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. Edwoodjr

    Card counting is "cheating" only as defined by the casinos as it obvioulsy puts "The House" so far behind the 8-ball that it's not even on the same billiard table. Card counting is a SKILL related to the inherent qualities in playing cards not "cheating" – cards is al about numbers and counting – just not if it pit the casino at a disadvantage greater than that of their victim/player. Not sure what Jesus would think of it, but not sure what He would think of a LOT of things 2000 years after He was here....".

    March 11, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  2. Okay fine

    This is a perfect example of the unaccountability of sin that's built into christian law. Violate a civil law, however, and you will be held accountable, that's why many christians don't like civil laws because there are real consequences.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      You are ignorant of the letters of St. Paul admonishing those with such justifications for sin.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:59 am |
  3. Rjb

    Vegas wants you to TRY to count cards, they just don't want you to be successful. Proof? Vegas could put a stop to card counting today by simply using a new shuffled deck for each hand. But they know that blackjack would lose it's appeal if the POSSIBILITY of being successful via card counting was eliminated.

    Sin? No one got hurt, least of all the casinos, so there was no sin.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  4. Danno

    More praying is done in casinos than in churches.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  5. Okay fine

    Some christians are pretty good at justifying sin in the name of God, it's human nature. After all, since they know they will be forgiven, it's acceptable to go ahead and sin. Therefore, to them intentional sinning is not a problem and the only thing they have to worry about are the civil laws, not their religious laws.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Why be so public in your ignorance of St. Pauls letters to those who advocated such nonsense?

      March 11, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    March 11, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • Saberage

      Prayer changes nothing. You think prayer heals cancer, the lame, makes the blind see, raises the dead. Try praying for the re-growth of ONE amputated finger on a person anywhere in the world and see what you get! " two hands working are worth more than a thousand in prayer" Benjamin Franklin

      March 11, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • just sayin

      Two hands working without plan or purpose do the work of a fool. Prayer is talking with God, prayer gives plan and purpose.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      It is an arrogant position of rebellion, perhaps rooted in the delusion of self-efficacy. But at least not as ignorant or lazy as claiming agnosticism.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • just sayin

      Prayer has been essential in all the areas saberage mentioned. In amputations for some time now medical science working in partnership with God have been given the knowledge and skills required to re-attach severed limbs. Even now people are working in the field of regeneration. Knowledge made available because someone asked God for it. The same could be said for all the other afflictions mentioned.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      What exactly are the names of the medical centers where prayer is part of the regeneration research protocols ?

      March 11, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  7. CJ

    The only thing the label christian tells you is the kind of language someone will use when they justify behaving in a manner that is no better than any other self identified group, and often worse. Would christians protect child predators? The pope did. Would christians commit genocide? All the time. Rwanda is over 80% catholic. Do christians cheat on their spouse? Sure do. ask Gingrich. Ask Mark Sanford. Everyone's god or savior somehow approves of them no matter what. Isn't that precious!

    March 11, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Limited knowledge is a dangerous thing CJ. Every religion requires contrition and reformation as a condition of forgiveness. Try to base your anti-religious views on the ideologies, not the universal failings of human beings.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  8. .

    Yet another swipe at Christianity by CNN. This one is even more ridiculous than most of the others. They must be running out of stupidity - no, that could never happen.

    CNN: Where it's okay to be a bigot as long as it's bigotry against people who they hate.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:22 am |
    • Okay fine

      CNN reported a story about a movie that the christian card counters put out into the world, CNN did not dig it up by themselves and out these folks. No blame to CNN at all, again, they're reporting the news like they always do. Perhaps you would be happiers with CNN if they didn't report the news at all and just had weather and ads.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • John

      I am not religious, but this guys is tying his faith to his behavior in order to create sensational material and sell his book. Hopefully he gets caught and gets a hammer to the nads.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      For sure, liberal media does not imply fairness to Christianity.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • Clonefox

