Bryan Storkel’s documentary Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card-Counting Christians captures a basic feature of evangelicalism: in many ways, evangelical Christians are indistinguishable from their neighbors.
As scholars like Robert Wuthnow and Alan Wolfe have documented, evangelicals are everywhere and they’re doing everything. They may sound like social outliers when you read about them in the newspaper, but evangelicals are hard to spot in the wild because they blend right in. They’re teaching your kids at the neighborhood school. They’re running your local sports grill or sweeping out the back. They’re working on TV shows and scoring films. And, as Storkel’s fascinating film reveals, when you’re in Las Vegas, they’re sitting right next to you at the blackjack table, taking the house’s money.
Holy Rollers charts the journey of young evangelical pastors and lay leaders who launched a card-counting business, dubbed the Church Team, and cleaned up to the tune of $3.2 million over 5 years. I talked to Storkel about his film and the questions it raises about evangelical belief and behavior.
How did you get access to the Church Team?
I have known one of the founders of the team, Colin, since we were kids. I think we met in 4th or 5th grade and we’ve kept in touch ever since. When he told me he was starting a career in card counting, it sounded a bit crazy. (He was waiting tables at the time.) As I heard more and more, I knew this was the perfect topic for a documentary.
The card counters in the film seem like they are able to baptize blackjack fairly easily, and they claim that playing cards can be a kind of Christian mission. In what way are these rollers holy?
First of all, I don’t think that that everyone on the team shared the same opinions. There were a lot of different people on the team with many differing beliefs. I don’t think anyone thought the act of playing cards or beating the casino was a holy act, although some of them may have made parallels to aspects of Christianity.
I don’t think that being holy is defined by what you do for an occupation or even what you do outside your occupation. It’s about the heart. In any line of work, though, you do have the opportunity to share the gospel with others, and I think that some people did this while in the casino and others did not. There was no mandate by the team to witness in casinos. The primary purpose of being there was to make money. It was a job.
At times, they see their success as sacred–one player calls his clothes closet, which contains a safe with $80,000.00 in it, an “inner sanctum.” But they also depend on the science of card-counting to pay off for them. Which source–the logical or the spiritual–do you think they credited with their success?
I’m pretty sure that when Dusty referred to the “inner sanctum” it was a joke. I’m pretty sure there was nothing spiritual intended with that quote. I don’t think the majority of the players thought that the success was coming from God. Every decision they made in a casino was based on the charts and numbers they’d spent months memorizing. They knew that if they played by those charts, there was a determinable outcome.
With that said, many of the players on the team would pray when they went into a casino. Dusty says that he learned to trust God so much more through blackjack. There are so many things that can go wrong in this endeavor that you quickly realize that you have no control. Because successful card counting is based on longterm results, there are often bad days or times when you drive to a casino 5 hours away only to get kicked out the moment you walk in the door. For Dusty, not being able to control those situations and not knowing if he’d make rent or not made him rely on God. God was the only thing he could count on, so prayer was definitely happening.
The Church Team experiences serious losses, too. Did they interpret their failures as representing an absence of God’s blessing or a problem with their methods?
I’d say a problem with their methods. I don’t think they thought it was God’s absence. Honestly, I didn’t ask that question in the film, and maybe I should have. I suppose there could have been a point where God wanted them to move onto something else and decided not to bless them in this endeavor. I’m not sure.
From my viewpoint, the reason they started losing was primarily because they grew too fast. They trained anybody and everybody to count cards and brought them onto the team. They thought it was something that anyone could do. I think later they realized that it takes a specific type of person to be a good card counter.
One of the pastors who is on the Church Team says, “I baptize someone and then go gamble? Poetic justice.” What does that mean?
I think he just means it’s ironic. It seems very weird and out of the ordinary for a pastor figure to baptize someone and then head to the casinos right after.
That day, we followed Mark as he hung out with his church community. They sang, prayed and he even baptized a girl as the group watched. Later that night, we were driving to a casino in the middle of nowhere. Mark started to realize how crazy that was and was commenting on it. He was starting to feel the wear and tear from being on the road by himself and wanted to be back with the community that he cared about. I think the film shows how much of a grind the job could be at times. It was providing a living for his family and allowing him to spend more time with him church, but but he hated having to travel away from them.
Near the end, one of the ringleaders tells us, “I have no college degree. I have no professional experience. I’m not really willing to work a 9 to 5. I don’t really know what’s around the corner. And I don’t really care.” How do you think that mentality squares with the religious conviction these guys have?
I think it squares up perfectly with their religious convictions. It was primarily an attitude of “not caring” because he is not worried. He wasn’t saying he was going to sit back and do nothing. He was saying that it doesn’t matter what he does next because 1) God has control and 2) it doesn’t matter what his profession is. I think a lot of times we place too much value on what someone does for “work.” It actually becomes their identity when it shouldn’t be. Our identity should be in God and not in what we do to make money.