They were a cutting-edge group of card counters. They were also all devout Christians. So how does that work, exactly?
Dir. Bryan Storkel, 2011, 90 min
Sometimes a situation is actually a lot less complicated than it seems on the surface. You might think, upon hearing that there was a group of blackjack card counters bonded together by their common Christianity, that there would be some thorny ethical and spiritual questions coming out. But Holy Rollers clears up pretty early on that there isn’t really much friction between these people’s faith and their “profession.” Card counting isn’t cheating, after all – it’s just knowing how to play the game properly. Heck, if blackjack even counts as gambling, then Monopoly is gambling. There’s just as much math as luck.
So without that conflict, what’s left to explore with a feature-length film? The doc goes into a lot of how card counters actually work, and it’s a pretty interesting system. There are the players, but there are also investors and managers, and they have to figure out what their acceptable losses can be, and maneuver around them. And then, of course, there’s dodging the suspicious eyes of the casino managers, who don’t take kindly to people actually winning money. Although there’s never a complete sequence showing an operation, this often feels like a heist movie. However, there’s not nearly as much urgency, and the fact that the main hook doesn’t really have anything to do with the game also hurts it. These could be any people pulling this scheme, religion aside.
The Church Group, as it’s called, got their start after a few of them realized how easy it was to count in blackjack. It turns out you don’t have to be a Rain Man to make it work. Between 2006 to 2009, they were one of the most successful card counting teams, fleecing casinos of more than three million dollars. The members viewed it as a gift from God. Less time spent actually working each month was more time to witness. Plus, the excess of funds could be put to righteous work. Most of them had reservations, of course, but they reasoned that it was just to take on the casinos, since they trick normal people out of their money.
The flimsy justification of a holy cause is where this movie starts to get interesting, although it doesn’t start capitalizing on any of the unique scenarios caused by the Group’s faith until pretty late down the line. After spending most of the running time being a “here’s how you count cards” movie, it finally pays attention to the religious aspect. The teammates begin to turn on each other, except they cloak their deceit in spirituality. Two of them claim that the sole atheist member of the group is stealing money, and their only proof is “a feeling.” The leader truly believes that this is what God has ordained him to do. They don’t witness to the casinos, but they sure do love this work. In fact, some of them exhibit signs of addiction, despite their claims otherwise. But the tangled issues come too little, too late. Holy Rollers is a nice movie. It just doesn’t work enough with the more unique ideas it has to play with.