April 24, 2014

‘Holy Rollers’ documentary about card-counting Christians

It’s amazing the lengths these young devout Christians will go to gamble. Yet the players revel in their trips to casinos. When Ben gets kicked out for card counting, he starts wearing costumes, ranging from a goth ensemble to, of all things, an M.I.T. student. Another player dresses as a Republican with the elephant logo on his ballcap to explain “why I have a lot of money and why I’m really bad at tipping.”

Click this link for the story I wrote for my SF Chronicle column on gambling – it appeared Aug. 23, 2012.

Full text below as well:

“Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians” is a recent documentary about a group of churchgoers, and even a few pastors, who say they see God’s glory in taking money from casinos.

How do they do it? They count cards at the blackjack table, which can give players an edge. In the film they make it sound simple. It’s not – but it’s possible, and for a while these Seattle Christians are wildly successful.

They call themselves the Church Team, trust one another with tens of thousands of dollars and view it as their mission to throw themselves into dens of iniquity and fatten their bankrolls.

Unlike the subjects of the awful 2008 film “21,” which was based on the true story of a group of MIT students, most members of the Church Team haven’t completed – or in some cases even started – college.

Ben Crawford, the team’s co-founder, began counting cards after reading the book “How to Make $100,000 a Year Gambling for a Living.”

“I had no dreams of it going big,” he says in the film. “I thought it’d be a fun summer. I never thought it would become a business.”

Most team members say they didn’t see a contradiction between their faith and their pursuit of big money – they sometimes won or lost as much as $40,000 daily. When challenged by friends and family, team members justified their gaming by saying it was work, not gambling.

And it was all for one and one for all: Team members didn’t keep their winnings. Instead, all gains and losses were pooled, and each time the team earned $100,000, everyone got a share.

Colin Jones, a leader of the Church Team, said in the film that being a pastor is time-consuming, so “the opportunity to fly to Vegas for two or three days and make enough to live for a month” is ideal because he can spend “the rest of the month shepherding” church members.

It’s clear that the young men – and one woman – of the Church Team love to play blackjack. They justify their “work” by demonizing gambling, but their excitement builds every time they step into a casino.

As one of the players says: “God is so good – he provided this for me. … This is my calling.”

Last year the Church Team disbanded, saying they’d earned $3.2 million in five years. But for Crawford and Jones, blackjack remains a source of income. Through their site Blackjack Apprenticeship, they provide free videos, a $9.99 e-book and a card-counting boot camp ($1,499).

“We hope you do your part,” Crawford says in a video, “in bringing down the house.”

“Holy Rollers” is available on DVD. For more information, go to www.holyrollersthemovie.com

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