This American Life came through last week with another winning episode, this one entitled “Blackjack”—about the casino game that seems easiest to win. Of course, like all casino games, players won’t win—at least not in the long run.
Unless they master a technique known as “counting cards.” If you saw the movie Rain Main, you’ll recall that Tom Cruise takes Dustin Hoffman, his autistic brother who’s a whiz at math and memorization, to a casino to a win a lot of money counting cards. As the show host, Ira Glass, explains, you don’t actually have to be a math whiz or have a photographic memory to master the technique—all it takes is practice and a great deal of concentration.
Contrary to popular belief, counting cards isn’t even illegal or against casino rules. Casino officials will ask you to leave or find another game if they suspect that you’re doing it—but you have to win a lot before you attract anyone’s attention.
I was most intrigued by the story in Act One: “Render Unto Caesar’s Palace What Is Due to Caesar’s Palace.” It tells the story of a young man named Ben, a waiter who scraped by on minimum wage and tips before learning how to count cards. The narrator, Jack Hitt, continues:
Ben formed a small crew of card-counters to hit the casinos together. And they did O.K. for a while. But after three years, that team fell apart. Ben said they just had different values. So Ben and another player, his good friend Colin, decided that if they were going to create a great team, then they had to find a group of players they could trust completely. And that’s when it hit them: the perfect source of blackjack players. It was right in front of them—at least on Sundays. Church.
Ben and Colin, it turns out, are Christians. They formed a team of Christian card-counters, who convinced their fellow churchgoers to cash out their retirement savings and “invest” with them. In return for paying each card-counter a modest annual salary of $40,000 a year for about 20 hours of work per week, the investors received a substantial return on their investment.
I know, I know… It sounds bad. Christians aren’t supposed to gamble. And I agree. I’m the biggest fuddy-duddy on the topic. I’m opposed to state-sponsored lotteries—much less pari-mutuel betting, horse-racing, or casinos. My answer is no. And many of the Christians who participated in the card-counting system, either as players or investors, shared my sentiment. Ben and Colin’s sales pitch, however—delivered via PowerPoint at well-organized meetings—was that card-counting wasn’t gambling. It was simple math. If the players counted cards properly, everyone would win in the long run.
If their investment scheme was going to work, however, the card-counters had to be honest and trustworthy. Stealing, after all, was enticingly easy: No one other than the player could account for his winnings or losings on a particular day. It was a pure honor system. A team member could easily lie about what they won or lost and then skim the difference off the top. Who would know?
This was why, according to the story, Ben and Colin’s fellow Christians made the best card-counters. They were honest!
Isn’t that remarkable? This isn’t Focus on the Family, after all. This is a secular public radio show whose host, Ira Glass, is a congenial atheist!
Not that the show’s producers intended to paint these Christians in such a flattering light. But that was the effect. After all, from the perspective of the casinos, these Christians were Vegas high-rollers, with access to all the sordid perks that came with that status. To their credit, they seemed oblivious. One player, a woman, described being put up for free in a casino hotel’s best suite—complete with a stripper’s pole in the bathroom! What was she going to do with that?
Of course, it’s not completely positive. The players lost trust in each other at times. They experienced loneliness and isolation. And I don’t think they ever quite convinced themselves that playing blackjack for a living was the Lord’s work. But when the team finally broke up, they did so for reasons the listener hardly expects. As the narrator says:
In the end, the church team split up—in 2011. And not because any of them succumbed to gambling or any other temptation. They believed in God and his glorious gift of math. But apparently God gave none of them the patience of Job needed to endure the mind-numbing work of card-counting. So they all went their separate ways…
God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes he enlightens you, like Paul on the road to Damascus—a blinding epiphany convincing you to quit your old ways. Other times God gets you to virtue by boring you to death.