Three disguises for Ben, a card-counting team manager
  • Three disguises for Ben, a card-counting team manager
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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.”

∗ ∗ ∗

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.”

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David Dodd April 11, 2012 @ 2:35 p.m.

Very interesting story, no idea where you find these. I can relate to it. I was never on any team, but well over 20 years ago when I was between wives and single, I did Vegas about every weekend, Vegas or Laughlin. And Shirley is right, counting is very simple, you just have to concentrate. I would stake around $40 and get up when I had between $500 and $1,000 so they were never suspicious. You play at the minimum tables. It usually takes about 2 - 3 hours to get there. I stopped after I met my wife.


xians421 April 11, 2012 @ 10:58 p.m.

No Shirley, you weren't gambling you were CHEATING. Hypocritical Christians are hypocrites. Before you ask, yes I've counted. And won, but I don't have your creator to answer to.


xians421 April 11, 2012 @ 10:59 p.m.

Jesus would double down on an eight, and draw a thirteen.


xians421 April 13, 2012 @ 8:03 p.m.

I am not a Christian (just my name, not my game), therefore I do not answer to any god. How is it morally proper to CHEAT? These people might as well grab money from the collection plate as it passes by.


mommylinda April 12, 2012 @ 12:02 a.m.

Well, your husband and two brothers in law could do it, I know I could do it, as could your father in law. I dont know if you know it, but when your father in law and his two sisters were youngsters, our parents took the television away. We read and played games. All of us are card counters. As a matter of fact, our grandmother, who was a devout Christian, was a consummate card player and could have beat the house any time.
We didnt have gambling back then, but if you dont have skills, dont challenge any of us to a card game. We will get you.


Duhbya April 12, 2012 @ 9:06 a.m.

"I would go into it (cheating) with integrity and honesty.”

Words escape me.


Jeremy Dean April 12, 2012 @ 9:25 a.m.

Today true Christians heed the warning found at Isaiah 65:11, 12. They do not believe in “Good Luck,” as if it were some kind of supernatural force able to bestow favors. Refusing to squander their material possessions in trying to appease “the god of Good Luck,” they avoid all forms of gambling. They are convinced that those devoting themselves to this god will eventually lose everything, for to such ones God says: “I will destine you men to the sword.” (Death)


mepitts April 12, 2012 @ 9:16 p.m.

Incredible. As a conservative Christian I never cease to be amazed at the kinds of behavior and beliefs that people try to claim as "Christian." Sorry world!


Catbird April 13, 2012 @ 8:43 p.m.

The endless stream of perceived "wrongs" that Jesus supposedly allows good Christians myriad ways to "right" never ceases to amaze me! In the end, the card counting Christians presented are just a part of our human family trying their best to make ends meet and/or meet emotional needs just like the rest of us. I give them a B+ for creativity in trying to justify their actions with their religious beliefs. It's a dirty job but someone has to punish them dang casinos!


maria52 April 18, 2012 @ 5:03 p.m.

What an enchanting article! So off-beat. I love reading such crazy, quirky stuff like this. For a story. Real life? That's a little different. Then we get into some christians doing this in....what? Name of God? So what? They can build more churches on ill-gained money? Doesn't that seem just outrageously hypocritical? And very manipulative. I mean in some ways, I gotta give these Christians a high five. To have such breathtaking cajones to manipulate the word of God to their own liking. Extraordinarily creative rationalization going on here. I'm not even a Christian. But I love to rationalize. And that is some ingenious rationalizing,


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