A HIGHER CALLING---a brief intro from Cigar Aficionado HOLY ROLLERS A group of Christian card counters answer their calling at the casino BY MICHAEL KAPLAN PORTRAITS BY JONATHAN ROBERT WILLIS <iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/FZsKRlBm7nI" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe> IF youâve spent much time in casinos, chances are that you have prayed for a fortuitous card or a roll of the dice or even for the cocktail waitress to bring you a much-needed scotch and soda. Itâs the kind of prayer that is nonspecific and doesnât really come with an expectation of working. As the poker player Gavin Smith once told me, âIâm figuring that God has better things to do.â Maybe so. But that didnât stop Christian card counter Dusty Wisniew during a roller-coastering session in a Louisiana casino. âOn the first night of the trip I went from $50,000 to less than $4,000,â he recalls. Card counting, incidentally, is completely legal. Itâs a craft that involves tracking cards that have already been dealt in order to calculate a likely advantage on upcoming hands. âAfter every hand I won, I said, âThank you, Jesus.â I was grateful for each win and for the possibility to be able to sit there and rebuild my bankroll. I went up to $15,000, then down to $9,000 before going to bed.â And the next day? âI got backed offââmeaning that he was asked to stop playing blackjack. Casinos are entitled to halt a player for any reason, even if that player has a legal, mathematical strategy for beating the game. Wisniew was a member of one of the more unusual card-counting teams in the history of blackjack. Nicknamed the Church Team, this group was managed by Evangelical Christians, who traditionally view gambling as a sin. Many of the players, mostly in their 20s, were recruited through various religious organizations. Investors in the teamâs bankroll consisted mostly of family and friendsâpredomintantly true believers. It is estimated that the team realized a post-expense profit of approximately $3.2 million over the course of its eight year history, before disbanding in 2011. At the table, they were not your typical card counters. Team cofounder Ben Crawford, 24 when it started, recalls, âSometimes, between hands, I would try to talk people out of gambling. Iâd ask them what they were doing. Iâd tell them that they must know they canât win. If thereâs anything we tried to do, we tried to bring reality to casinos.â And to take as much money as possible out of the casinos. âWe would go to Vegas and play until sunrise,â says Mark Treas, another Christian team member who had a reputation for working longer and harder than his peers. âI used to play standing up so I could bet at one table and count another one. Itâs high risk, but from the time I entered the casino I wanted to make more money than anyone else.â Early on, Ben Crawford seemed like a long shot for card-counting glory. He was raised in a strict Christian household and taught through religion that gambling was bad. Sitting near a humidor full of cigars in the well-appointed home office that heâs carved into the top floor of his house in northern Kentucky, Crawford explains that he fell into playing after reading a book on blackjack. He hoped to find a hobby that he could make a little bit of money on. At the time, he, his wife and his wifeâs daughter existed on a budget of $200 per week. Crawford waited tables in a restaurant, and he took $800 of his hard-earned money to a casino near their home in Washington State. âI lost the first $800 and then used another $800 that we had in savings to try it again.â âI WAS RAISED TO BELIEVE THAT CHRISTIANS DIDNâT GAMBLE. I WALKED OUT OF CASINOS THINKING THE WHOLE THING WAS A SIN.â âBEN CRAWFORD What did his wife have to say? âMy wife didnât care. She wasnât attached to money. But I kept on winning and winning.â Inadvertently, maybe because of his Christian beliefs and a comfort in the fact that God would look out for him, Crawford embraced the kind of gambling that may be reckless but is also necessary for building a bankroll from nearly nothing into something pretty big. âI remember, early on, playing a hand at the Venetian where I lost two grand,â he says. âIt was half of my bankroll. But if I played to my roll, I would have been betting $1 units and it would have taken me seven generations to hit $100,000.â So, the thinking went, you could play within your limits or âthrow money to the wind. I was never afraid of losing my money. I knew I could always get a job in a restaurant and make $4,000.â Though wins came much more frequently than losses, early success did nothing to assuage guilt he felt about being in casinos and playing blackjack. Never mind that he made money at it, had fun and clearly operated at an advantage. âI was raised to believe that Christians didnât gamble,â says Crawford. âI walked out of casinos, thinking the whole thing was a sin. But the situation forced me to think about what was wrong with it. Why was it a sin? It became more complicated. I couldnât see what was wrong with being in a casino and doing math in your head. I realized that itâs no better to be selfish with your money in a shopping mall than in a casino.â Mentally freed, Crawford turned to card counting in earnest, playing as many as six nights per week, believing that he had discovered the holy grail of gambling. He enjoyed the prospect of winning, say, $1,000 in a single session and was psychologically strong enough to handle any inevitable losses. Still, though, as somebody who had formerly waited tables and always associated his income with a predetermined hourly wage, blackjack was a revelation. It infused him with an entrepreneurial zeal and showed him that âincome could be divorced from the money that a boss is willing to pay you.â After teaching a Bible camp friend named Colin Jones how to count cards, Crawford had company. They briefly linked up with two other players and formed a small team, which didnât last due to internal conflicts. But word circulated among young, male churchgoers, and suddenly, Crawford and Jones were being approached for tips on how to play. âThatâs when the lightbulb went on that we could train a bunch of people, have a team and not need to play very much,â says Jones who consulted with several church elders before convincing himself that blackjack was not in conflict with his religious leanings. âOur success came from making the team feel more like a family and less like a business.â Besides creating dedication, the idea was that forging a high degree of closeness would also foster honesty for those involved in an enterprise where you might be trusted with $100,000 in chips and cash. âWe wanted it to be that if someone stole, they werenât just taking money from investors; they were taking money from their family,â says Jones. âWe didnât trust people because of lie detector tests. We trusted people because of who they were.â No doubt, the bonds of Christianity helped to strengthen that trust. In putting together their team that would eventually have 30 players, Jones and Crawford figured out a payment system based on a percentage of each playerâs expected value (that is, the money that each was expected to earn per hour). Finding church friends willing to play was as easy as splitting eights against a dealerâs six.