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Bingo: It's a money-maker and a way of life

Sunday, April 13, 2003

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Like many women of her generation, Emma Mills fills her days with the chores that keep a household running: shopping for groceries, paying bills, cleaning, running errands with her husband.

Emma Mills thinks of herself as a pro, playing bingo seven days a week. The West Leechburg resident says she's gone months at a time without missing a night of playing. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

But when her West Leechburg home is in order, dinner eaten and the dishes done, Mills, 65, heads out, she jokes, to her real job -- professional bingo player.

"I enjoy it," said Mills, a typical bingo player in both age and gender. "I love being with the people, and it's just fun."

Her briefcase is a colorful round bag with multiple pockets, de rigueur for any serious player of the game to carry to and from fire halls, VFW halls or churches.

The tools of her trade include:

dot.gif A magnetic wand for picking up magnetic chips used on cardboard bingo cards.

dot.gif Ink markers -- daubers, in bingo parlance -- such as Dab O Ink, to mark paper bingo cards.

dot.gif Good luck charms, including a frog and an elephant with its trunk up.

dot.gif A candle, usually vanilla, to ward off cigarette smoke.

dot.gif And, of course, a snack, which can include apples or crackers and sugar-free candy.

Mills even keeps to a fairly strict schedule that is altered only by the weather, the season or special plans with her family:

Sunday, St. Gertrude Church, Vandergrift; Monday, Oklahoma Borough Fire Hall; Tuesday, West Leechburg Recreation Hall; Wednesday, Elks Club, Leechburg; Thursday, Gilpin Township Fire Hall; Friday, Parks Township Fire Hall; and Saturday, McMurtry Fire Hall, Vandergrift.

Bingo goes high-tech

What a sideshow today's bingo would be for the man who launched the modern game. That would be one Hugh J. Ward, who was running his games at Pittsburgh carnivals in the 1920s before taking the game nationwide in 1924. He secured a copyright on the game and wrote a book of rules in 1933.

Surely there was nothing in that rulebook about computers and players who worked more than 100 cards at a time.

Along with traditional cards, players can pay for preprogrammed, hand-held computers for a night of bingo. Each computer is programmed with a certain number of "cards," and the computer does the rest, searching up to 120 cards and marking each of them with its own electronic dauber. The cost is about $35 for 40 cards.

All the player has to do is watch the screen to find out whether he or she is a winner.

At a big hall with serious players, the computers have rendered the casual one- or two-card player nearly obsolete. It's not that unusual these days to have just a few numbers more than the minimum called and hear the cry of "Bingo."


"I like to be with the girls," said Mills, who, like other serious bingo players, often arrives at a hall early to get the same seat and to socialize. "We laugh and carry on. We eat, we talk, we play our tickets and our bingo all at once. We have fun. Good clean fun."

Mills began playing bingo 40 years ago, when she was a young mother raising two small children.

A friend encouraged her to go, and the twosome found it an enjoyable way to spend one evening a week.

"I never went out to bars or anything. It was something for me to do. By the time the kids graduated, I was going twice a week. After they left home, I was going three times a week," Mills said. "Then about a year ago, I don't know what happened, I started going every night."

She is not alone.

In Allegheny County, the treasurer's office sells roughly 500 licenses annually for bingo, said Bob Miecznikowski, who oversees bingo licenses. The licenses vary in price, but the main one costs $100 annually and allows an organization to host bingo twice a week, which is what the law allows. Organizations that want to host up to three bingos a year or senior citizens organizations playing for fun or nominal prizes can get less expensive licenses.

That means thousands of people are playing bingo every week in relatively small venues, such as the Boston Commons Community Center in Elizabeth Township, or the Lithuanian Citizens Society of Western Pennsylvania on the South Side, which claims to have the largest game in Allegheny County.

Barbara Hooper, manager of the Lithuanian club's bingo, said the games there every Wednesday and Sunday attract 220 to 340 players; most regular games average 150 to 200. There are 17 employees working the games, which are strictly paper-card games; no hard cards or computers. It costs $10 for a book of 20 sheets with nine cards on each sheet, and most people buy three books for a night of 15 single games that pay $100 each, four specials ($200 each) and a jackpot game ($1,400).

Why do hundreds of people still flock to bingo on any given night?

"It's gambling," Hooper said. "They want the money. People are there for the money."

