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?