It is not uncommon for people to associate church with some form of betting, even it seems a little odd to do so. You can easily imagine a church bingo night, for example, with a host of purple-rinsed old ladies sitting down and marking their bingo card in a jovial fashion as the reverend, pastor or father calls out the numbers from the front. Whilst that is an old-fashioned, clichéd version of both bingo and church, it is a picture that it isn’t hard to conjure up in your mind’s eye as you think about religious people and gambling.
The number of white chapels that line the streets of Las Vegas might suggest that there is a closer link between bettors and god than you’d initially assume. One group of people that would very much agree were the Church Team, who counted cards in Las Vegas and won millions of dollars as a result. Make up predominantly of Christians, the group included around 30 investors and 40 players, many of whom also trained other in the art of card counting. Was counting cards and playing blackjack against god’s will?
A Brief Explanation of Card Counting
In order to get a good sense of what it was that the Church Team was up to, it is worth offering a quick explanation of what, exactly, card counting is and how it works. As you might imagine, it is a complex topic with numerous different ways of counting cards, to say nothing of the other variables that can differ from case to case. As a result, we’ll keep this as simple as possible here, though there are plenty of sites online that can you give you a more in-depth understand of the practice of card counting, if that’s something you wish to discover.
Card counting is, in its simplest form, a type of advantage play that will let you know whether you or the dealer has the advantage for a hand of cards. The idea is that high cards will benefit the player, whilst low cards will benefit the dealer. High cards will increase the likelihood of a player hitting blackjack, which pays out at odds of 3/2. It also allows an increase in expected value when doubling down, in addition to presenting players with more opportunities to split and increasing the chance of a dealer going bust.
When counting cards, players assign a positive, negative or zero value to all of the cards in a deck. When a card is dealt, the player adjusts their ‘count’ by the value of the card. Low cards cause the count to increase as they mean that there are more likely to be high cards in the deck, whilst high cards do the opposite. Card counting systems can be more or less complicated depending on how they work, but the basic principle is the same: figure out whether the deck has more high cards or low cards in it every time the dealer plays a card.
The Early Days of the Church Team
There is a fair amount of information that we know about the Church Team, although the exact system that they used to take on the casinos isn’t one of them. It was started in 2005 by Ben Crawford and Colin Jones, largely working out of the Seattle area. Jones attended Azusa Pacific University and studied mathematics, which was when his friend, Crawford, recommended that he read a book about card counting. Having read it and put some practice in at home, Jones went to the casino to put his practice to the test.
Confident that the mathematics made sense, Jones spoke to his wife about using some of their savings for the purposes of gambling and she agreed. He later said that he’d never gambled in his life, only going into casinos because he ‘knew how to beat the game’. All of this might not seem all that out of the ordinary, given the likes of the MIT Team learnt how to count cards and take on the casinos. What makes the story of Jones and Crawford a little bit different is that the pair were devout Christians when they took on the casinos.
Growing the Team
Initially, Jones and Crawford wanted to keep the team limited to just the two of them. They had chosen to join forces when they realised that they were both taking it seriously as a hobby, figuring that a combined bankroll would give them a better chance of taking on the casinos. They didn’t like the idea of ‘recruiting’ others, trying to talk most people that wanted to join out of taking part in the card counting practice. It was, Jones said, a ‘more gruelling job’ than many people realised, especially because of the high stakes involved.
As people began to come on board, they would then recommend others that they thought might be a good fit for the team. Jones and Crawford would meet them, taking the time to get to know them in order to ensure that they would be a good fit for the team overall. Despite their own faith, it wasn’t a requirement to be a Christian in order to join the team. Instead, it just so happened that the biggest network that the pair could turn to was made up of their churches, meaning that a lot of the new recruits were indeed religious.
