Crazy kites and chaos control

B—Be humble. The first time I went to Florin Road Bingo, I was turned away. I’d arrived 10 minutes after the 6 p.m. start time on a Monday night and told the cashier I was a newbie, ready to play. He quietly informed me that 26-game Mondays were not for beginners. When I insisted I could catch on—I mean, it’s B-I-N-G-O, right?—he pulled out the evening’s game list, a complicated chart with cryptic grids and unfamiliar terms like “double easyway,” “Texas blackout” and “small crazy kite.” He waited silently until I admitted defeat, and then he suggested I come back on an easier night, a Wednesday perhaps. A $5-off coupon softened the ego blow.

On my next visit (yes, a Wednesday), I was less arrogant. I arrived an hour early with dollars for the dauber vending machines, good-luck tchotchkes, three supportive friends and the humility to ask the hundred or so questions I had. When the cashier told us a full night’s bingo would last until 10:30 p.m., we opted for the half-session: 14 games for $9. We found a place at the crowded tables inside the bright neon-lit hall, which has a fun birthday-party aesthetic despite a glass wall dividing smokers and non-smokers, and bought our daubers. (A word to the wise: In the world of daubers, all that glitters is not gold. The high-end $1.50 metallic gold marker produced displeasing mustardy splotches, while the $1 Florin Road Bingo brand offered vibrant shades of turquoise, pink and purple.)

I—Invite help. I visited the customer-service desk many times before the games began, peppering the green-vested attendant with worried queries like, “In game one, does it matter if the block of nine squares is at the top or the bottom of the card?” He answered all my questions and wished me a friendly, though dubious, “Good luck!” each time I headed back to my table. Even so, the couple next to me had to explain nearly every game before it started, which, thankfully, they seemed happy to do.

The more-seasoned bingo players—mostly women over 40 from a variety of ethnic backgrounds—sought aid from two sources: caffeine and God. Sodas are cheap at Florin Road Bingo, but at 55 cents a cup with 25-cent refills, the iced tea is the best bet. On the spiritual side, the tables were loaded with good-luck Beanie Babies and animal figurines. One woman brought a monumental gold trophy, which pleased the bingo deities; she won $250 in the first hour.

N—Notice which game you’re playing. Every bingo card is different: Some have one square, and some have nine; sometimes you’re trying to make a T, and sometimes the goal is to mark every square. Forget what they taught you in elementary school, because the one thing you’re never trying to get is B-I-N-G-O. (Yet another way in which our educational system fails to prepare us for the real world.)

Once you get into the rhythm of hearing numbers and marking squares, it’s easy to forget what you’re aiming for and mindlessly daub until someone else yells “Bingo!” Remember that vigilance pays—about $250 per game.

G—Give generously. Bingo is for charity after all, though it’s hard to discern which ones. In the tradition of Vegas largesse, winners buy a round of cards for the entire table. Whatever sates the bingo deities.

O—Own your control issues. After much thought, and at the risk of sounding grandiose, I’ve decided that bingo’s appeal lies in humanity’s ongoing quest to bring order to chaos. There’s something immensely satisfying about locating a number pulled from randomness and covering it with a dot of color that perfectly fits inside its little square. Even the momentary disappointment of hearing a number that wasn’t on my sheet was soothed by the inevitability of the next draw. And if everything happened to line up perfectly, for once I’d know exactly what to do.