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. Johnny 5

    The religion is like a casino in many ways.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  2. Bumper

    Gambling is almost always anti-Biblical.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  3. DeeCee1000

    That's like asking, "What would the Easter Bunny do?", "What would Santa Claus do?", "What would Zeus do?", "What would Horus do?", "What would Medusa do?" Why would I care?

    March 11, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • palintwit

      What would Sarah Palin do?

      March 11, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Charles Darwin

      Exactly. A totally meaningless question.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • palintwit

      "Gettingt Rid of Teabaggers" or "Palintwit's Final Solution"

      1. Walmart advertises a big sale in the gun, knife and ammo department.
      2. Walmart promises a free autographed copy of Sarah Palin's crosshairs poster with every weapon sold.
      3. Walmart promises plenty of free trailer parking.
      4. Hordes of teabaggers inundate Walmart. Birthers show up too.
      5. Nuke Walmart. Simple.

      This method of attracting baggers works equally well at a nascar track.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  4. Knightsix

    I'm certain that both God and Jesus would approve of me putting my boot up the backside of all such individuals who, driven by the most basic of human characteristics (simple greed) quote scripture and the names of deities to justify their gambling perversion.

    So, wrap yourselves in an invisible cloak of the (biblical) emperor's clothing while holding forth with arrogant self-serving nonsense, but never expect any individual with common sense to accept the denial of reality that you and all like you encompass.

    Stuff your pockets, freezer, safey deposit box and/or bedroom drawers, and explain to me any difference in what you do to separate your distorted point of view from common bottom feeders doing the same thing.

    You are the physical representation of hypocrisy, without personal courage to accept responsibility for your own acts...choosing instead to fall back on what all such rely on when confronted with truth; "God made me do it." Sick. Just a thought. Knightsix

    March 11, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • reason

      They were using statistics to make a living off casinos. They were not gambling.

      Also who are you to judge? Christian theology says only God can judge. Christians should be among the least judgemental yet more often they seem to be the most.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  5. AGuest9

    I guess "My Take: Jesus is just alright with card counting" would be actionable by the Doobie Brothers?

    March 11, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  6. t3chsupport

    To me, counting cards seems like it would be part of the game, simply because I'm someone who always looks for a pattern in things, but to most people, it's still cheating.

    And gambling. Playing on statistics is still just as much gambling as horse racing or anything else. It's gambling.

    So now you're using your religion to justify gambling AND cheating.

    And you wonder why people are leaving Christianity in droves... hypocritical much?

    March 11, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Boboseye

      Please tell me how card counting is cheating. You're dealt cards on the table like everyone else. You don't know the dealer's second card – like everyone else. It's only a different strategy that ultimately gives the player an advantage. That's not cheating. That's why it's not illegal.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  7. LuisWu

    All religions = ancient mythology. Period. End of story.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • reason

      Good point.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  8. Charles

    Funny, anytime a community talks about the possibility of gambling being allowed (casino, lottery, sports betting, etc..) it's always the church's that are first in line to protest it.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  9. Mike P

    The question isn't whether card counting is ethical for a Christian. The question is whether gambling is. I once read an early Christian treatise against gambling from about 1500 years ago that says gambling is like making sacrifices to the gods and hoping they reward you.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  10. DidHeSeemTheType?

    I suppose we would have to review the events of his life to determine whether Christ spent time gambling or not. And from the evidence I have, probably not.

    Sorry to disturb the mens rea of the errant gambler that seeks to minimize the integrity of Christ Jesus before the world. He is my Lord and Savior and I am offended by our attempt to offend Him.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • DidHeSeemTheType?


      I suppose we would have to review the events of his life to determine whether Christ spent time gambling or not. And from the evidence I have, probably not.

      Sorry to disturb the mens rea of the errant gambler that seeks to minimize the integrity of Christ Jesus before the world. He is my Lord and Savior and I am offended by Your attempt to offend Him.

      CNN muddied my earlier statement as it posted. Silly, silly CNN!

      March 11, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  11. AGuest9

    LOL! Glad religion is being used for something other than regime change.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  12. Anon

    Just goes to show what a "make it up as you go along" religion Christianity has become.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • AGuest9

      A la carte is the first step to realizing what it isn't.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  13. Reason & Logic

    Want to know how Christ would respond to this? Didn't he chase the money changers out of the Temple?

    March 11, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • sybaris


      March 11, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  14. olepi

    Two things, one easy and one not so easy. The easy one first: card counting is not cheating.

    Second: belief is for those who don't know. Do you believe the sky is blue? Or do you know it? If you never saw the sky, perhaps you would BELIEVE it is blue. But once you have seen it, belief has no place. If you stub your toe, do you need belief in order to feel pain?

