Nate is unassuming. He has brown hair and an average build. He wears khakis and collared three-button shirts. He isn’t flashy. He makes Christian jokes. For instance: “We should just have barcodes tattooed on our foreheads that can be scanned during offering.” He giggles over this. So does his wife. He doesn’t appear to be the kind of guy who would sweat it out at a blackjack table.
Nate joined a Christian card-counting team in 2009, after being approached by a couple who attended his church. Nate’s wife, Faith, was pregnant at the time. He had just been let go from his job as a math teacher at a small local Christian college. His toddler was sick, they weren’t sure with what. It started with high fevers, followed by seizures; the doctors mentioned cancer. On top of that, Nate was in charge of overseeing a new church plant in the SDSU area. (“Planting” involves overseeing the operations of a sister church and making sure it grows in the community.) It was a full-time job that he wasn’t paid to do. He was broke and rattled by his responsibilities.
Shirley and Will, a couple who hosted Bible classes for newly married church members in their home, invited Nate to join the team. “It was pretty shocking. It wasn’t something I was even going to consider. ”
Nate had always thought about gambling in a casual, recreational way. He’d played cards with his brothers and attended poker nights but had never gambled in a casino. He hadn’t even played a slot machine. The way he saw it, the house had the advantage, so why bother wasting his money.
“I have always seen gambling as a tax for people that are bad at math.” Nate laughs.
He admits that while the idea of becoming a professional card counter seemed ridiculous, there was something compelling about it.
“I like games and I like problem solving, so the math part of card counting appealed to me. The fact that, in this instance, the house didn’t have the advantage was an interesting concept.”
Nate and Faith began to seriously consider the proposition, and, slowly, Nate allowed himself to believe card counting could be a viable source of income for his family. According to Shirley, once on the team, Nate would only have to play 40 hours a month. He would get paid hourly, and he would be gambling with investors’ money, never his own. He could foreseeably make much more working part time than he’d made at his previous, full-time job. More importantly, Nate’s time would be freed up to focus on planting the new church. The plan seemed perfect, smart even.
“We were in a financial place where it seemed a risk might make sense,” says Nate. “Faith thought it was really cool, so she was more of a driving force behind joining.”
Adds Faith, “Well, I mean, who does that? Who spends time in casinos and loves Jesus? Casinos are raping people for money, and we could be a part of taking a little bit back. The fact that the team was made up of people who love Jesus and are in ministry was such a cool thing.”
Before making an official decision to join the team, Faith and Nate ran it past the pastor of their church and the Bible study group they lead in their home.
“Most people were supportive,” Nate says. “There was one couple in our group that was uncomfortable with the idea. It was mostly the wife. She had a problem with the deceit. We talked it out as a community, and I agreed that I would never take trips alone to Vegas. I would always have a spotter, and I wouldn’t pretend to be someone I wasn’t. I would go into it with integrity and honesty.”
Before being considered for the team, Shirley, who was a member and an investor for the team, had to vouch for Nate.
“The reason the team worked,” Shirley tells me, “is because we all had accountability to Jesus. We could be trusted with large amounts of money, because we answer to a higher power. We weren’t about to steal from our team. When I recommended Nate, if he [later] proved to be untrustworthy or unethical, I would be off the team. I didn’t recommend him lightly.”
Adds Nate, “Colin and Ben, the team mangers, wanted to know why they should trust me. Shirley told them that if anything happened to her or Will, Faith and I would be in charge of their children. That was good enough. If they trusted me with their children then I could be trusted with their money.”
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Shirley had joined the team for the thrill. Card counting was not her family’s only source of income.
“It was a very unique and elite job,” she says. “A very, very small population of the world can say, ‘I was a professional card counter.’ And I am one of those people.”
The event that began Shirley’s card-counting career was a conference that her church put on. Her husband met two men, a worship leader and a pastor. They mentioned that, while in San Diego, they planned to spend some time working in the Indian casinos. By working, they did not mean handing out Bibles to gambling addicts. They would be playing blackjack. The guys told Will about the team and how they were managing close to $100,000 weekly.
Will was intrigued. He loved the concept. He immediately thought of his wife, who was a stay-at-home mom. He was convinced that Shirley would be a perfect fit for the team. He knew she would love the idea. Within minutes, he had her on the phone with one of the card counters. By the time she hung up, Shirley had convinced them to meet her and Will the next morning to discuss allowing her onto the team.
“I thought the whole idea was amazing,” says Shirley. “We loved the concept of the team and the fact that it was funding people that were pastors and in ministry. I liked that the team allowed them a full source of income to provide for their families and their ministries.”