Best hall of them all
Tips on how to lose money for a good cause
Florin Road Bingo2350 Florin Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95823
I know this sounds ridiculous, but bingo is actually harder than I thought.
I came to Florin Road Bingo hall for a Sunday morning session, figuring the after-church crowd would be more forgiving of a clueless reporter trying to learn their arcane art. They were plenty nice, though one lady assured me, “Oh no, this is what we do instead of church.”
The regulars come early to meet and chat and pick out their favorite seats. Before the game started, at least 200 players filled the long, cafeteria-style tables inside the hall.
I catch on to the rules easily enough; it’s just the pace that surprises me. This is not the game you learned in Sunday school.
Sure, the basic rules are familiar. There’s a hopper, which spits out little balls with the letters B, I, N, G and O, and numbers between 1 and 75. (You remember: The low numbers start in the “B” column, high numbers in the “O,” and there’s a free space in the middle.)
The bingo caller puts the ball under a video camera, and the image is shown on monitors all around the hall—then he calls the number into the microphone. The players use daubers filled with brightly colored ink to mark the bingo paper.
But rather than a single bingo card, each player who ponies up the $22 “buy-in” is given a stack of several great broadsheets of colored paper—many with nine separate bingo “faces” on them. It’s like playing nine bingo cards at the same time. There are also “4-ons” and “3-ons” in the stack, as well as “double-action” paper, which is a kind of bingo card within a bingo card. It’s complicated.
It takes some concentration to scan 8, 12 or 18 different bingo faces between calls. During one game, I notice my neighbor has three 9-ons going, with more 9-ons underneath. (She’s also got her own bingo bag, a sort of eight-pouch holster, with Betty Boop decals and daubers in every color of the rainbow.)
To further complicate things, you’re never trying for regular old “bingo”—five marks in a row, vertically, horizontally or diagonally. That would be too easy. Instead, each game requires you to search out a different winning pattern, like a “crazy pyramid” or “seven around a corner” or “corner bracket with a six-pack.”
The whole operation is for charity, but the prizes are handsome. This Sunday morning they’re paying $250 per game, though it can go much higher. So players can get a little intense.
Looking up from my paper, I see rows of people with looks of concentration on their faces, each dauber hovering and flowing over the paper grids, like a blessing, or a divining rod.
Bingo leaves little time for people watching or spacing out. Several times I find that I’ve fallen behind; the caller keeps picking numbers every 10 seconds or so, ready or not. I miss a number somewhere along the line, and while checking the big board to suss out the missing digit, a guy across the room yells, “Bingo!”
There’s a great sigh and some laughter and the sounds of ripping paper all around the room. My neighbor mutters that it’s a “damn, damn shame.” She only needed one number more. Me too, I think. Maybe.
During the intermission, people mingle or chat with their neighbors. The hall has a full cafe with burgers and nachos and soft drinks—though I notice plenty of people bring their own snacks and drinks. There’s even an enclosed smoking section with glass walls, its own TV monitors and six powerful “smoke eaters” inside.
You have to be at least 18 to play; I’m told the oldest bingo player at Florin Road Bingo hall is 113. “And most of the people here know everybody else,” says Kevin Beers, director of Sacramento Consolidated Charities, which runs the hall.
“I met my two best friends here,” says Sherry McGee, who drives up from Stockton every Sunday to meet her friends and play. “I don’t know their phone numbers or where they live. But they’re my best friends.”
One of her best friends, Shirley Ludwico, has been driving in every week for five years from Rocklin. She says she only wins “once in a blue moon.”
And that’s as it should be, since charity bingo is, after all, about charity.
SCC has some paid staff, but the games are mostly run by volunteers, putting in hours on behalf of their charities.
Beers says the spot is nicknamed “The Best Hall of Them All.” But there are other halls around the region, all with charitable missions. Youth sports are major benefactors of charity bingo, along with high-school marching bands, church programs, shelters and food banks—you name it. SCC donated $50,000 to help the families of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and it also helped out the Meadowview Little League after their snack bar burned down.
Last year, SCC was able to give out about $1.5 million to charity. About $9 million went out in prizes.
SCC could have given more to its charities last year if not for a recent state law—pushed by California’s powerful tribal gaming industry—which banned the use of popular new “electronic bingo” games at most charity bingo halls.
“The tribes surmised we were becoming a threat to their legal monopoly,” Beers explains. He says the new law, which went into effect on February 1, is costing SCC about $60,000 a month.
The impact to charities countywide is much greater, says Carl London, a lobbyist for the California Charity Bingo Association.
“At a time when the charities really need that revenue, the Legislature is taking it away. It’s going to blow a $5 million hole in Sacramento County’s safety net,” says London.
A couple of Sacramento charity bingo halls have closed since the law took effect, and Beers and London both think others are on the brink.
The precarious state of charity bingo even prompted the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors last month to adopt a resolution urging state lawmakers to reconsider the ban on electronic bingo.
London worries that the “paper game” is beginning to die off, and it won’t hold the interest of younger players who are being lured away by the flashy new casinos for much longer.
“Bingo was beginning to advance technologically—in ways that were enticing for the player and that benefited the charities. But now that’s been taken away,” London explained.
The day I played, there still seemed to be plenty of devotees of the paper game. It may be old-school, but for many local charities, it’s the only game in town.