      You are trying to defend present day Christianity and it is not worth defending. It has been so diluted and manipulated to hardly resemble its true origins. Did you know there were teachings of reincarnation in the early church? The Father as presented to us by Jesus is not the same as this Jehovah of the Jews or the Allah of the muslims. But all true seekers eventually are exposed to the truth regardless of the manipulations and lies. That can't be stopped.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      CloneFox uses the "straw man" argument against a failed version of "Christianity" to justify rejection of today's Christianity, perhaps to justify the revisionist claims of Islam, Mormonism, and Jehovah's Witnesses.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  9. ChristianGuy

    I count myself as a Christian, The Bible shows Jesus doing many activities but not gambling. It also indicates that Jesus and the disciples carried money as they traveled. Certainly gambling existed at the time of Jesus. If anybody could have won at gambling, it would have been Jesus and likely his disciples. And yet Jesus is not recorded as having participated in gambling. Add to that most people do lose at gambling, I believe Jesus would not have supported gambling in his name. Paul told the early christians not to do activities that would cause weaker christians to fall into sin. An example might be to not drink alcohol in front of a reformed alcoholic.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • CJ

      Jesus also predicted the end of this world in the lifetime of his listeners. See mark ch.9 verse 1. And again in ch 13. This was what jesus thought. It is also what Paul thought. And John the baptist. And the essenes (who wrote the dead sea scrolls). They were part of a sect of judaism known as the apocalyptics. But they were wrong. All of them. No end of the world. No son of man coming in glory. Its all a fairy tale.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • Clonefox

      Jesus did not need to work or gamble to live. He was able to obtain what he needed and was not after worldly riches. He could have been very wealthy is he chose. That is a foolish idea injected to keep Godly people controlled. All people of God are by its very nature able to obtain riches beyond measure. It is the very nature of being close to the True Source. Organized religion is just a layer being used to control us and it keeps us from our inheritance. Evangelicals know this and manipulate it to their own ends.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Very well reasoned ChristianGuy. Your detractors, of course, will cherry pick passages to challenge every assertion. But we know the blessings of unmerited grace through our Savior, not the partial redemption of religions that require works to supplement.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Jesus didn't have a family either. Guess you can't do that .

      March 11, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • just sayin

      Jesus did not predict the end of the world in His disciples lifetime. That is a total misunderstanding of scripture, and you are not the first to make that mistake. Some early believers assumed that position and sat down to wait, they were corrected by the apostles. Jesus knew the Bible, The Old Testament scriptures and when referencing the end times He clarified what was being said by the prophet Daniel. Explore the entire subject before commenting and you can be amazed at what is presented.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Jesus said "THIS generation shall not pass away etc". Whenever you people need to correct something, you as'sert "oh he meant something else". BS He was obviously WRONG. Get over it.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:58 am |
  10. Clonefox

    I don't think Jesus cares for such trivial things. More important is how the money was obtained and that seems legitimate and what is done with it. That is up to the individual. Freaking religion, always trying to control us to their benefit. Religion is man made. A church's job is to minister to the people not the other way around. They all do it but the worst of them all are Evangelical nuts and conservatives. I judge them to be less than they sought to be and not following Jesus's true teachings.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      Yes Clonefox, there are subtleties to be fathomed. I too object to the televangelists asking for seed money, and guaranteeing a great personal harvest, and what about those requesting money to transport Russian Jews to Israel, to help bring about the end times. No wonder the Mormons tossed out the old, and brought in their own version, same for the Witnesses and Mohammend, based on what they saw as the errors at Nicaea in the third century, rejecting Paul's claims about the Divinity of Christ.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  11. Gumby

    Just goes to show you that Christians are no more honest than anyone else. As a matter of fact, they are often less honest and moral, because they feel that their imagined "forgiven" and "saved" status makes them above man's laws and forgiven by their god no matter what.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • TheMagusNYC

      You fail to understand St. Paul's admonitions to those who thought that way; contrition and reformation are required. As Jesus said, "you are forgiven, go and sin no more"; a statement that attests to his Divine nature, not a created spirit brother of Satan as claimed by the Mormons.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  12. Anbesaw

    This is one of the evils of life in CAPITALISM. Of course Jesus, and all those "deity beings" created, are for the purpose of the smart few to rob the "Many gullible". Let's all unite to distribute the wealth from thoe "1%" of the U. S. population.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  13. Thomas

    I came straight here to leave a comment, without even having to read this article. God does not condone gambling. Period. It is a sin and can threaten lives and break up families.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Susanna

      Nah. I've spoken to God and he thinks it's fine.

