They met at a Denny’s in a seedy part of El Cajon. The card counters explained to Shirley exactly what they did in casinos, and how they went about doing it. They received an hourly wage that was not based on winnings but the type of blackjack they played. If they played so-called “hit” blackjack, they would get paid more than playing the “stand” version. If they could buy insurance on their hand, they might make up to $250 an hour. They would have to meticulously keep track of everything, hours played, and all their winnings and losings. They had to pace themselves, and only get a few hours in at each casino, so that the pit bosses and security wouldn’t catch on that they were card counters.
One of the counters brought a deck of cards. They got down to the technical side of how it worked.
“Right there at the table, they showed me how it was done,” Shirley says. “They showed me the schematic of the deviations. It was like I had unlocked the key to a puzzle that other people were clueless about.”
The next night, the guys came over after a long night of playing at Barona Casino. One of them told Shirley that he needed to count and record his money.
“He whipped out several wads of hundred-dollar bills. I mean there was over $100,000 there. I had never seen that much money. Now, it’s no big deal because I have had that much money on me. But, back then, I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, is this really happening?’ It was very powerful. I was in shock.”
Shirley and Will discussed the idea with the leadership at their church.
“They were on board. It didn’t come as a surprise to them. They knew about the team. Our pastor knew several other pastors that were in on it already. We didn’t tell many people that I was joining.”
In order to land a spot on the team Shirley and Will had to fly up to Seattle to convince the team founders that she was a good fit. Shirley is used to getting her way. She is beautiful, brunette, and leggy. When she walks into a room everyone notices. No is not a word she hears often. The guys agreed to give Shirley a chance. It helped that she became an investor.
They gave her $2000 in practice money to get started.
“Quite frankly, they could’ve given a rip about that $2000. It was like play money to them. You have to understand that at that point the team was in a place where they were really flourishing.”
Shirley would need a minimum of 60 hours’ worth of training in casinos. She’d also need to memorize deviation charts before flying back to Seattle to attempt to test onto the team. Testing was a four-day process that involved 12-hour days at Seattle casinos, where the team founders watched Shirley in action. She had to be perfect — or close to it — in order for them to accept her on the team.
“It was hard getting practice time in,” Shirley says. “I was a mom with little kids. I would ask friends if my kids could have a play date. I would feed them lunch and prepare a diaper bag, drop them off, run out to the casino, and come back within two, three hours to get my kids. The people watching my kids had no idea I was at a casino.”
Within a month, she managed to squeeze in her 60 hours of training. When she flew to Seattle to test out, it was the first time she had ever been away from her children for that long. The first step in the process was counting cards at the blackjack table in Ben’s basement. That was the easy part; it only took an hour. Next, Shirley had to card count in a Seattle casino setting, while Ben and Colin watched, keeping track and making sure that her count and deviations were correct every time.
“They were talking to me, trying to confuse me. We were at a table full of people, and they wanted me to hold the table and take control of it. I would spend six hours working with Colin, and then four with Ben, and the same thing the next day. It was crazy. They were very serious about it. This was a job. This wasn’t some sort of hobby. We were playing with other people’s money.”
By Day Two of casino testing, Shirley had what she refers to as a mental breakdown. She wasn’t perfect, and in order to make the team, she had to be. Shirley thought about all the time and effort she had put into attempting to make the team. Failure was not an option. Yet she was making mistakes she had never made before. Part of it was nerves, the pressure of being in a testing environment. After day two, she made a tearful phone call to her husband, who was watching the kids back in San Diego.
“I was hysterical. I’m not an emotional person. I’m not a crier, but I was sobbing. It ended up being a really great gospel moment. Will said to me: ‘It is done. Jesus said, It is done. When my Father sees you, he sees me in your place. He sees you as perfect. You don’t need to prove yourself to those guys. You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone.’”
Shirley says it was one of the defining moments of her life.
“It was transforming in my spiritual relationship with God. It highlighted that my identity is not wrapped up in what I can do. It’s wrapped up in Christ. He has performed everything on my behalf. I felt like a new woman. I prayed that night, and repented for trying to take control of my life. I rested in God. The next day I felt like a new woman. Colin and Ben had told me the day before, ‘Just so you know, you will not test out on this trip. We will keep taking you out for practice sessions, but you will not make the team. You’re done.’ Well, I started practicing with them again, and I killed it. The next two days, I did amazing. They let me on the team.”