Seattle International Film Festival: Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians

At a Seattle coffee shop, a friend of mine is talking about an intriguing fellow that both of us know.

“Do you know how he pays the bills?” My friend smiles slyly. His half-whisper suggests that our mutual friend is up to something risky.

I’m surprised to say that I don’t know.

“He plays blackjack. And he’s good at it. He’s on a team of Christian blackjack players.”

Yeah, that was unexpected. Immediately I wanted to know more.

The very same hook is drawing attention to a new documentary by Bryan Storkel, which played at the Seattle International Film Festival last week.

Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians follows a team of churchgoing blackjack players from Seattle — including (full disclosure here) a friend of mine — as they express their loathing for casinos, lament the corruption that infests the gambling world, and then march in through those neon gateways, beat the system, and take millions of dollars from the casinos to feed their families.

These aren’t the rebellious youth who snark from the back row of the church youth group… although they might done so once upon a time. These are pastors and church leaders, “engaging the culture” in ways that, while striking and seemingly scandalous at first, actually bear a strong resemblance to many other vocations. We watch them study numbers and patterns. We watch them navigate complicated workplace dynamics and difficult coworker relationships. We see them thrill as they ride waves of success, and we watch stress plow furrows across their brows as they suffer lapses and slumps.

Does a team of card-counters who are Christians proceed differently than other gambling strategists?

It’s interesting to observe the team dynamics. It’s obvious that the members of the group care about each other, and that they are concerned both about the legality of their endeavors and about what is at stake: That is to say, their livelihood, and the well-being of their families. But you can also sense a camaraderie and a compassion that keeps them from devolving into accusations and suspicion… at least at first. When questions about a team-member’s trustworthiness surface, some of the team members are willing to be patient and give that person the benefit of the doubt.

It’s also clear that they are resisting many famous aspects of a gambler’s lifestyle: they resist addiction to the gambling buzz, they avoid any of the indulgence and bingeing that comes during times of success (although they do have ritual celebrations to acknowledge work well done).

Most interesting of all is the range of the team players’ perspectives (or rationalizations?) about their endeavors… not to mention the range of opinions among their family members (especially parents, who both object and invest). For some, card countin is a way of living in faith. For others, it’s a way of fighting a cultural enemy. For some, well, you might decide that they’re cloaking an unhealthy compulsion in the vocabulary of righteous justification.

But it’s surprising — and a little disappointing — to see how uninterested Storkel himself seems to be about the central tension of the movie. Doesn’t the gambling conflict with the kind of life that Christ calls his followers to live? Is “living in faith” really about hoping that the dice roll your way?

I kept waiting to learn that these men were involved in some kind of evangelical outreach to people in the casinos, or that they were investing money in some kind of care for gambling addicts. I half-expected they might end up trying to save somebody from the corruptions that are so obvious and prevalent in that environment.

Okay, so maybe they can get in and out of casinos without stumbling into crime or unhealthy indulgence. Maybe they can “take money” from an industry that is encouraging a lot of despair and destruction. But are they exploiting the wicked to feed the innocent, or are they living as parasites on the back of a monster? I wish the film had given us more that would have helped in that inevitable, volatile discussion.

I don’t raise these questions with any accusation in my voice. In fact, the more I think about the card-players’ probable answers, the more I realize just how much most of us “gamble” in our vocations, how we’re all working various systems to pay our bills, feed our families, and exercise our gifts. But I do raise these questions (and I wish the film had explored them more vigorously) because I know plenty of people who will ask them if I don’t… and they’ll ask with judgment in their voices.

The subject seems rich with interesting contradictions and ethical issues worth exploring, but Storkel seems to be a little too dazzled by the lights and the typical tensions regarding whether or not the team will go on winning at their game. The film frequently revisits the obvious dichotomy — the zeal for talking about God and salvation, and the parallel zeal for having figured out how to outsmart other gamblers and “the House” — but only scratches the surface, sufficing to say, “Wow. Crazy, huh?”

Still, Holy Rollers is a lot of fun to watch. And it gives us plenty of discussion fodder (some intentional, some incidental) for the after-movie trip to the pub… or the coffee shop, for those Christians who are wary of pubs. The closer Storkel gets to the individuals who are dedicated to this “vocation,” the more interesting the movie gets. And the filmmakers don’t miss any opportunity to grab bright lights and popular indie music to decorate their storytelling.

Here’s an interview with David Drury, a member of the Seattle band Tennis Pro, who also happens the be the longest-running member of the card-counting team. Drury’s answers to the interviewer’s questions take us into the kind of territory that I wish the film had explored. It’s worth reading, whether you see the movie or not.