Wednesday, June 23, 2010


My friend Val is the Bingo Queen. In the past few months, she has won literally thousands of dollars at Bingo. She's been so lucky that her boyfriend "buys in". He pays for half her cards in return for 50% of her winnings.

My experience with Bingo has been limited. I had a Bingo game made of cardboard when I was a kid, but didn't use it much. One time I let a games barker talk me into playing a few cards at a carnival, but of course I didn't win anything.

I never had any particular urge to play Bingo until Val had stopped by my office a few dozen times to share stories of her big windfalls. Eventually I started saying "I should come with you sometime!". And later I started to actually mean it.

Well, last night was the big night: My First Bingo.

Ken and I drove a long way from home to get to the Bingo hall. It's by the railroad tracks. The parking lot is made of gravel and mud. Val was outside the front doors, having a smoke.

She showed us in to a large open space that brought to mind every bowling alley and roller skating rink I've ever been in, complete with one of those snack bars that serves flat hamburgers and slices of cold apple pie. It opened 30 years ago, and retains a strong early-1980's vibe.

Val had saved some choice seats for us, near the middle of the hall. To get to them, we had to dodge an obstacle course of large plastic garbage bins, set up to catch drips from the leaking roof. The floor was covered in worn, dark carpet. The rectangular, four-seater tables were laminated with a thin layer of fake dark wood. The ceiling was painted brown.

Ken and Val's boyfriend Mike saved our seats while Val and I went to buy Bingo cards. Except Val didn't call them cards. She referred to them as "strips". Each one was a long strip of recycled paper, with three Bingo "cards" printed on it.

That's where it got complicated. There were different strips to buy for each game. There were the evening's regular games, which came in a colour-coded "book". Then you could buy in for extra bonus games with bigger prizes (the Specials), with names like "Double-Dab", "U-Pik-Em", and "The Accumulator". There were a lot of complicated rules.

First we stood in a lineup to get Val's automated Bingo machine, which would play some of the Specials for her automatically so that she could go out for a smoke break without missing out on any of the prizes. I had never heard of this technology. Picture a Netbook, but customized for Bingo.

Next we got the regular games books: 5-strips for Val and Mike, the experienced players, and 3-strips for Ken and I. You can play as many strips as you like, but if you can't keep up with the caller then having more is not better. Val actually plays 6-strips: a standard five with a sixth taped to the side. Like I said, she's the Bingo Queen.

Last, we bought the Specials strips. Val also bought some funky little paper things that add another layer to the gambling. I didn't exactly get how they worked, but for a dollar apiece you get to pull open the paper tabs, and if there are pictures of three Bingo balls underneath (sometimes they say "Try Again"), and in one of the games all three of those numbers are called, you get to "call Balls" and win a big prize.

As you can imagine, Ken and I couldn't help snorting with laughter every time some little old lady yelled "Bingo!" and the caller stated, in all seriousness: "Balls has been called. We have Balls." Or something to that effect. Everyone else took it without cracking a grin. One woman won five g's via Balls. It's a very serious business.

When the games began, at first a hush descended over the hall. Then, as people began to see their prospects shaping up, the table talk would start. People muttered to their seatmates about the numbers they were waiting for. As the cards filled up and more people got close to a Bingo, the chatter grew louder. The way it worked was that each ball would be displayed on a TV screen for around ten seconds before the caller actually announced it. You couldn't yell Bingo until the caller had made the announcement verbally, even though you could see that you had won. It was easy to tell when someone had a Bingo brewing. A rumble of excited conversation would errupt at one or more tables (sometimes the prizes were split) as soon as the ball came into view. "There it is," we'd say. The caller would announce the number, and one or more calls of Bingo! would be immediate, as the winners shot their hands into the air.

At the one hour mark, and intermission was called. Half the people in the hall went for smoke or bathroom breaks. The other half hustled over to the hardcore area, for people who can't stand a twenty-minute break from the gambling experience. They played another version of Bingo, which involved sitting at an electronic machine with various numbers and colours flashing on it's front. According to Val those games are a waste of time because the prizes are just a few bucks, but I guess some folks can't resist.

After the intermission, Mike won $50 on U-Pik-Em, which was cool. We had agreed to split our winnings before the games started, so he slid $25 over to Ken. It was fun to win something.

For another hour, we diligently watched the screens and dabbed at our cards. It took quite a lot of concentration to keep up even on a 3-strip. I'm not sure how Val was managing with six. The Bingo hall employees circulated, selling Specials strips and refreshments. You could buy a cup of coffee and a bag of BBQ Fritos, or Hickory Sticks, off their little cart, as if you were flying on an extremely downmarket airline. I wasn't tempted.

By 9:30 pm we hadn't won anything else, and my dabbing arm was getting tired. The last prize was given away. Ken and I called it a night. Hardcore Val and Mike decided to stay for the 10pm session to see if their luck might change.

I was glad that I went, and I'd go back again. I found it relaxing to go into a kind of Bingo trance, marking off numbers with big, satisfying polka-dots of emerald green ink. The most entertaining part of the evening, and Ken agrees with me on this, was listening to Val quietly spew a constant stream of verbal abuse at the caller, who took all the blame for every number that wasn't what Val wanted.

"You stupid jerk! I wanted 22, not 21! Come on! Dammit, I hate you!" If words could kill, that poor slob of a guy would have been dead twenty times over before the evening was done.

Will we go back to Bingo? Maybe. We'll see. How about you? Have you played, or would you go if you had the chance?


Anonymous said...

"Bingo! I love that game but I can’t remember what to say when you win." - Homer Simpson

Karen said...

I used to play every week. Now I play in spurts. But I love it. I have won a lot over the years. It is a ton of fun.

Kate said...

I LOVE bingo! But only on New Year's Eve with my crazy AA friends.

LL Cool Joe said...

Wow I love the fact that you filled us in with every detail because I've never played Bingo. Can't say I'd ever want to but it sounds like a fun and different experience.

DarcsFalcon said...

LOL Sorry you didn't win big at Bingo. I went once back in the early-mid 80s, with a friend of mine. I didn't win squat, had to buy a lot of crap just to play, and never went again. I think I gave my friend my dabber or maybe I tossed it.

I'm glad you had fun. :) For some folks it is a great way to spend an evening. I think your friend cussing out the caller is funny though, that would have been the high point of the evening for me too. :D

G said...

Interestingly enough, I was set up on a blind date with my wife that took place at bingo.

The last time I actually played bing was when I was dating my wife in the mid-80's.

Out here, you can get into some seriously high stakes bingo at Foxwoods (after all, that is how the Mashantucket Pequots got thier start).

Haven't played since.

Warped Mind of Ron said...

I've gone and played once, it was mildly entertaining. I do love the little old ladies with all the troll dolls for luck looking all serious with their bingo game faces on.

Jameil said...

I WANNA GO SO BAD!!!! I loved that game growing up!

Ily said...

I went once with an old friend and her Spanish aunt in upstate NY. She knew very little English but she knew her numbers! It was a little embarrassing but exciting!

I should try it again sometime. Sounds like you went with the right people! lol

Jenski said...

The only time I've played bingo in my adult life has been gift bingo at baby or wedding showers. Real bingo sounds like a lot more fun! How many places to people yell about older ladies getting balls? Good luck if you go back!