What's new

Bingo is a tradition that's been around the Pittsburgh area since the early 1920s, when Hugh J. Ward first began running the game at carnivals. He later secured a copyright for bingo and in 1933 wrote the first book of bingo rules. And while the game itself may be old -- its origins date to 16th-century Europe -- technology and small games of chance have given it a whole new twist.

Gene Trinski calls bingo at Holy Martyrs Church in West Tarentum. The judge for this Sunday afternoon is Adele Stanonis, whose role is like the witnesses to lottery drawings. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

"There are more people playing bingo today than there ever were, especially in Pennsylvania because other forms of gambling aren't available," said Dan Shefler of Penn Distributing in Point Breeze, one of the largest bingo suppliers in the region. "Bingo is a totally different business today than it was 20 years ago. But it still attracts the same player."

Shefler's been around bingo and the bingo business since 1966 and has seen its appeal grow even as it has become more modern.

Heavy cardboard bingo cards with multiple games that have to be marked with colorful chips are still used, but in many halls they have given way to paper cards. Because players can mark paper cards more quickly, they buy more cards.

Twenty years ago, Shefler said, a player might spend $5 to buy six hard cards (which are actually sheets of three or more games -- sizes vary) to use throughout the night. Now, the same player might spend $25 for 30 to 36 disposable paper cards (again, sizes vary; each sheet might have three to 18 games). Most halls call 25 to 35 games a night; play usually begins between 7 and 7:30 p.m. and ends by 10:30.

Some bingo players also use computers that let them play more than a hundred cards on any given game. A computer programmed with 40 cards costs about $35 for the night.

"You used to be restricted by how many cards you were physically able to mark," Shefler said. "What computers have done is given players the ability to play as many cards as they can afford to buy."

Technology is evident at the front of the room as well.

Bingo callers no longer have to shout above the din in smoke-filled halls. Instead, they use high-tech microphones and electronic flashboard systems that can cost as much as $10,000 to display numbers.

Getting small

Toni Killian of Stanton Heights jokes with friends at St. Mary of the Mount Church on Mount Washington. At St. Mary, there are early-bird games before the usual 9 p.m. starting time that allow players to get their favorite seat or just to make the fun last longer. These games start late Saturday and finish in the wee hours of Sunday morning, which allows for larger winnings. State laws limit the amount of winnings for any given day.

By far, the biggest change has been the addition of small games of chance that give players additional ways to win money and prizes each night.

The novelty games, with names such as Cherries, Viva Las Vegas and Lucky 7, allow players to spend a dollar or two or 10 on break-open tickets

that can pay off instantly and give buyers a chance to win even more money from as little as $1 to several hundred dollars. Raffles, specials and jackpots give players chances to win even more.

A typical bingo game might pay $40 or $50, whereas "specials" might pay $100 and jackpots $500. Under state law, no game may pay more than $250 and no jackpot more than $2,000.

Players spend an average of $35 to $40 on any given night, but some venues have players who will spend about $1,000 each time they play.

Mills likes bingo but prefers to play the small games of chance, and it's on those tickets that she generally wins and uses the money to buy more tickets.

"I win almost every night I go. I win something, on those tickets mostly," Mills said. "Now, hollering, 'Bingo!' I win once and a while."

Delice Tompkins of Monroeville plays as many as 50 cards at a time, sometimes by memory, without making a mark. The computers at right allow players to play up to 120 more cards each.

Shefler said one of the reasons bingo remains popular is that it can be a big money-maker for an organization even though the law limits the profit to 35 percent and the total payoff in any day is limited to $4,000. Because of the limits, some organizations host late-night bingo on occasion. If they begin after 10 p.m., the games can go into two days, allowing the organization to give away more prize money.

A bingo game that draws 100 people per week with a $10-a-head profit can make $50,000 annually.

"For a fire company or a church, it isn't easy to make $50,000," Shefler said.

Still, it takes hard work and organization to make that kind of money, and operators of a well-run bingo pay attention to the details.

"It's not something where you just come in with an idea and open the next day," Shefler said.

Players want lots of opportunities to win money, a clean hall with designated smoking areas and good food.

On average, a good profit is considered to be $10 per head, although some halls can bring in $30 to $40 per person in profit.

"That's the exception, though," Shefler said. "If a customer is profiting $10 per head, we consider it a good bingo, and that's [a group] that doesn't need to make any changes."

Johnna Pro can be reached at jpro@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1574.

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