Colin Jones and the Holy Rollers, the Most Unforgettable Card Counting Team in Blackjack History
Jul 24, 2014
For five years Colin Jones and Ben Crawford ran a team of professional card counters. What made them unique? They upheld Christian principles.
Colin Jones and his now-retired partner Ben Crawford are two of the most astonishing figures in the world of blackjack. Both devout Christians, for five years they ran a team of professional card counters popularly known as the “Holy Rollers.” These players took their skills to the casinos professionally while upholding Christian principles.
While the MIT card counting team has gotten the press attention, million-dollar publishing deals and Hollywood film depictions, Jones and Crawford have one of most unique stories in blackjack history. Jones was kind enough to sit down with me and share it.
Where God and gambling come together
Like most journalists covering the gambling industry, I was surprised to hear about a group of bible-reading, churchgoing professional casino gamblers, two things which rarely go together. I was not surprised to hear that Jones faced misgivings from his family and community on informing them about his decision to become a professional card counter:
My family initially freaked out. It was pretty brutal. But as… I hadn’t gotten into anything that was hurting myself or my family, they came around…Some people are really uncomfortable with it, but most people see card counting as morally neutral.
The Holy Rollers case is unique within contemporary Christianity. Gambling in general is roundly condemned, but counting is different. It involves using smart strategies to take money from casinos, businesses which most Christians view as predatory. So while counting is a profit-seeking activity, it isn’t necessary immoral within this worldview.
Jones believes that card counting and Christianity are indeed compatible, partly due to his opinion of the casino industry in general:
“My opinion is that gambling is an attempt to shortcut creating value (what we’d call “doing good work”). And it doesn’t work, is unsustainable, and a poor use of time or money. Card counting, on the other hand, is sustainable, does work, and takes money out of casinos. It’s debatable how “noble” that is, but we felt a sense of reward to take nearly $4M out of casinos.”
If effect, advantage play and card counting are positive because they amount to hard work, not counting on luck to provide you with a big payday. It’s also important to remember that it isn’t cheating (which would be at odds with Jones’ Christian principles), it’s simply playing blackjack at a high level.
Within the worldview of Jones, Crawford and many other Christians, using a card counting system is a form of work, not actually gambling. And it results in turning the tables on immoral businesses.
The rollers take casinos for everything they’re worth
The Holy Rollers started off playing at tribal casinos in the State of Washington, with each player getting roughly 30 hours play per week. They even registered the team as an official business; Advantage Play LLC. Team members underwent regular skills tests and met in Seattle for quarterly meetings.
And while the team retained its Christian mission throughout, it didn’t require all members to adhere to the faith. Roughly half-a-dozen non-Christians joined the team over six years.
While they won almost $4 million over the years, the road wasn’t free from bumps. Once they went through a $406,000 losing streak; some members were accused of cheating and of stealing money from the team; and some players as well as outside figures in the community began to turn against card counting.
At its highest point the team was operating with a $1.2 million bankroll and sending players to casinos across the country. But as success piled up, so did suspicion. It became more difficult to take money from casinos which were wising up to their act.
Eventually, all good things must come to an end.
The end of the Holy Rollers
I asked Jones why he (and Crawford) no longer run the team. The group’s unravelling started when Crawford came to the realization that he was no longer interested in blackjack. He left the team to pursue other aspirations (“it was getting old and no longer seemed interesting to me”) with Jones opting to stay on.
While Jones was still passionate about blackjack the pressure of running the team began to weigh heavy. He told me:
“I got really burned out of running the team and we were into a longer bankroll. Ben had moved on and I was primarily working on other businesses, so it seemed like a dangerous idea to have half a million dollars of investors’ money when I was mentally checked out.”
While the team had been a great personal, financial and spiritual success (Jones recalls that they were able to use much of their winnings to help their religious community), by 2011 it was time to pack it up and move on. Jones disbanded the team and chose a new career as a professional blackjack teacher.
Using his sage wisdom to help others
Colin Jones doesn’t play professionally anymore, but that doesn’t mean that he’s given up blackjack altogether. His career as a card counting teacher allows him to remain inside the game he loves while fulfilling his Christian duty to nurture others.
He still sees the casino industry as predatory and likes to see advantage players take money from it. Through his site Blackjackapprenticeship he has trained dozens of now-professional card counters. His new career as a teacher is more sustainable, and it’s something he takes a lot of pride in: “We’re REALLY proud of the site and the community of APs who are a part of it.”
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