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Holy Rollers: Christians, blackjack and card counting

A team of Christian card counters says it made millions while practicing a controversial skill and getting kicked out of casinos.

SEATTLE To some Christians, they were sinners.

To most casinos, they were unwelcome.

But that didn't stop a team of blackjack players an unlikely group of Christians who met through various church connections from taking millions of dollars from casinos over a five-year period.

What made the group truly intriguing was that they practiced a controversial skill known as card counting, which allowed players to gain a slight advantage by keeping track of dealt cards, then adjusting their bets. It s a skill that takes a great deal of practice to master.

Their adventures are chronicled in a documentary called, Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians.

David Drury, a Seattle-area writer who holds a masters degree in Christian studies, made a living playing for the team, which disbanded last year.

I was a stay-at-home dad during the week, and then I was a high-stakes gambler on the weekend, Drury said. It s a lot of fun to live that life.

The Church Team

The group, which was started by Ben Crawford and Colin Jones, was known as the church team.

It seemed perfect because it s not like I want to meet my gambling associates at a bar, said team member Dusty Wisniew.

The team was structured like a business and financed by investors. Players like Drury and Wisniew, who mastered the skill of card counting, earned a wage as they traveled to casinos across the country, sometimes winning tens of thousands of dollars one day, then losing similar amounts the next.

Most players made enough to live on by working about 40 hours a month.

It was a lifestyle that helped me feed my family, and it gave me free time to do what I was called to do, which is write, Drury said.

For other team members, including some pastors, it gave them more time to engage in church activities.

But this was not a Robin Hood situation. While some of their earnings ended up on the offering plate, this was how the members made their living.

Players vs. casinos

Still, several of the players felt casinos were evil and took great joy in taking money from them. During one scene in the Holy Rollers movie, the team gathers to celebrate earning $1.58 million in a year.

So for those of you who hate casinos, we re doing our part, one team leader told the group as they celebrated.

Most casinos, not surprisingly, were not too fond of the Christian card counters either. The documentary shows the players repeatedly getting kicked out of casinos that had figured out they were counting cards.

Drury has kept a collection of notices from casinos that asked him to leave for unacceptable behavior. Some casinos even expelled him for life.

It s a compliment in a way, Drury said. You re playing well enough that they see you as a threat.

Counting cards is not illegal in Washington state.

It is a skill that can be learned, said Rick Schulte, a special agent with the Washington State Gambling Commission.

However, casinos can stop suspected card counters. Schulte likens it to a buffet.

If a person s at an all-you-can-eat buffet and they re eating you out of house and home, figuratively, you can say, Hold, enough, you re hurting us, and we d like you to stop now, he said.

Drury said some casinos passed around surveillance photos of him in various disguises -- part of their effort to keep him out of casinos.

There have been casinos I ve walked in where I ve never been before, and they know me by name when I walk in the door, and say, David, you re not allowed to play here. We don t want your action, Drury said.

Moral questions

To some, the life of a card counter seems to be at odds with the life of a Christian.

David Anderson, a retired pastor and gambling opponent, was deeply concerned when he learned about the church team. He points to Proverbs 13:11.

Wealth gained quickly disappears quickly, Anderson said. It s about principle. Principles are non-negotiable. You never sacrifice principles, not for anything win or lose.

Some on the team, including Drury, admit wrestling with the issue.

There was a bit of gray area about my service to the world, he said. Am I called to beat a game?

But Wisniew had no reservations. He felt it was not a sin. He was simply using math skills to play a game.

It doesn t really seem like an unchristian thing to do, Wisniew said. To me, the whole point of Jesus s ministry is to illustrate that it s not what you do or don t do, it s who you are.

The players are adamant that card counting is not the same as gambling.

To me, it s just playing a game the best you can, Wisniew said. It s not gambling because I have the advantage.

Despite their advantage, the players still lost on a regular basis. And the documentary chronicles the team as it works to survive a severe losing streak.

The team disbanded last year, saying it won more than $3 million from beginning to end. Drury is now writing a book on his adventures.

The team s founders, Crawford and Jones, are running a business called Blackjack Apprenticeship, which teaches people how to count cards.

The Holy Rollers documentary is currently available to buy or rent through iTunes, On Demand or pay-per-view television. More information on the movie is available at www.holyrollersthemovie.com.