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. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional .

    March 11, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  2. augustghost

    Ah but what if the card counter was Gay also? Kirk Camerons head would explode

    March 11, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  3. RockTripod

    My Take: Jesus thinks this is the stupidest article ever written.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  4. Jerry

    Counting cards is not cheating. It is playing the game smart. Since casinos control the legal system in Nevada, they get to determine what is "cheating". You better believe Jesus wants us to be smart. What he doesn't want is actual gambling, where people place their fate in hands of luck or their 'system'. Put your faith in Him and he will guide your hand.:)

    March 11, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  5. Luis Wu idiot

    luis wu:

    why is it immediately consdered that if your christian you reject science? my entire church believes in science
    christianity as a whole believes in science, just in the same that society as a whole believes in science

    and who placed science on the ultimate pedestal? why is it up there? is it because its closest to the truth? doubtful since its just as far from the truth as philosophy and religion and mythology

    week 1 something is true, week 2 something is wrong, week 3 its true again

    just like philosophy and religion and mythology, just like life

    science and religion are no different, and neither is better than the other and neither have to be the sole sherriff in town

    March 11, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • LuisWu

      Science is based on logic, reason and objectivity, it's based on observing the facts and making an intelligent decision. It's about testability and repeatability. Religion is based on blind acceptance of ancient mythology.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Luis Wu idiot

      right, i forget, first we must build straw men (as per logic correct?) and kill them so therefore we have no enemies right?

      because no christians use logic right? not a single christian has ever entered the faith based on logic; theyve only entered the faith based on blind ignorance and faith on a mythology right?

      makes snse to me, here, let me build up more straw men for you to tackle sir

      March 11, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • LuisWu

      You're posts are illogical, you're not making any sense.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • StatingDObvs

      Science, philosophy, and religion are nowhere near the same. Science observes reality. Faith believes in something that is inherently untestable. Faith is nothing but opinion.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  6. dan

    Ah! The weekly religious hit piece. Obviously, I'm not in a pew this morning, but I find these commentaries to be cheap shots week after week. CNN, go visit a church and see if you can find anything good to report. Surely, there's some church or group of people sincerely, and quietly, trying to make the world a little better place in some small way.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  7. ARrrrrrrgh

    Sleezeballs. I feel like washing my hands. Go convert someone else.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  8. sansideux lol

    feel better sansideux? Hiding behind a computer and making anonymous attacks at religion over a CNN article. wow, way to go, every yahoo news and cnn article from the 90s on want their comments back.

    i think the whole "its cool to bash religion" thing is over dude, get with the times, go hate on anti-gays

    March 11, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  9. LuisWu

    Christianity, like all religions, is nothing more than ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by members of a primitive society in an effort to explain existence and comfort people in the face of their mortality. I've read both the old and new testaments cover to cover. I've read many other religious texts as well. They're all just ancient mythology from primitive cultures, nothing more.

    When I look around, I don't see a god flying around in a cloud or pillar of fire, I don't see sticks turning into snakes, I don't see rivers turning to wine, etc. etc. If that stuff was real and happened then, it would be happening now. I don't see miracles happening, all I see is a lot of ignorant people blindly accepting ancient mythology as fact, while rejecting modern scientific knowledge. If people would use their brains for a change, THINK about it using logic, reason and objectivity, then they would understand that it's just old myths. It's just so utterly obvious.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      ^ like

      March 11, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • NoOneYouKnow

      Yeah.... ^Like^

      March 11, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  10. marty

    Like anything in the bible – jesus can be made to support your viewpoint. I am sure if you look hard enough you can find evidence he supports nekked female jello wrestling. That does not make it true.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  11. Bronze Age Peasant

    Jesus would prefer shooting dice over blackjack. Being part of the holy trinity he would have the omniscient power of the father, son and holy spirit. He would know what card is going to be drawn, because he's Jesus. it wouldn't really be much fun knowing what card is next up in the stack. Then again if he were shooting craps he could just perform a miracle and make the dice come up any fraeking way he pleases. No, I don't think Jesus would have much fun hanging out in casinos. If he were out of town on a vacation he'd probably just hang out at the local village well and pick up chicks. Did I read the article? No. But I bet my post make just as much sense and is more relevant to life in the 21st century than any guy's personal take on what some mythical desert peasant did 2000 years ago.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  12. sir_ken_g

    The Devil comes in many forms and he often hides behind a veil of religion.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  13. sansdieux

    I posit that if every christian would simply read their bibles, and stop listening to the excuses for same by their leaders, they would instantly become atheists or at the very least agnostics. There are so many contradictions for believing in their all-loving deity in that book alone to drop their entire religion as a hokey pile of steaming garbage.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  14. Motoman

    Mr. Drury should consider going back to gambling as his skills at writing are limited at best.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  15. glu

    These people are hero's any time somebody gets over on the casino I bow down to them. Those thieves have ripped people off from day 1

    March 11, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • sansdieux

      You could say the exact same thing about big corporations. Capitalism is out of control and is promoting class warfare; the bane of what the framers of this great country had in mind. Every man is equal, no matter how much money he has, and we are a country who takes care of all of our citizens, not just the mes and mines. The sooner the christian right understands this (and they should if their Jesus has anything to do with it) the sooner this country would heal.

      March 11, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • right sansideux

      right sansideux, its christians fault that america is fu*ked the way it is right?

      obv. class warfare is jesus' fault


      March 11, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  16. cpc65

    I'm not a big religious or gambling type person, but didn't the J Man knock over bunch of gambling tables that were in a temple? I doubt he'd condone gambling at all, let alone cheating at it, unless all proceeds were going to a worthy cause. It's funny how people can rationalize that what they're doing is okay by convincing themselves that God (or Jesus) is cool with it. Cheating, theft, murder, Inquisitions, jihads, holy wars; those sorts of fun things.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  17. EVN

    What's religion got to do with legitimately beating the casinos? I know the casinos consider card counting improper, but would you expect anything different from them when it comes to cutting into their advantage over you? Card count away – sounds like a pretty empty life, but if that's what trips your trigger go fire the gun.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  18. LAWgistics

    If God gave you the brains, and you can count cards, go for it.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  19. Unconverted

    No different than Pascal's wager .. it's all just a gamble.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:23 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 11, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  20. kamana kapu

    I, too, counted cards but was almost always thrown out by the pit bosses when they suspected me of 'counting', a practice the casino's call 'cheating'. Furthermore, the casino's are very wary of anyone who consistently wins and keep video profiles of thousands of players in their vaults.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:21 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.