Training New Players
Card counting isn’t something that is taught in schools, nor is it an activity that Sunday schools have added to their list of things to do in the mornings. As a result, Crawford and Jones needed to ensure that the new players could count cards as well as the rest of the team, so they used a system whereby a new member of the team would be given one hour of card counting training for every 20 hours that they spent practicing. Once it was felt that they were up to speed, the new player would be given a ‘gruelling’ test in a casino.
Only when it was thought that the players were up to scratch and had passed the test were they allowed to play for high stakes. Re-testing would take place in casinos on a quarterly basis, whilst ‘conceptual training’ was used in order to ensure that players could think along the same lines as advantage players. The best players would be able to understand how the team gained its Edge, maximising the team’s advantage when they playing in the casino. At its height, the Church Team had about 40 members taking part.
Taking on Investors & Hitting a Losing Streak
At the start of the process, Jones and Crawford bankrolled the team themselves. That, of course, left them open to the variables of any form of gambling, so after a time they decided to open up the investment opportunity to friends and family. Having already seen that the Church Team was successful, many were happy to jump on board. It allowed the finance behind the team to grow, with the money used to play in casinos all around the United States of American and neighbouring Canada. The bets would vary from $200 to $1,000s per hand.
The bankroll for the team grew to around $1.2 million. That was a decent capital with which to play, but it also protected them from a losing streak. At one point during the time that the Holy Rollers, as they became known, were playing, the bankroll dropped to around $465,000. Whilst that was still a comfortable amount of money and around $100,000 of that was spent on expenses, it did mean that there was a level of discomfort from the team at the amount that they appeared to be losing. In the end, though, they won it back and then some.
Casinos Don’t Like to Lose
As anyone that has ever won a decent amount of money in a casino before will know all too well, casinos are not businesses that like to lose. They have a number of systems in place in order to keep an eye out for groups of people that are playing to systems, so players from the Church Team were spotted numerous times. The result, of course, was that the casino in question would move to ban them from being able to play there. The rules of the Team were such that if a casino confronted them then they were encouraged to just tell the truth.
In one of the early episodes, there were only four players on the team and they had won around $140,000 from a casino. When they went to cash them out, the casino in question felt that they must have cheated to win them and ‘back-roomed’ the group, who spent hours explaining how card counting worked. Eventually, the casino allowed them to cash out their chips but barred them for life. It wasn’t the only time that members of the Church Team were banned from casinos, who did what they could to limit their losses.
Marrying Religion & Gambling
One of the most interesting parts of the lives of those involved in the world of gambling was how they managed to marry up what they were doing with their religious beliefs. Gambling as a practice isn’t seen as being a particularly pure activity by many people, which would often lead to fallings out between the Church Team members and their family and friends. For Jones, there was a long period where he struggled to explain what he was doing to his mum, who was convinced that he was falling into a world of gambling addiction.
For the players themselves, they saw it as nothing more than a ‘job’. It wasn’t that they were gambling, they were simply using mathematics to take on the casinos at games of chance. This was something that many friends and family members were eventually able to understand, though some never came around to what they were doing. In the eyes of the players, they were taking money away from the evil that was the casino owners and operators, treating the money that they won as a wage for a job that they’d done well.
Life After the Church Team
For Jones and Crawford, the idea was to take part in the blackjack card counting team for one to two years, earning enough money to setup a different line of business. As their friends and family members began to get involved, however, they were having too much fun to walk away from it. As a result, the Church Team lasted for about six years before finally disbanding in 2011. At that point, some of those involved carried on counting cards and playing blackjack, though Jones and Crawford no longer worked as managers for the team.
Having set up Advantage Play LLC as an official business for the team and asking members to play for a minimum of 20 hours per month before keeping any winnings in a fireproof safe, Jones and Crawford felt that they were well-versed in how to take on the casinos. In the wake of the Church Team being disbanded, the pair began a venture in which they began to teach others how to count cards. Charging $1,500 to students that wanted to learn their tricks, it’s likely that the new venture was a lot less stressful for the Holy Rollers.