      Doubt it? Prove me wrong.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Clonefox

      How do you know this? Did God personally spoke to you about it? Once people understand and do something about the enslaving part of a made up and manipulated religion, they are on the way to Freedom. Freedom leads towards God unconditionally by its own nature. It is easier than being evil.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • God

      I'm here to confirm that I told her it's fine.

      Don't doubt this or you will go to Hell.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Jesus Ruth

      Gambling is mentioned and explained in detail in the Book of Ruth for all you non believers. well, hold on, it WAS before man started rewriting my Bible. Yeah, it's basically a book written by man at this point so is it or is it NOT the word of god? hmmm...yeah, I'm just going to keep referencing the Book of Ruth because no one knows what's there...especially the so called Christians.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  14. dontbow

    what do expect in vegas? lol again another worthless attemp to blame Jesus on something that man does.

    March 11, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  15. dude

    OH BOY!! Watch out, Jeebus is gonna be mad now!!!

    March 11, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  16. m derosa

    If the counters were a Jewish group or an Islamic group or a Gay group, Would CNN have written this story? I think we all know the answer to that

    March 11, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • Dave

      How right you are m Derosa.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:12 am |
  17. Limbaugh is a liberal

    Hey, Jesus also forgave adulterers. So I'm not really cheating on my wife, since Jesus would forgive me.

    March 11, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • m derosa

      No, you're still cheating on your wife......you're just forgiven. Your logic is flawed.

      March 11, 2012 at 8:01 am |
  18. Sean

    I would hope that if I had a little face time with Jesus that we would discuss more pressing issues.

    As for counting cards, I can do it and do it well. I just have one of those brains that makes it easy. Sadly that same brain makes me terrified of social events, elevators, clowns, cars and umbrellas.

    When you are counting cards it is boring. There is no thrill, it is just math or work. Perhaps someone less terrified of the casino itself enjoys it more than me. 🙂

    March 11, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  19. Peter E

    Because gambling with one's money in casinos must be an abomination, but doing the same thing on the stock market... that's just a normal, acceptable, Christian thing to do...

    March 11, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  20. m derosa

    Card counting is NOT cheating. The Casino's say it's cheating because they lose money. The "counter" is using only their brain to decide their actions. If I can think my way through a round of Blackjack and win money, how am I cheating?
    And as far as "What Jesus would do?".......he wouldn't watch CNN or read CNN.com.

    March 11, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • Bo

      I think it is an interesting question, is it gambling or not? I’m inclined to say no. On the other hand is it an honest way to make money. That is where I may falter. With frends that are unaware that such a thing can happen, then I think it is taking an advantage of your friend(s). For some reason I see nothing wrong with it in a house of gambling, such as those in Las Vegas. If the proprietors know that there could be big looses to a person who may be a “counter” that is a chance [gamble] they take. They are in the business of “taking” money from people who they know have very little chance of “earning” (I use the term loosely) money. I think it is absurd to call it cheating. It is a science.
      I don’t know if Jesus would approve, but I think He would rather a person get a more productive occupation. Even in the Bible, gambling is used to make decisions, but I, like most others, believe that God controlled the “roll” of the dice.
      If the “games” played in gambling houses were a 50 – 50% chance of both parties winning, I can say with out hesitation that there would be no gambling casinos in Las Vegas or anywhere else. Any mature, thinking person knows the “house” has the overwhelming advantage of winning. There is a better chance of being hit with lighting than winning big at gambling.
      Just a side note: In an average year, no tsunamis or large earthquakes (M7 or larger) of which both seem to be on the increase, more people are killed annually by lightning than any other natural phenomena (I don’t know if heat can be considered because death is preventable, so can lightning to a degree, i.e. stay in a safer place although that is no grantee. There is a (rare) story of two men who were sitting at a kitchen table when lightning struck; it killed one of the men and split a piece of wood that happen to be on the table. The other man was knocked down, but suffered no injuries.)

      March 11, 2012 at 9:24 am |
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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.