Three disguises for Ben, a card-counting team manager
Image by HolyRollersTheMovie.com
Image by HolyRollersTheMovie.com
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.”
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.
Casino surveillance at PJ Pockets, Washington State
Image by HolyRollersTheMovie.com
“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.”
On the last night of her testing, Ben and Colin told Shirley she had to take control of the blackjack table. They wanted to make sure that, if she lost count, she could make the table pause so she could recover and get it back.
“I actually got up from the table to take cell phone calls. I pissed off everyone around me. They had to wait for me to resume playing. They yelled at me, telling me I had to play, and I said, ‘No, I don’t. As a matter of a fact, I have 20 minutes, so I’m going to go use the bathroom.’ Colin and Ben were dying. Colin was laughing so hard he was weeping. They had never seen anyone run a table like that. They wanted to see extreme, and I showed them extreme.”
Shirley says that the most surreal situation in the testing-out process was the money. After being told she had made the team, they rushed back to Ben’s house to gather her luggage. She had to catch a flight home that night. Colin brought over a duffel bag filled with the money Shirley would use to begin her career. It was like a movie moment. He handed her the bag, and she shoved $60,000 in her purse.
“We were rushing to the airport to make my flight, and I had $60,000 sitting on my lap. It was crazy.”
One of the team rules is that members are not allowed to keep their money in a bag or purse. It has to be kept on their person at all times. They don’t trust minimum-wage workers at the airport with that kind of money. It is never to be run through carry-on-scanners for fear it will be stolen.
“What am I supposed to do with all of this money? Where do I put it?” she frantically asked Colin.
“Shove it in your pants,” he told her.
When Shirley got to the airport that night she was literally shoving money down her pants and into the sleeves of her shirt.
“I was so nervous. After that night, I had a system. I would wear baggy clothes on my Vegas flights. Some of our players have been met by FBI agents at the airport, when the amount of money they were carrying on them has been discovered. I didn’t want to ever go through that headache.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Nate’s first attempt at testing onto the team was a failure. He had only done 40 hours of training.
“The guys told me that no one had ever tested onto the team after only 40 hours, but that if I thought I could do it, I should try. So I flew out to Seattle. I thought I would make it. I have always been the kind of person who, as long as I work at something really hard, I can do it.”
“It was an emergency need,” adds Faith. “We had a mortgage payment, our third baby had just been born, and our son was very sick. We needed the money.”
When he didn’t make it the first time, Faith and Nate were disappointed. But Nate was confident that with more training he could do it. His goal was to do 120 hours and attempt to make the team again. He mostly played at Barona and Viejas.
Nate says that he practiced at Viejas so much that he got to know some of the regulars.
“There was this old man who was always waiting for his girlfriend to get back from shopping. He said she was at the outlets and would be back any minute now. He was there every day, and he was always telling people that same story. I never saw his girlfriend. Then there were all the people with their oxygen tanks. They’d come in with their Social Security check, sit down, and play all day.”
“It’s a pretty depraved culture,” says Faith.
Nate continues, “I wanted to tell everyone I met, ‘Yeah, I don’t really have a gambling problem. I’m paid to do this.’ I remember when I came back to Viejas after I had been on the team for a long time. They really remembered me. They remembered that before I was playing with a lot less money. They saw me bet a large amount, and you could just see it on their faces that they thought I was just another person that had gotten addicted to gambling.”
While getting training time in at Barona, sometimes Nate’s family would stay in a suite. While he worked, Faith would take the kids to the pool for the day.
Nate laughs. “Sometimes, we would walk through the casino with the kids, and Faith would point to a blackjack table and say, ‘Look, that’s where Daddy works.’”
∗ ∗ ∗
The weekend after Shirley made the team, her husband attended a pastor’s conference in Las Vegas. She went with him. A couple of Shirley’s teammates, who were pastors, were also there.
“They hooked all of us up with phenomenal suites from comps they had received from the casinos. In one day, we charged over $500 worth of decadent food. We had filet mignon and lobster. We didn’t have to pay for any of it.”
One of the greatest perks of being a professional card counter was the comps. When guests walk into a casino and begin playing $2000 hands, the pit bosses do anything they can to get them to stick around. A casino figures that high rollers always lose, and the house stands to make a hefty amount of cash off them. The major players get limo service, free food, beverages, and 2000-square-foot suites — basically, anything to accommodate them.
With the exception of her teammates and husband, no one else at the conference knew Shirley was a card counter. That weekend, she totaled 26 hours of casino play.
“I was on probation. They had let me on the team despite making an error on an ace deviation while I was testing out. My punishment was 40 hours’ probation, playing at a lower hourly rate. I wanted to get that out of the way. I didn’t play any of the big casinos. Only the seasoned players are allowed to play those. I had to have 80 hours in before I could do that. I played at a lower spread, $500 or $1000 a hand. I was only making $80–$100 per hour.”
