A Seattle-based documentary spanning several years in the run of a notorious blackjack card shark Church Team, made up of pastors and members of their flock, that bilked millions out of casinos from Washington to Vegas.
Sunday, June 12, at 3:30 PM at SIFF Cinema
Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians seems like an unwieldy title for a documentary, having at least one puzzling primary assertion (religious gambling) and then a whole other issue attached (what is card counting? And if it’s cheating, should Christians be doing it?).
This Seattle International Film Festival selection has a local musician as one of its real-life participants in the action -- David Drury, lead singer-songwriter-guitarist of Seattle band Tennis Pro, who also have a new album coming out early this summer-- but that is just one of many (pop culture) reasons it may be a good bet to screen for the curious KEXP Blog reader. An entire subculture seems to exist attached to an industry as exploitative and complicated as the music business, and though Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians does a great job bringing up questions about it, it leaves the viewer with even more after the credits roll.
The title of the movie does indeed put across the multiple paradoxes presented by the documentary: The fact that most of the cast in the real life tale are believers, and that they are gambling, but also that they are taking on casinos for their rigid, arguably unfair “no card counting” rule.
I asked David Drury some questions about his role in the film, how he got involved with it, and how this relates to other aspects of his creative life:
I think most reviewers writing about the movie are going to be freaked out about people of faith playing games of chance, so why don’t we start there -- how did you get involved in playing “twenty-one” for a living? And what was your relationship to Ben, the apparent mastermind behind this “small group”?
I was intrigued when I read somewhere that blackjack is the only beatable game the casino offers. I read a few things about card counting and tried it on my own. I think I won money at all or most of the first 19 sessions I played, and immediately chalked it up to my mastery of the game. I mentioned this to a friend at church who said, “Hey, this guy in my Bible study group does that for a living.” I was blown away by the idea of this. I met the mystery guy, who turned out to be Ben. He gave me a book to read by the great Stanford Wong. I soon tabulated that based on my system and my miniscule bet adjustments. (I was afraid to bet more than $20 on one hand, I could only expect to win five cents an hour -- if I played perfectly). Sure enough, I started losing. But then, in the same week I got fired from my desk job, I heard Ben was interested in putting a team together.
To be clear, this business had investors funding its play. I never played with my own money. I was the talent.
The documentary tracks the years between 2006 and 2009 -- were you involved with this particular religious tribe of players that whole time?
Yes. I believe I had the longest run as a member of the team.
Because of your situation with your own local group Tennis Pro, I have to ask: Are rock musicians more likely to get involved in these roaming teams of card counters? Were there other music players involved in the team you were on, or were you aware of it as a good side career for independent musicians?
Other than counting to four, rock musicians seem notoriously bad at math. Nevertheless, we did have a number of musicians on the team, from a handful of talented Seattle bands. Approximately 100% of people in Seattle have bands on the side, so you can rank that achievement as you see fit. BUT there is nothing rock musicians like better than “sticking it to the man,” an urge for which card counting fills the bill quite nicely. I mean, after I got thrown out of my first major Vegas Strip casino for winning a tray full of chips, I never felt the need to put a vinyl sticker on a bathroom mirror ever again.
What were the responses of your families and friends when they found out you were going to be a professional gambler? And did any of them know about “card counting”?
To count cards is to remove the gamble. Given time, there is no gamble. Anything can happen in one hand, anything can happen in one night, but steadily the numbers begin to line up in your favor. No matter how much I explained, most of my family still saw it as gambling. My family was mostly concerned for my safety, and probably embarrassed to talk to other people about it (my parents are involved in a church ministry). I know one team member whose parents said they would rather have heard that he was a drug dealer than that he was a “gambler.”
My own main enjoyment of the film comes out of the almost missionary zeal the players have in punishing the gambling establishments for enforcing, often physically, rules against “card counting.” First of all, there are a lot of people who don’t know that it isn’t illegal -- which casinos are pretty happy about. Then there are those movies where people have their fingers broken, and there is actual footage from Vegas and elsewhere when card counters are caught and held against their will (in the “back room”). Can you explain your take on card counting, why you think it’s OK, and what happened when you were caught counting cards during Black Jack games? (Were you ever interrogated away from the main playing areas?)
First of all, the casinos play it both ways. They LIKE for people to think that the game can be beaten because it results in a crush of people trying to beat it who have no dedication to the craft, or the resources to absorb big losses, and just end up handing their wallets to the casino. Why do you think blackjack is the most popular casino floor game in the world?
Then they disparage, hustle out, and ban the small number of people who demonstrate that the game can actually be beaten. What we do is welcomed as a marketing strategy and soundly rejected when it shows up as a real person who can make it work.
The finger-breaking is a history lesson from the days when casinos were ruled by The Mob. For the most part, the forces that be know better than to go there with card counters. Not so much because they are decent human beings now but because when the dollar is your master, I imagine that the threat of multi-million dollar assault and battery lawsuits tend to take the fire out of you.
Put simply, card counting is using your mind to play a game that the casino has invited you to use your mind to play. Historically, the courts have protected this understanding. Reluctantly, the casinos mostly operate within the law in how they dispatch suspected card counters. But there are exceptions.
