that.

      April 3, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  16. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional

    March 13, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  17. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 13, 2012 at 5:32 am |
    • Jesus

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!~~... .

      March 13, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Prayer is talking with God
      Pray without ceasing in 2012
      Prayer really changes things

      March 13, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Jesus

      "Prayer really changes things"

      You've been proven a LIAR over and over again on this blog.

      March 13, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
    • just sayin

      By repeating an absolute Truth, the lie that follows pales in comparison. Praise God

      March 13, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
    • Emre

      krishnaI remember going to the ceooetptimns held for this in my school age and were not happy about the prize books they gave me when I won.I was expecting some good autobiographys like ghandhi and nehru etc,but they used to give books like jeevam ela puttindi? Now I know the otherside.This story is truly an eye opener.

      April 3, 2012 at 10:38 pm |
  18. The Question

    Gambling is a sin. The person counting the cards is both commiting a sin by gambing and being dishonest by CHEATING. It doesnt matter argueing, "Well yeah, but the guy who Im playing against is also dishonest, Im only making it fair by removing the gamble". Your still par taking in a game of chance.

    March 13, 2012 at 3:11 am |
    • LinCA

      @The Question

      You said, "The person counting the cards is [...] being dishonest by CHEATING."
      Counting cards is not dishonest. It is using your skills to your advantage.

      What would you define as "counting cards"? Would you consider it cheating if you remembered the cards that were dealt to you in the previous round? Would you consider it cheating if you remembered the cards that you received earlier in the current round? Anytime you know what cards are out of the deck, you are counting cards (whether you use that information is another matter).

      Honing your skill to remember what cards have been dealt, and how to use that information to your advantage, is a virtue. Having the ability, yet to not count cards is to be willfully ignorant. Being willfully ignorant is more of a hallmark of the religious. It's what many preachers get rich off.

      You said, "It doesnt matter argueing, "Well yeah, but the guy who Im playing against is also dishonest, Im only making it fair by removing the gamble"."
      It is the other party that wants you to believe it is dishonest. They do so because it is to their advantage to be up against gullible players. But they designed and operate a game that provides an advantage to the players that have the skill to use the information that is freely provided. They assume the risk of the customer that knows how to take advantage of that information (as it is more than compensated by those that don't).

      To reduce the risk, casinos will eject, and deny entry to, people that they suspect of card counting. They do so because they lose money to them, not because those players are cheating. They are allowed to do that because they are private enterprises. They can refuse service to anyone, and for almost any reason.

      March 13, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • JB

      I don't gamble, simply because I don't think it's a wise investment of my money. I'm also a long time Christian, but I'm interested to see where the Bible specifically calls gambling a sin? I can't find any details.

      There are various passages about the love of money, or being a servant of two masters, but gambling isn't specifically called into question (like many other sins).

      If a person has 50 bucks they want to go blow at a casino (and they aren't taking it away from needs), how is it any different from them taking that 50 bucks and going to an expensive dinner? Or a night bowling with their friends? Etc.

      The problem here, and in a lot of these replies, are the innacuracy of the comments. Such as the gentleman going on and on about the "statistics of prayer." and how prayer fails. If he's going to make that comment, logic says that he, at the very least, has to use scripture as a backing for it. I can't find anywhere in the Bible that says "any and every prayer made God will answer"

      March 14, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  19. Reality

    Summarizing the topic with a prayer:

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


    March 13, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • .....

      BULL SH IT hit report abuse in all reality posts

      March 13, 2012 at 5:33 am |
  20. Reality

    Added suggested readings:

    o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, earlychristianwritings.com/theories.htm – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.
    2. Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com/
    – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–

    30-60 CE Passion Narrative
    40-80 Lost Sayings Gospel Q
    50-60 1 Thessalonians
    50-60 Philippians
    50-60 Galatians
    50-60 1 Corinthians
    50-60 2 Corinthians
    50-60 Romans
    50-60 Philemon
    50-80 Colossians
    50-90 Signs Gospel
    50-95 Book of Hebrews
    50-120 Didache
    50-140 Gospel of Thomas
    50-140 Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
    50-200 Sophia of Jesus Christ
    65-80 Gospel of Mark
    70-100 Epistle of James
    70-120 Egerton Gospel
    70-160 Gospel of Peter
    70-160 Secret Mark
    70-200 Fayyum Fragment
    70-200 Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
    73-200 Mara Bar Serapion
    80-100 2 Thessalonians
    80-100 Ephesians
    80-100 Gospel of Matthew
    80-110 1 Peter
    80-120 Epistle of Barnabas
    80-130 Gospel of Luke
    80-130 Acts of the Apostles
    80-140 1 Clement
    80-150 Gospel of the Egyptians
    80-150 Gospel of the Hebrews
    80-250 Christian Sibyllines
    90-95 Apocalypse of John
    90-120 Gospel of John
    90-120 1 John
    90-120 2 John
    90-120 3 John
    90-120 Epistle of Jude
    93 Flavius Josephus
    100-150 1 Timothy
    100-150 2 Timothy
    100-150 T-itus
    100-150 Apocalypse of Peter
    100-150 Secret Book of James
    100-150 Preaching of Peter
    100-160 Gospel of the Ebionites
    100-160 Gospel of the Nazoreans
    100-160 Shepherd of Hermas
    100-160 2 Peter

    3. Historical Jesus Studies, faithfutures.org/HJstudies.html,
    – "an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context of Jesus of Nazareth"
    4. Jesus Database, faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html–"The JESUS DATABASE is an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It includes both canonical and extra-canonical materials, and is not limited to the traditions found within the Christian New Testament."
    5. Josephus on Jesus mtio.com/articles/bissar24.htm
    6. The Jesus Seminar, mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/seminar.html#Criteria
    7. Writing the New Testament- mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/testament.html
    8. Health and Healing in the Land of Israel By Joe Zias
    9. Economics in First Century Palestine, K.C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, Fortress Press, 1998.
    Continued below:

    March 12, 2012 at 11:42 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.