Shirley says that card counting was a huge adrenaline rush. After a few months on the team, when she started getting really good, Shirley began to draw crowds.
“I was playing with such large sums of money that people couldn’t help but watch. Crowds would gather around my table. They would literally have to call security to push people back. It was awesome.”
The most Shirley won in the shortest amount of time was $35,000 in 30 minutes. It was at the Red Rock Casino, just off The Strip.
“As I was sitting there waiting for my money, the casino manager walked past me. He never stopped. He just whispered behind me, ‘You’re done.’ He knew I was a card counter.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Nate wasn’t on the team long when he realized that blackjack was not the easy paycheck he’d signed up for.
“If I lived in Seattle, where a lot of other team members were, it would have been an easier job. They have tons of casinos out there. It was hard in San Diego. My philosophy was to try to go in and do a 30–45 minute session. I would have to drive all the way up to Viejas, Barona, or Harrah’s, and only be able to play a tiny bit. I would try to win and get out before I was kicked out for card counting. Because of this, I ended up doing a Vegas trip, sometimes twice a month, depending on the comps I was getting there.”
On Nate’s first trip to Vegas, he made $60,000.
Image by HolyRollersTheMovie.com
On Nate’s first trip to Vegas, he made $60,000.
“At the time, I didn’t realize it was an anomaly to win that much. I thought it would always be that way. I can remember a point halfway through my blackjack career, saying to Faith, ‘I just need to get to Vegas. In Vegas I’ll win.’”
The 40 easy hours per month that Nate was counting on, in order to free up time for his church planting and his family, turned into two weekends each month spent away from home. In order to play, he had to go to destinations like Reno, Kansas City, or Vegas. When he started getting really good, casinos began to catch on. Pit bosses and security would figure out that he was counting cards, and they would “back him off,” come to his table and ask him to leave. Sometimes, he would be “trespassed,” which meant that if he were ever seen at that casino again, he could be arrested. Some casinos even went so far as to produce a flier with Nate’s face on it to alert their competition that he was a card counter.
“Once, at Barona, I was down $12,000, and they told me my play was too good for them. It was frustrating. Sometimes, I would fly somewhere for the weekend, and they would back me off after only 30 minutes. My entire weekend would be wasted.”
Nate says that being on the team was a lot like the way the film 21 portrayed a card-counting team to be, “minus the drugs and orgies, of course. The truth is, we had some of the top blackjack players in the world on our team.”
“We were bigger than the MIT team,” adds Shirley.
While it was fast-paced and exciting, at times it could be extremely tedious.
“Card counting is not rocket science,” Shirley explains. “That’s a misconception. You could teach a monkey to do this. You have to have drive and motivation. You need to let stuff roll off your back. You can’t get offended when people yell at you or kick you out of their casinos. Nate is easygoing and level-headed, and I don’t care what people think about me. We were perfect for it.”
A documentary on their team, called Holy Rollers, came out this year. In the film, Shirley wears a wig and glasses. She speaks candidly about what it was like to be a Christian card counter. Nate can be seen in the film as well. In one shot, I spot him sitting in Ben’s basement during a team meeting. Not a single team member is wearing an Ed Hardy T-shirt or a fedora. They appear ordinary. They look like the kind of people you might bump into at the park pushing their kids on swings.
∗ ∗ ∗
“Part of the reason I did the card counting was because it made for a great date night with my husband in Vegas,” Shirley says.
In the beginning of Shirley’s card-counting career, the casinos assumed she was a high roller, because she was betting so much money. She would play for a couple of hours at one casino and move on to the next. She wanted to maintain the illusion of merely being a wealthy woman with money at her disposal.
“The casinos would give us RFBL (room, food, beverage, and limo). They would pick Will and I up from the airport in a limo, drive us over to our suite, and when I say suite — we stayed in phenomenal places. Many times the suites were bigger than our house. It was ridiculous.”
When Shirley arrived in Vegas, she would often be given a personal host at multiple casinos. She was constantly receiving fliers in the mail from various places offering free suites, $1000 chips, shopping sprees, and show tickets. Her favorite comp was from Harrah’s casino. They paid for her family to take an Alaskan cruise.
“The Hard Rock Casino hired a couture house to come out and design clothing for their high rollers. I had a custom jacket made. I picked out the fabric and design, and they measured me. They drove out to my home and hand-delivered the jacket in a gorgeous box. They came to my Podunk house, and I’m sure they were wondering, ‘Who the hell is this woman, and how is she getting a custom coat made?’”
The Venetian sent her a flier for a two-night suite, $400 dollars in food, and $1000 in slot play just for showing up. The flier was good for eight weeks. For two months, once a week, Shirley would fly to Vegas to take advantage of it. She would sit down in front of a slot machine and play $1000. It would take her two or three hours to play.