I was “dispatched” on hundreds of occasions. The majority of the time this was by way of a tap on the shoulder and a man in a suit telling me I was “welcome to play any other game in the casino but not blackjack.” Occasionally they would escort me off the property, trespass me with the threat of arrest, assign a security team to follow me to my room, refuse to cash out chips, make a false police report to try and get me arrested, or yes, “back room” me. I learned to avoid back rooms as much as possible but did spend time sweating bullets in a few.
How do casinos get away with continuing to threaten punishment for something that isn’t illegal? And what does this mean to those who just enjoy gambling -- what do you think keeps the industry from being confronted with umbrage that the house must always win, or else?
Technically, they only threaten removal from the premises or trespass, which they are within their rights to do. They get away with their bullying tactics because they are the ones with the money, and they are the ones with the power.
This phrase isn’t used in the film, but if I were to reason why you guys were doing this on a theological level, I would use the phrase “social justice.” To me, the beliefs of this group are tied into the fact that for the most part all this cash is used to keep an industry of addiction afloat, and keep the people involved in it without power even more helpless to its domination. It almost seems like an evangelical form of “liberation theology.” Does that make sense? And if so, is that why you were so committed to it?
The social justice side of things is hard to quantify. The first difficulty in this line of work is simply justifying to yourself how you are serving society by playing a game in a way that is largely frowned upon. We are raised in a society that values easily drawn pictures of “service” that are easy to nail down but often don’t make no sense once you start asking hard questions. If you are a teacher, you bust your ass doing important work for no money. If you are good at dunking a basketball, you get paid millions to provide “entertainment” through the vehicle of a soul-sucking corporate structure. But at least you can draw those lines. For me, I decided I was able to provide for myself and my family, which was of first-level importance. I was in a work structure (players and managers) where I was valued, where my goals were honored and were mine to set (as opposed to goals in a corporate environment), and where I was excited to work towards the success of the whole team. I felt supported like I never had before in a career endeavor. Third, I am a writer and considered this odd engagement as a down payment on a future book of crazy adventure tales. Chalk one up for the crazy adventures; book forthcoming. Fourth, yes, liberation, justice, and a good old fashioned sticking-it-to-the-man. He is big and I often felt infinitesimally small. When you have a big losing night AND get kicked out, what have you achieved? I choose to believe that the road is long, and while I am on it I mostly limp along with dark glasses, banging my cane against the curb.
The film is nicely shot, with lots of good music licensed on the soundtrack and with excellent graphics to accompany the intimate interviews. Who are the filmmakers, and had they been working on this documentary from the beginning? It almost seems like they were part of your team.
Brian Storkel, the director, did test out and join the team for a time. But his vision started before that when he heard about what we were doing and couldn’t believe it. As a documentary filmmaker, he immediately wanted to pursue putting our story on film. Being on the inside maybe gave him that last bit of understanding necessary to make a film like this.
I was a little disappointed that more reasoning wasn’t given on-screen for why Christians could justify gambling. Do you think the filmmakers should have included the reasons of you and your fellow players more, that it would have been more helpful? Or do you think it works better if the audiences have to work out the -- surprisingly complicated -- intentions in their own minds?
Maybe so. I am hoping the film raises the questions and that conversations are started where maybe the film leaves off. Listen, I am still, after five years, trying to justify blackjack to my faith. A career that put me in hot water with friends and family, which put me at the center of an often ugly industry sitting alongside addicts, not to offer them hope but to act like an addict myself so that I might decrease the profits of the casino by a fraction of a percent. I represented myself as something other than I was. Does that make me a liar? And if so, is everyone on Facebook a liar? Somedays it is harder than others, but an important point which I think the film is trying to suggest, is that part of success in this life is declaring that you can’t know absolute success in this human life. The journey is the reward, living in the gray, all of that. The “struggle towards” is the point.
Do you still do this at all? And what other disguise garb besides a GOP-tag wearing old conservative guy have you donned when going in to casinos to score?
I am officially retired. One of my least favorite but more effective costumes I called “K-Fed.” Baggy jeans with graffiti up the backside, Fubu jersey, bad bad very bad bling, a feeble attempt at a mustache, hat cocked just so. This is a good costume for throwing money around on the tables. The instinct is that you are an idiot just trying to look like a baller. Also, I’ve never gotten more attention from women in the form of lingering stares, purrs, and catcalls than when I was “K-Fed.” These were not women to write home about, but still. My other looks I called “Cowboy,” “Asian Gamer,” “Golf Pro,” “Frat guy,” “Promise Keeper,” “Accountant,” “Gay Art Collector,” and “My Dad.”
Now, because this is the music press, what’s happening at the moment with Tennis Pro?
Tennis Pro is releasing our fourth record and hands-down best effort thus far, Shimokita Is Dead?, on June 30th at the Chop Suey in the company of Thee Emergency and We Wrote the Book on Connectors. We are convinced this rock record will deliver unto us huge fame, or at least a Wikipedia page.
After two tours of Japan, we are still in the process of making a movie with director John Jeffcoat (Outsourced) called Big in Japan, which will be finished in the fall.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, David.
Thank you! People continue to freak out about the idea of a Christian blackjack team. The film is only getting started. Hopefully this will mark the beginning of a very successful festival circuit and eventual distribution.
Through Kickstarter, the documentary successfully raised it needed funding, but you can still watch the trailer there: