What I learned as a card-counting Christian

If the Holy Spirit lives inside of me, He sure has been to an awful lot of casinos.

For the last six years, I was a card counter. I played on a team of more than two dozen card counters, all of us trained to beat casinos at the game of blackjack. What made our team different is that we did not fit the mold of gamblers wildly tilting at windmills in the hopes of a lucky payday. We were pastors, church planters and family men with Bible degrees. Our story is told in the documentary film Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians.

Card counting is not illegal. It is not cheating. It is using your intelligence to beat a game that the casinos have invited you to beat, even if they respond by showing you the door when you prove that you can, in fact, beat it. By the same token, using card counting to gain an edge at blackjack is not gambling. Those who master the art can be assured a return on their investment over time. This is a matter of math, not chance.

Granted, it is a strange career choice. I traveled through airports with $80,000 in cash strapped to my body, answering questions to the occasional confounded TSA or DEA agent. I bet thousands of dollars a hand. When I played - whether they rooted me on or called me foolish - people stop and stared. I dressed like a scruffy long-haul trucker one night, only to return to the tables dressed like a Republican accountant the next morning to throw surveillance off my trail. I dodged heat, ducked security and paid my taxes. Some casinos offered me free luxury suites and paid for my airfare. Others evicted me from their property. All told, I won three quarters of a million dollars for my team.

For many, it remains difficult to justify. Casinos are hardly a moral safe ground for Christians. Surely the ever-looming love of money is overwhelming. What service is a Christian offering the world by beating a game? If you are misrepresenting yourself at the tables, isn’t that lying? Are you encouraging other gamblers? These were the difficult questions, and we, as a team, always allowed ourselves to wrestle with them.

On the other hand it can be easy to justify: casinos are evil entities from which we liberated a fraction of their resources to perpetuate evil. We supported our families with this endeavor. We grew together, working towards a common goal. We celebrated together and consoled one another. As a writer I saw myself as a gatherer of stories for what I hope will be one heck of a book.

However, when it comes to questions of right or wrong, I would suggest a third alternative - altogether removing the instinct to justify (for or against). Christ put to death on the cross the need to justify ourselves. We are on a journey, and it is God who is drawing us to Himself from wherever we are at, not to become depersonalized cloned creatures, but to become more fully and redemptively ourselves in the company of other unique creatures. We are called to live relationally with God and neighbor in full view of all the mercy and mystery of the Gospel and, likewise, all the hard questions.

If God calls us to excellence, for the last six years I was excellent at the blackjack tables. Lord knows I have been a lot less than excellent at a lot of other things. I choose to believe that means something.

What Do You Think?

  • Can card-counting be considered a legitimate Christian vocation?
  • If you gamble, how do you reconcile it with your faith?

 

David Drury is writing a book about his card-counting adventures. / Photo of David Drury courtesy of Rosemary Wagner Photography.

Comments (13)

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Choosing not to "justify" one's actions one way or the other seems to be little more than choosing to ignore any hard questions that might come along with the way one earns ones money. It's hardly a third way. Either their are legitimate reasons to be a professional black jack player or their are not.

Lee Hardy, in his book "The Fabric of this World," defines a Christian idea of vocation as "a social place for the responsible exercise of a significant range of human talents and abilities in the service of one's neighbor."

Professional black jack seems to me to lack any sort of "service of one's neighbor." Yes, if you are "excellent" at black jack, you can make money playing the game. But that seems to be all black jack can be ... a means to an end.
I believe every single person who claims to be a Christian has to justify their career choices to the larger Christian community.

Oh, wait, that sounds absolutely absurd. Carry on.
"Can card-counting be considered a legitimate Christian vocation?"

When I think of a "legitimate Christian vocation" I think pastor, not game player... no matter that game.

However, if the question is tweaked to "can card-counting Christians be professional card players?" the answer is yes.

"If you gamble, how do you reconcile it with your faith?"

Put your money in the bank, and you gamble. Put your money in a mattress, you gamble. Get in a car and drive to church, you gamble. Spend $15 to see a movie, you gamble. Everything is a gamble. I realize that there are people who think that gambling is this thing that you do to win money, but it isn't.

Gambling is inherent in everything we do, all the time. Whether or not the gambles we take are right or wrong is more about why we are gambling. Doing it for fun? that is OK! Doing it for professional reasons? That is OK too! Hurting people with your gambles? That isn't so OK.

In Matthews 'Parable of the Talents' I am always struck by the fact that the Masters servants are entrusted with money and actually expected to make a return on their stewardship; that is to speculate with what they have been given - to gamble. I am always intrigued with what would have happened if their speculation failed and the third, 'wicked' servant then replied, 'Here are your talents Lord, I give them all back for they were never mine to begin with...'
The significant questions to me regarding the suitability of careers are:

Does this work and what it produces make the world more like the new heavens and the new earth? Does it contribute to blessing the nations? Does it enable people to be more loving, more honest, more connected, more genuinely human?

These are difficult questions to answer, and I ponder them about my own work (which is software development). There is probably no career in existence which can be guaranteed to pass these tests.

As concerns card-counting as a career, I have doubts that these questions could be answered "yes". This is in large part because as far as I can see, card-counting doesn't "produce" anything in particular, apart from money.

I have an acquaintance who is employed by a patent troll, and I have similar doubts about the suitability of that profession. It is as far as I can see a "parasitic" profession.
I'm forced to wonder if the reaction to this piece would have been different if, instead of being a card-counter, the author were an investment banker, hedge fund manager, or bank executive.

I'd wager there would be a bit less negativity—despite Wall Street being ten times as much a den of corruption as any casino, despite the fact that investment is no less gambling than putting money on blackjack, despite the fact that the criminals on Wall Street have ruined a hundred lives for every one ruined by a casino.

It's fascinating how so many Christians are willing to judge someone for playing cards for money—and then turn around and support a banker who charges usurious rates to the poor, or a financier who spends their day gambling on the markets with other people's money, for the Board of Elders.
In terms of "justifying" one's actions, I think of the lawyer who, "seeking to justify himself" tried to make Jesus get specific with who his neighbor was so that he could go and "love" his neighbor by the book. But Jesus, and Christianity throws out by-the-book living. the lawyer doesn't get a straight answer and is forced to live in that tension.

I am trying to live in that tension. I think there are plenty of good questions to ask about this strange career choice. I don't want to deflect those questions. Neither, however, do I want to rush into a black-and-white answer.
James, for what its worth, I would give pretty much the same answer if somebody had posted a similar article about those jobs, too. I don't really understand why you accuse people of "judging" when the blog post specifically asked for opinions about card counting.
David, how would you respond to the latter part of my comment above? Specifically, do you see your black jack playing as offering any service towards your neighbor? Many people have jobs, from artists to engineers to janitors to teachers, that don't need justification because the jobs are valuable in themselves. In one way or another, the artist, the engineer, the janitor and the teacher all serve others. Playing black jack as a job seems to lack that.
Brad:

The best answer I can give you is that card counting gave my neighbor a more whole ME.

Whereas when I worked a depressing 9-5 previously, I was away from my family more. Card counting gave me certain work freedoms that afforded me more time with them....and ostensibly other "neighbors".

Also, card counting freed me in terms of setting my own work goals and redeemed my work habits with regards to a team/co-workers.

I would say this--being "excellent" at blackjack beget excellence in other areas of my life. I woke up to patterns of procrastination, laziness, and lack of vulnerability and started to change those patterns.

 

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