Holy Rollers Film Stacks the Deck

Seattle’s card-counting blackjack team has a big guy on its side: God.

By Matthew Halverson, James Ross Gardner, Karen Quinn, and Laura Dannen April 24, 2012 Published in the May 2012 issue of Seattle Met

In the past five years, a team of card-counting blackjack sharks took $3.2 million from casinos across the U.S. They stuck it to the man in Las Vegas and preyed on smaller operations from Indiana to Washington state. It wasn’t gambling—it was work. A profession. Players received an hourly wage for their time at the tables, and their returns were divvied up among investors. Money was secreted through airport security taped to legs and stuffed in socks. Some Saturdays, the team barely saw the light of day—just the bling and ka-ching of the slots, the cigarette-stained carpets, the cocktail waitresses in too-tight tops.

And on Sundays, the card counters went to church.

Seattle’s team of “Holy Rollers” made national headlines last year when a documentary about their adventures in gambling did the film festival circuit. Card-counting blackjack players weren’t news—but card-counting Christians? Yeah, that’s something. “I learned how to play blackjack ­professionally from my pastor,” goes one line in Holy Rollers (recently released on Video on Demand). And he likely learned from “Church Team” founders Colin Jones and Ben Crawford: one a math major, the other a man of faith who doesn’t mind getting into a little trouble. See, the Bible doesn’t explicitly say, “Thou shall not gamble,” but it certainly doesn’t encourage false gods like the almighty dollar—or any of the other, shall we say, perks of casinos. “You’re putting yourself in an environment filled with vices…but you want to live life with challenges and questions,” said teammate David Drury, a 40-year-old Shoreline resident, father of two, and member of Wit’s End church. But at the end of the day, he says, they’re just playing a game, and playing it well.

“Card counting isn’t gambling. When you learn the game and run the numbers, there are only a certain number of variables. You can actually gain an advantage,” he said. It’s a David-and-Goliath story line reinforced in the movie by the Greek chorus of card counters:

“Casinos mislead people—give them the hope that they’ll win.”
“Casinos take advantage of our disadvantage.”
“Why is addition and division illegal?”

Why indeed? Technically, it’s not. But casinos can refuse service if they suspect you’re messing with them. As Drury says, getting kicked out of casinos is part of the job—that’s why they wear disguises. Bushy beards, makeup, trucker hats. One of Drury’s best covers is a comb-over, vest, and khakis, a look he calls “My Dad.”

And though the team has officially cashed in its chips, Drury—a writer by trade—hopes to relive these tales in a book he’s working on. He wants to be the David Sedaris of Christian card-counting blackjack players. Don’t we all.

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