    If you have a direct experience, no book is necessary. If you have not had a direct experience, no book will give it to you.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Reason & Logic

      Your line of reasoning has a fault. If you've seen that the sky is blue but now you're in a basement without windows, then you again have to believe that the sky is blue. You do not know if it is still blue.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  15. He who is without sin... (John 8:7)

    "To count cards is to remove the gamble."

    Not true. Counting cards is a strategy that improves the player's chances of winning, but there's always a "gamble".

    And card counting isn't "cheating" as casinos would have you believe. They just don't like it because they don't win as much.

    “Well, God can change anyone.” spouts the "man of the cloth". That's one of the things I dislike most about these holier-than-thou, close-minded, inflexible hypocrites. If you don't believe EXACTLY as they do, you're going to the hot place.

    Then, they conveniently choose to ignore the words of their own "good book", Matthew 7:1 (Judge ye not, that ye not be judged) and assume the role of God Almighty himself, judging away to their pious hearts' content.

    If I do end up "going to the hot place", dollars to pesos I meet more than one of "them" down there. If I do, the first thing I'll say is "Well... looks guess you got judged yourself!

    Step into the booth and tell me all about it, my Son."

    March 11, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  16. Christianity-is-a-Joke

    Who's Jesus? Who cares what he would think?

    March 11, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • A Trolling he shall go

      And who are you? Who cares what you think? [answer = maybe you, but YOU don't "count". Try it, you'll like it!]

      March 11, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  17. chillouteveryone

    The question isn't card counting – have to agree that it's a bit of "turnabout is fair play" for the casinos. Rather, it should asked how this way of making a living squares with identification as a Christian. The author didn't present himself as a card-counter who happens to be Christian, instead he's a Christian that counts cards. Big difference. Too often people self-present as Christians who implicitly hold some moral high ground. "He was with us in the room" Really? God's desire for your purpose in life was to raise large sums of cash in casinos? You can be whatever you want to be, but be intellectually honest. You pursued a career that leveraged a weakness in the system to amass cash without expending too much effort and without producing anything of benefit to those around you. Then you cashed in on a book deal. Hardly the Lord's work.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Do as I say, not as I do, is it?

      You really need to read (and practice) Matthew 7:1. Don't know about that one? Look it up, genius.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  18. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • Chris Honry

      So is thinking you are your own god. When you're on your death bed you'll cry and repent and be scared and sorry you were so selfish and greedy

      March 11, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Four Jumps to Insanity

      Speak for yourself. You as'sume too much. Just because YOU are a coward doesn't mean everyone is. It's the same old BS..."no atheists in foxholes". You simply have no clue what you're talking about.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • right

      but you do right jumps?

      March 11, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Spaced out, I presume?

      Back to your crack pipe. Then go outside. The sand misses your head.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • sybaris

      and Chris Honry whips out that tired old fallacy that if you don't believe in his god then you worship yourself as your own.

      For added drama he throws in the deathbed conversion.

      So lame and baseless but illustrates perfectly a mind poisoned by fear and ignorance.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • reason

      Sybaris, very well said.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • AGuest9

      So, why on your death bed would you "cry and repent"? Repent to what? Why be scared? The pain and illness will be over. If you are worried about being scared and sorry, then don't be so selfish and greedy! Why are you believers so afraid to die if you supposedly believe in this paradise you delude yourselves with?

      March 11, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  19. 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 10:02 am |
    • right

      right reason, not a single faith believer has ever used reason

      a whole host of strawmen are being killed today it seems

      March 11, 2012 at 10:05 am |
    • Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

      Faith rejects reason, which is why it is often called blind. No rational person has ever had to take a leap of faith.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • blind?

      "Rational" people take blind leaps of faith daily. That's the Spinozian basis for "Chris Honry's" statement. From a self perspective, you can only be sure of what you sense (see, feel, etc...). Everything else is taken by faith. That includes our belief that 2+2 is always 4 (seems pretty solidly true, until you may imagine a singularity), parallel lines never converge (solid, except when one considers that space-time may be curved and thus converge), that the spectrum of simple to complex life found on earth proves evolution, that b/c ancient people didn't have modern empirical science (or did they?) proves their ideas are false by default, that b/c I have never seen God, He must not exist, that my organic brain is secreting perfectly flawless thoughts and ideas. The statement about thinking yourself God is a metaphorical way of saying that your perspective is based on yourself, your trust is in yourself. Plato's Protagoras had argued that "Man is the measure of all things".... but which man? Now that you understand the basis of the argument, can you see where you are blindly accepting "facts."

      March 11, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  20. Terry

    Belief in a spiritual being is a gamble unto itself. Counting on a better life than the one you were dealt seems fitting don't you think. For every eight or nine people born into an average life, there are two who are born into a life that appears much better, on the surface. By the way, if you want to stop card counters go to a system whereby the casino uses ten decks of cards, deals cards from a machine under the table, and crucifies card counters in front of the casino.

    March 11, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • You must be joking

      Any such casino would go broke in a week. Think about it.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:19 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.