If most people were to guess where a multi-million dollar blackjack team started, images of poorly lit basement or the back table of a shady bar come to mind. For those a bit more familiar with card counting, perhaps you imagine flyers pasted around a MIT Campus. But when it comes to “the Church Team”, one of the most successful blackjack teams of the past decade, it all began at a Bible Camp.
When Church Team co-founder, Ben Crawford, was volunteering up at a Bible Camp on Whidbey Island, Washington during the summer of 2002, he brought along a few books he had bought on card counting. As a passing comment fellow camp volunteer, Colin Jones, Crawford shared his intentions to try beating the local Seattle casinos at blackjack. Jones had just graduated college with a BA in Mathematics, so the idea of using math to beat casinos at blackjack sounded too fascinating to pass up. Though they both spent the next year training and playing independently, they soon decided to combine their blackjack bankrolls and start their first team.
“Ben bought copies of ‘Professional Blackjack’ and ‘Basic Blackjack’ by Stanford Wong, we made flashcards of the charts, and taught ourselves at home using cheesy free online casino software” says Jones. “We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we were committed to figuring it out. I had just finished four years of math studies, so spending hours studying another system seemed easy enough.”
Although Washington state wasn’t taken seriously by professional card counters in the early 2000’s because of low table limits and mediocre rules, it was the perfect training ground for new card counters. Since card counters so rarely ventured into the tiny smoke-filled card rooms in Seattle, casinos weren’t well trained to spot card counters. It was common for each of them to play 30 hours/week while rarely experiencing any heat.
“I remember my first backoff,” states Crawford. “It was like a rite of passage. Most card counters dread it. I felt like I had officially entered [into] the club of real card counters.”
Combining the stress-free conditions with an endless supply of low limit games, Crawford and Jones were able to quickly grow their bankroll from an initial $11,000 stake to over six-figures while accumulating thousands of hours of playing experience. As they began wearing out their welcome in the Pacific Northwest, they started traveling to higher limit destinations across North America.
Forming the Church Team
Before long, Crawford and Jones found themselves growing tired of the routine. So when a member of Crawford’s church asked if he could learn card counting and play for them, they realized the potential for taking money out of casinos without having to do the dirty work themselves. Within 6 months, they had trained and funded five full-time players. With an entire new business model emerging, they decided to gather additional funding to see how large they could take the team. After a quick sales pitch to a small group of friends and family, they were able to add $300,000 to their own $200,000 investment. Crawford and Jones were then able to focus all of their energy on training and managing the team.
The team grew quickly, both in profits and number of players. The team took over $2M in their first two years. They continued to add players as the word spread through players’ network of friends and family members. At the team’s height, they had over 30 players spread across 7 states. But as the team increased in size, the ability to control the quality of play became unmanageable. After going on a massive $400,000 losing streak, the team decided to scale things back, keeping only the most qualified players.
The End of The Church Team
While the team managed to recover from the losing streak, the team had clearly reached its peak. As soon as the business model seemed to no longer scale, co-founders Ben Crawford and Colin Jones, started playing with other business ideas. As other businesses began taking off, they found themselves with less energy for the Church Team.
In addition to their own dwindling enthusiasm, they discovered that constantly adding new players didn’t fit their goals. “Players always seemed to come to us in the beginning,” states Crawford. “Once our core group of original members were burning out across the country, it seemed like time to move on.” The Church Team eventually calling it quits in 2011, having managed to take close to $4M from casinos.
The team also gained notoriety for being the focus of the 2011 award-winning documentary “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians.” The documentary shows the backstory, training process, and how they dealt with issues like mistrust, losing, and the constant casino backoffs.
Training The Next Generation of Card Counters
Although Crawford and Jones no longer take money directly out of casinos’ coffers, they continue to further the craft through BlackjackApprenticeship.com.
“Blackjack Apprenticeship began during the peak of the Church Team as a place to put the card counting training we’d developed,” says Jones. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to grow it into the premier community for card counters.”
At this point, the website focuses on providing card counting training, community, and resources for card counters. One of their proudest resources is Casino411, a crowd-sourced database of casino playing conditions for card counters. They also provide hands-on training a few times a year in Las Vegas at their “Blackjack Bootcamps.”
“I love card counting,” quips Jones. “And running a blackjack team was something I’ll always remember fondly. But at this point, I think there are greater challenges to tackle than beating casinos.”