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Entertainment & the Arts | March 15, 2012

Holy card shark


Members of the Church Team, a professional blackjack team made up of Christians, worked through the morality of card counting

Crawford/ Photo from Facebook

By day, Mark Treas leads worship and baptizes new believers. By night, he plays blackjack at Caesars Palace and other Vegas casinos.

It's all in a day's work for Treas, who calls himself a Christian card counter. He's part of a highly successful team of professional blackjack players known as the Church Team. The group was composed of 90 percent active Christians, included pastors, worship leaders, and church planters.

At times, the team acted like any other fellowship group, gathering for quarterly meetings, keeping each other accountable, and encouraging each other to be lights in the dark casino environment. But they spent their nights in Las Vegas, winning more than $3 million in three years and getting kicked out of casinos across North America.

Colin Jones, the co-founder of the Church Team, said the group's overarching goal was to use their activities as a platform for living out their faith: "The way we see the world, everything a Christian does is a ministry, whether you're a plumber or a priest."

But many question if card counting is compatible with a Christian worldview. Even the players themselves mention the gray areas and differing opinions about their work.

Card counting is a strategy in blackjack where the player mentally tracks what cards are played to calculate the probability of a certain hand. While not illegal, casinos consider the practice cheating and will ban players they catch beating their system.

Jones and Ben Crawford first picked up the basic techniques of card counting as a hobby, but when friends from church expressed interest, they created the Church Team as a business venture in 2006.

Using money from outside investors and their own bank accounts - some risking mortgages and life savings - the Church Team rolled in $3.2 million from 2006-2009, with investors making a 35 percent annual return on their money. The players were confident in the statistics behind card counting and compared playing blackjack to playing the stock market.

"Investors spend a lot of time studying markets, they learn how to interpret the data and they acquire this special knowledge that allows them to make money," Treas said.

Bryan Storkel, who followed the group for three years to film a documentary called Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians, said he wondered whether gambling could be justified with a Christian worldview.

"There's not something in the Bible that explicitly says not to gamble," Storkel said. "But every person has to go through their own cycle of questioning the issue and turning to Scripture for conviction."

Treas said that before he joined the team he had to wrestle with the moral issue. He concluded that gambling is a neutral thing--like having a beer or shopping--not bad in itself, but sinful if abused.

But some Christians disagree. Last month, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that gambling is motivated by greed, which is condemned in verses like 1 Timothy 6:10. He called the casino "a symbol of cultural decay and the death of character" and said that gambling lures people in with the promise of wealth and entraps them in a loop of disappointment and despair.

Many players actually agree with Mohler's view of casinos, saying they hate the way casinos exploit people. Liberating money from casinos was an extra motivator, and one player said that he considered playing blackjack "a calling," not a hustle.

Jones also said that professional gambling can actually keep players from falling into gambling addictions. "Most addictions have everything to do with trying to escape reality. But when you're a professional blackjack player, you're not escaping reality at all. You're exhausted after eight hours of sitting at a table using your mind to play."

They also tried to hold each other accountable while working in an environment with a lot of temptations: "We felt that if people were falling into sin because of this job we'd shut the business down," said Jones.

But as unhappy casinos continued to kick out the card counters, more "gray areas" arose.

Casinos have a business's right to deny service to any customer, including card counters, and players sometimes disguised themselves to avoid detection by security. In the documentary, Crawford is seen donning a range of costumes, including an MIT professor and a black-lipped goth.

Most of the Church Team's members considered their blackjack careers as just a season in their lives.

Jones and Crawford now work on web-based start-ups and Treas, now a father of two, used his winnings to start Torch Prep, a test prep tutoring company for high school students. He says he quit not for moral reasons, but because "I want the work of my hands to represent more than me making a bucket of cash."

But even with the disintegration of the Church Team, their practices still ignite debate amongst Christians.

Storkel said that there's something wrong if people aren't skeptical about a team of Christians gambling for a living: "This is a gray issue, and there are questions that need to be asked."

This story first appeared in WORLD California.