Sunday, 15 December 2013

Holy Rollers (3½ Stars)

Not to be confused with other films of the same name, this is a documentary made in 2011 and is subtitled "The True Story of Card-Counting Christians". It tells the story of a group of Christians, most of whom were pastors, who decided to play Blackjack not as gambling, but as a business. The players themselves did not play with their own money or even keep their winnings. They were paid an hourly wage, and the winnings were paid back to the churches or other investors. By playing according to strict systems, including counting the values of the cards, they had an overall 55% chance of winning. To be sure of winning they had to play as long as possible for high stakes, accepting losing streaks while waiting for the winnings to roll in. The main problem with this system is that experienced casino staff quickly recognise card counters by their playing style, and often evict them while they're still losing.

The team started well. In 2007 they won $1.58 million. As a result of this they increased the size of their team. This is when the problems started. With the increase of players there was less quality control. Players were sent out with the church's money and made large losses not because they were "on a losing streak", but because they were making mistakes. Card counting is all about adhering to the system, not taking chances. After making an annual loss in 2008 the team began to fall apart. They accused one another of stealing. It wasn't until the team was shrunk back to its core members that it began to look up again.

The team disbanded in 2009 while they were ahead, with an overall profit of $3.2 million from 2006 to 2009. The players felt no regret for what they had done. It was just time to move on.

The documentary presents the issues neutrally. Although all the characters in the documentary are Christians, it's not an attempt to preach the Gospel or convert viewers. It's just an attempt to show how serious Christians could carry out a business that most other Christians would brand as unethical. Maybe a weakness in the film is that it doesn't show any change in the characters. We get to know them briefly at the beginning, then in more detail as their work continues, but when they leave the work at the end they're just the same as when they started. They go back to their old daily lives of churches and baptisms. Have they learnt anything from their experiences? I'm sure they did, but the film doesn't make it apparent.

P.S. I apologise to my regular readers for my lack of posts this month. I've been going through a tough time, emotionally and physically. Being at the murder trial every day (see my other recent posts) has been draining my strength, so watching films was the last thing on my mind when I got home. I'm not back to 100% strength yet, but I'm getting there. Thanks for sticking with me.

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