You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. Deuteronomy 8:18
So here’s a thing: Your church needs money. Casinos are evil. Why not play casinos at their own game to further the work of God?
From 2006-2009, a highly organised Christian blackjack team made up from pastors, church workers and worshippers made $3.6 million dollars from casinos across the United States with a %35 investment return. Using card counting, maths and carefully planned strategy the team regularly turned over hundreds of thousands of dollars at the casinos with the wins going towards the running of churches and discipleship programmes on the American west coast.
“As a pastor of a church, I can play for three days and earn more money than I would ever get in three months,” says one pastor. “You can spend the other time shepherding the people of your church.”
The strange double life of The Church Team is explored in Holy Rollers, a thought-provoking documentary film following the highs and lows of gambling life and presenting the moral dilemmas faced by the players, their families and the Christian churches they belong to.
Team managers Ben and Colin train players, men and women, to count cards and learn bidding strategies. Players are paid an hourly wage no matter what they win or lose. Card counting is classed as cheating in casinos and the film shows the players frequently being thrown out leaving all their winnings behind.
A shared faith in God holds together the team and provides the focus for all of their activity outside church. They thank God that he gives them a good way to provide for their families.
“I love working with them and hanging out. I was looking for a way to find a job and start a church and then my friend talked to me about this blackjack thing,” one player says.
“I’ve usually got $80,000 cash in the house. I used to keep it behind the Bibles and study books, but now my church has bought me a safe.”
Players make investments into the team to provide the capital to play. Typical sums can be a few thousand dollars, but many invest more. One took out a $53,000 dollar loan on a 0% credit card in order to buy into the team. The parents of another player mortgaged their house in order to invest $200,000.
So how can a pastor and a Christian justify playing blackjack?
“People have their ideas about blackjack and we can talk for months explaining and discussing their questions, so we prefer not to talk about it,” say pastors Eddie and Mike. “Our motivation is to do work that will move the Kingdom forward.”
“I feel sure that God is OK with it, but if I felt that were to change then I’d stop. Christians have widely varying reactions when they talk to me about my work, and many say it is evil and immoral. But then they also see that casinos are advertised as places of fun and liberation yet that is a lie too since they are not like that at all.”
When faced with prospects that one of the team was cheating and stealing money from the winnings, other members were reluctant to bring up their suspicions, but they confided in a third team member.
After praying about it, the Holy Spirit told him that their suspicions were true, and on the strength of that testimony he raised the issue with team leader Ben.
“They challenge me in my faith,” says Ben. “I don’t get that Christian fundamentalist weirdo stuff. I don’t hear from God that way.” In fact, this collection of white male and females from middle America includes just about every variation of Christian belief.
Doubt and questioning enters the player’s minds from time to time about whether their work can really sit comfortably within the moral expectations of Christian belief.
“It’s starting to prey on me the differences between my two worlds,” says one. “I baptise someone and then go gambling. I stand by the value of what I do, but really I aim to do something that leaves the community in a better way than when I found it. Blackjack doesn’t do that.” After playing blackjack he turns to training kids in the neighbourhood how to game school entry tests in order to get to a better place in life.
But most find that there is no conflict. “Every hand is determined by God, and he knows the card counting and made it possible by bringing order to the universe. One night after a bad run, I found a verse in Deuteronomy ‘He gives you the power to make wealth and seals his covenant with mankind’. He has proved this for me and there’s no conflict in my mind or conscience. This is my calling.”
Director Bryan Storkel decided to make the film after seeing a friend of his who helped to start the team always having his pockets full of cash.
“It was really strange so I knew I had to do something with the story,” he said following the London screening at the 19th Raindance Film Festival. “I invested in the team, initially a few thousand dollars, and I got a good return, so invested some more which helped to pay for the film. I leant to count cards and took part too from time-to-time.”
“I don’t set out to judge their activity but to outline hypocrisy whether amongst members of the church or that of the casino. I don’t like casinos. Casinos advertise a thing they are not prepared to tolerate and that’s wrong. For me, there’s a game and there are people who can beat it, so why should they be penalised? In the film you see that often the parents of the players are the worst hypocrites. They would say they should go to hell and would rather they sold cocaine, but then they would see the profits and how the money was used would come around and became some of the biggest investors.”
Holy Rollers is playing film festivals and will be released to DVD shortly. Watch the film and then run a discussion session with your own church. Would you gamble to further the work of God?
Holy Rollers: The true story of card counting Christians played Raindance Film Festival, London on 7 October 2011.