“On Tuesdays, I would get the kids, take them to school, and fly out to Vegas in the afternoon to take advantage of the slot-play comp. I won $800–$900 each time. On top of that, I would get $400 in free food. I would go to our favorite restaurant and eat my meal. I would then order dinner and a bunch of gourmet sandwiches for the next two days. Then I would get a $200 gift card at my favorite sushi restaurant. After my expenses to get there, I wound up with at least $500 in my pocket. That is how we put our new floors in and paid for our marble fireplace. Not bad for a stay-at-home mom.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Eighteen months into Nate’s blackjack career, he started to burn out.
“I questioned a lot of things in my life. I started getting disillusioned with some of the stuff I used to feel pretty passionate about. When I was struggling with my identity, a lot of the things that were unwise became opportunities. The fact of the matter is, from when I was training for the team [and] all the way through, I had opportunities to flirt and go off and do stuff with women. I had women approach me, because they saw I had a lot of money. These things that I normally wouldn’t want to be a part of started to seem appealing. It came to a point that, for the sake of my family, my church, and my relationship with God, I needed to stop card counting. I didn’t want to make a huge mistake that would destroy my relationship with my wife.”
Faith says that they held a community meeting with the members of their church to discuss Nate’s struggle. In the end, the church offered to pay Nate a salary to stay off the team.
“They thought it would be the best thing for us,” she says.
Before joining the team, church elders had discussed bringing Nate on as director of operations, with a full-time salary.
“I just didn’t think it would make financial sense for the church, so whenever it was brought up to pay me, I’d say no. So I kept playing blackjack. The church saw the lack of investment I had been making with my family and my relationship with God, and the detriment that came from that, so they told me, ‘You need to stop doing the blackjack. We are going to bring you on full-time, so you can continue working for the church and still support your family.’”
Nate still believes that there is nothing wrong with being a professional card counter. However, if someone sought his advice on the matter, he would share the same advice that his pastor had given him when he first joined the team: “It’s wiser to stay away.”
∗ ∗ ∗
It took just over a year for the casinos to figure out that Shirley was counting cards. Before long, the limos, the free food and beverages, and all the other perks that Shirley looked forward to, were taken away.
“Will and I were at the Hard Rock when security came down and threatened to arrest me. They swore that I had been trespassed from their casino back in December. It wasn’t true. Their information was wrong. They sent a flier with my face and info on it out to all the casinos. Will had to hurry up and pack up all of our bags from our Hard Rock suite. We were kicked out.”
In a panic, she waited for him in a liquor store across the street. She was dressed in a cocktail dress, heels, and had perfectly curled hair — while holding $100,000 in her purse.
“It was the beginning of the end,” she tells me. “Once the comps stopped coming in, and I had to play under the radar, it was no longer worth it.”
Right before leaving the team, Shirley didn’t test out. Every month, team members needed to test out with a local teammate, to ensure that they were playing well enough to be a team member. On top of that, every three months, they needed to fly to Seattle to test out in front of Ben and Colin.
“I was off my count by one. It’s very stressful. You really have to be on it. I wasn’t playing a lot, because I had lost all my comps. I was playing only once a month or so. You really have to play once a week to be on it.”
The last time Shirley played was at Barona. She lost $17,000 in 20 minutes. The pit boss came over and told her he knew what she was doing. She somehow convinced him to let her stay until she won back her money. It took her four tedious hours.
By that point, the team was on a losing streak. The idea that someone was stealing started to be tossed around. A non-Christian had been invited to join the team.
“I didn’t think people were stealing,” Shirley says. “I mean, it crossed my mind a couple of times, but certainly not with the person they thought was doing it.”
She admits that her biggest concern with having a non-Christian on the team was the trust issue. She was concerned, because the player did not have that same responsibility to God.
“I didn’t care as a player that there was a non-Christian on the team, but as an investor, I cared. I’d invested in a Christian card-counting team. These are people that are held accountable to the Lord of their life, the creator of the universe. I was fearful, because as a non-Christian, he didn’t have that same accountability.”
Eventually, under suspicion of stealing, the non-Christian was cut from the team.
A few months later, Shirley dropped out. She still has her money invested in the team. What was once over a dozen players has dwindled to just four team members.
“I’m taking a loss on my investment this year. I’m okay with that. I have made my money back and then some. It looks like the team will shut down. It’s sad, but it had a good run. It was exciting while it lasted. I got to spend time with amazing, godly people. I got to be part of something unique. It was beautiful. I’m thankful for that. It was an exciting time. For the rest of my life, I will always look back and say, ‘That was an amazing season in my life, and I am so glad I did it.’”
Most of the people in Shirley’s life remain unaware that she was once a card counter.
“I don’t tell a lot of people. There are some people who just wouldn’t get it. I tell more non-Christians about my time on the team. It’s so sad, but I think there are some Christians that would look at it and consider it gambling. We did not gamble. When people ask me what it was like to gamble for a living, I tell them I have no idea. I have never gambled a day in my life. I understand that many people have gambling problems. My heart goes out to them. But if they understood how to unlock it, and not place their faith in the next best thing, they wouldn’t have that problem.”