A new documentary about a blackjack team that uses card-counting techniques to win is being released soon. The hook? They are also devout evangelical Christians who believe playing blackjack is not only in accordance with their faith, but actually makes it stronger.
The new film, titled "Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card-Counting Christians", tells the story of a group of blackjack players who are mostly Christian (at least one agnostic is on the team at one point), including pastors and church leaders who have practiced their card-counting skills to the point where they can walk into a casino and make the casino security nervous because not only do they win, but they win millions.
However, the whole reason the film's title sounds provocative is because "card-counting Christians" seems contradictory. After all, "card counting" sounds like cheating is involved. However, Colin Jones, one of the team's founding members, explains that moral dilemma.
"Card counting is perfectly legal because all you're doing is playing the game that they offer by the rules they're presenting and using your brain to do that," Jones said in an interview with KUOW.org.
"However, casinos have the right to request anyone they want to not play. So although they can't deem it illegal, they can make you stop playing if they want to," he added.
But just because something is not illegal, it can still be immoral. And can taking advantage of a system's weakness be considered un-Christian?
"I wrestled through all those things, it's definitely outside the box, it's not something you learn about in church," Jones said. "I spent quite a while wrestling all those aspects. But when it came down to it, I was working hard at something that was perfectly legal, didn't violate my conscience...I didn't feel it was contradicting any other part of my life nor was it hurting and it allowed me more time for ministry."
Bryan Storkel, the director of the film, said that there is nothing inherently sinful about playing blackjack. "It seems to be fairly neutral, but tradition has made it seem like a moral evil," he said.
There was also a question of whether or not taking advantage of a casino was "righteous" because of the manipulation and trickery in how many casinos work, including free drinks, no clocks on the walls and no windows, as well as casinos' impact on local communities, which Storkel described as "devastating."
However, Jones said "righteous" is the wrong way to describe it what he considered more of an indirect justice.
"I didn't see it as my primary motivation," he said, "but at the same time, when you see a little bit about how a casino is run and how they treat you like royalty when they think you're a sucker and then how they treat you like a criminal when they realize they might lose money off you, there is some joy."
However, some team members eventually quit because the moral dilemmas did get to them, reflecting the wide range of what Christianity means among evangelicals.
"Everybody went through some form of questioning," Jones said, and some eventually quit because of the moral issues. Suspicions also arose over the possibility that one of the team members was stealing money from the group pot, leading to other trust issues on the team.
Others saw a chance to reaffirm their faith.
According to a team member in the movie's trailer: "Blackjack makes people reassess Christianity – in a good way, because you live in the gray. And when you live in the gray, you have to question who you are."
Another team member takes it even further: "Anybody who seriously wants to be a disciple of Jesus should learn blackjack."
"Holly Rollers: The True Story of Card-Counting Christians" is currently screening at festivals around the country.
Here is a trailer of the documentary: