'Holy Rollers' documentary takes viewers inside card-counting team
By Mark Gruetze
Published: Friday, Nov. 30, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
Colin Jones says he doesn't gamble, although his experiences might lead some to question that.
After all, he helped lead a team of blackjack players who won more than $3 million over several years from casinos in multiple states, including Pennsylvania.
He and a partner operate www.blackjackapprenticeship.com, which teaches blackjack strategy and card-counting. He appears prominently in a documentary DVD that chronicles the casino exploits of what came to be known as the “Church Team.”
There's also his religious background. He was raised, and remains, a devout Christian.
“I've never gambled in my life,” Jones says in a phone interview. “I've only been in casinos since I knew how to beat the game.”
Jones, 32, of the Seattle area is one of the focal points in “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card-Counting Christians,” an independent documentary that shows the ups and downs of a card-counting team. One focus of the film is the apparent contradiction of faithful Christians, including church ministers, who make money from what some others might consider a sinful activity.
To Jones, card-counting is a job. A skilled counter with a big enough bankroll has the edge over the casino in blackjack, just as the casino has the edge in other games. That's why many counters don't view playing blackjack as gambling.
Questions of whether gamblers can be religious or the religious can be gamblers were settled long ago for me. During 12 years of Catholic school, I learned poker, bingo and other games of chance at church socials where priests and nuns were “the house” and devout parishoners were the players.
The religion angle adds to the plot of “Holy Rollers,” but the documentary's most intriguing facet is its air of realism about life on a blackjack team. This is much more credible than the more widely released “21,” a fictionalized account of a card-counting team from MIT.
Members of the Church Team celebrate reaching a profit goal, and they endure what would be horrible losses to most players. They deal with workplace problems such as traveling safely with tens of thousands of dollars in cash; in one instance, border agents confiscated $110,000 after a trip to a Canadian casino. The leaders test and re-test players to make sure they can keep the count, bet the proper amount and make the mathematically correct play. They fire members who don't work out.
They're running a business. Even tipping the dealer has a profit-and-loss aspect.
“It's impossible to be a generous tipper and make a living as a card counter,” Jones says.
“You really have to know the business reason behind anything you do. Why are you putting a large bet out? Because it's justified. Why are you leaving that table? It's a wise business decision.
“It's the same with tipping. That should be the mindset behind it.”
He says the team has had various tipping policies, including banning all tips, setting a $5-per-hour maximum and stipulating that all tips come from the player's pocket rather than team funds.
Jones sees three significant advantages to team play:
>> Camaraderie. Counting is “a lonely job” on your own, he says.
>> The ability to combine bankrolls, which allows higher bets with less risk of going broke.
>> Getting to “the long run” faster. An individual can have a losing streak that lasts weeks or months, but that is rare for an entire team.
Before launching a team with your buddies, make sure everyone trusts each other totally, he advises. That extends beyond faith in their blackjack abilities to how they handle money and how they react to a losing streak or being backed off.
“It doesn't matter how many reasons there are to team up with people,” Jones says, “if you don't trust them you just can't do it.”
Jones says the team played followed basic strategy for most playing decisions, with about 20 variations based on the count. The most profitable involve when to take insurance and, believe it or not, when to split face cards.
Jones says card-counting is not difficult to learn, but players must have the discipline to stick with it.
The Blackjack Apprenticeship website he and team founder Ben Crawford have run for about four years offers chat rooms and video training. Some areas are free; others require a subscription.
An in-person “blackjack boot camp” lists for $1,499.
Players should understand what odds they're bucking on any casino trip, Jones says. “Casinos are bright and beautiful because of the calculated advantage,” he says. “Card counting is the proper way to play blackjack. Anything other than card counting is a deviation from what should be basic strategy.”
10 accused of cheating in Columbus
Ten people were charged this week with cheating at table games during the first month of operation of the Hollywood Casino in Columbus, authorities said.
The cases, although unrelated, involved “pinching” or “capping” bets — reducing or increasing bets after the result is known. Cheats often target new casinos because of dealers' inexperience. The Hollywood, Ohio's third casino, opened Oct. 8. The alleged offenses happened from Oct. 15 to Nov. 8.
Prosecutors said the cases involve cheating at blackjack, craps, baccarat, roulette and poker.
A statement from Karen Huey, the Ohio Casino Control Commission's director of enforcement, said stealing from a casino is the same as stealing from the state, “and will not be tolerated.”
Slot players lost $46 million at Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during the week ending Nov. 25, the Gaming Control Board reported. That's down from $46.2 million in the comparable week last year, which was before Valley Forge resort casino opened.
The state gets 55 percent of the gross-slot revenue, or what's left of players' wagers after jackpots have been paid.
Statewide, the slot-payout rate is 89.94 percent since the fiscal year started July 1. For every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $89.94. Highest payout rate: 90.6 percent at Parx in Philadelphia; lowest payout rate: 89.31 percent at Hollywood Penn National.
Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:
Rivers; weekly slot revenue of $5.17 million, up from $4.95 million last year.
Meadows; weekly slot revenue of $4.44 million, down from $4.57 million last year.
Presque Isle in Erie; weekly slot revenue of $2.46 million, down from $3.13 million last year.
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