There's a divide in the world of bingo.
It came to our attention after Donna Barney, whose husband Brad owns Bingo World, contacted the Indy to say that after 26 years, the business had moved into a new facility at 272 S. Academy Blvd. It surprised me to learn it could hold 300 people. Barney explained how good turnouts there would generate money for nonprofits, "thousands of dollars in a single night." She added that she'd seen progressive jackpots grow to $7,500 in her hall.
Curiosity piqued, I asked around. With the exception of my girlfriend remembering how, as a toddler, she'd tag along with her grandmother and entertain herself under tables in smoke-filled halls, no one I knew — nonprofit-lovers or money-grubbers — had any real experience with the game.
I started following Bingo World on Twitter. I was its first follower. It's now tweeted 100 times to, well, me alone.
I started tracking Carefree Bingo soon after, becoming its second follower. It's tweeted once since late 2009.
Mess around on Google, and you'll find that the younger, social-media-savvy set is quite bingo-aware. You'll find results on "hipster bingo," and playing boards — available physically on Etsy and iTunes as an app — made up of fixed-gear bicycles, vintage 35mm cameras, latte art and a central "F*cking Free Space." You may even luck into a Wes Anderson movie bingo grid.
In 2009, the Village Voice gave a Best Of award to a drag-queen bingo pair for "Best Reinterpretation of an Old-Lady Activity." Another New York City publication, Metromix, said of the game in November 2011: "everything for the old is new again," while not just profiling the still-strong drag queen bingo, but also "porno bingo" and "bitchy bingo" among others at various venues.
Then there's a link to something called Rebel Bingo in London, which looks more like a rave, or bingo on ecstasy: The techno-centric number party has already spread to major U.S. cities. Denver is not among them, but the Larimer Lounge has brought bingo to the young and music-loving masses: Each Thursday you can play for two hours, with concert tickets up for grabs.
Closer to home, the Underground has hosted the United Court of the Pikes Peak Empire Bingo Night on Mondays for four years now. And KRXP is attracting dozens to its free Friday night bingo at Oscar's Oyster Bar, after a decent stint at Gasoline Alley. Says RXP deejay and promotions director Nomi, who played bingo in Chicago and Fargo, N.D., before moving here: "It's an excuse to play an easy game and drink, relax and win cool stuff," like concert tickets.
But wouldn't the same be true of playing in a bingo hall? Doesn't seven or eight grand qualify as "cool stuff"?
In short, could bingo in its purest form be hip?
Time to investigate.
State of play
At Bingo World, there's nary a pair of Chucks or three-quarter length girl jeans. And it takes me all of about five minutes to attract some mothering.
When there's money at stake, not door prizes, here's how bingo generally works: You buy a sheet or multiple sheets (around $7 to $10 each) for the basic game. Each contains six grids of 25 numbers. A bingo ball is randomly spit out of a machine, and the number, between 1 and 75 in American bingo, is announced, and broadcast to several TVs, in roughly 15-second intervals. You quickly scan each grid and daube, or stamp, the cards that include that number, in hopes that you'll wind up with one pattern that lets you yell, "Bingo!"
If it's not difficult work, it's certainly exacting.
Seeing me flounder with multiple grids, Jennifer Shipp and Lisa DeAger started reaching across the table to mark mine for me — upside-down, mind you — while still managing to play four sheets of their own, plus machines. (That'd be a total of 60 grids, plus around 10 pull-tabs, which are supplemental, lottery ticket-like cards that award an additional pot per game.)
DeAger, 67 and retired most recently from eight years of hotel management in Texas, speaks with a charming German accent and a sharp, humorous tone that makes her no-bullshit personality as obvious as bright pink dauber ink.
She first started playing bingo around 12 years ago at an NCO club in Germany, where her husband was stationed. He still works on Fort Carson, and she draws Social Security. "We're not rich, but comfortable," she says, estimating that she spends around $400 a month playing bingo. Sometimes, though, she spends more; in a later evening, I watched her drop around $200 in one sitting.
"You always lose money," she says. "I'm just happy to have something to get out of the house and do. Someone else plays golf, I play bingo."
Shipp, a 50-year-old, part-time home health-care worker, wears the same crucifix necklace but different Broncos T-shirts both times I play with her. She learned to play at a Knights of Columbus hall, at age 12, with her mother. Nowadays, she estimates she spends around $50 on an average bingo session.
"I don't break even," she says, "but I'm happy that the money is going to good use with the charities ... I don't drink and go to bars, so this is my Friday night out."
Shipp says she's never been to Las Vegas and visits Cripple Creek "maybe once a year, if that." She says she maintains a casual approach in her gaming, even though I catch her nervously whispering to herself when she's one number away. "I'm just hoping the number's going to come up," she defends. "Either it comes or it doesn't, it's no big deal if it doesn't, I don't get upset — though you hear a lot of people curse."
I, of course, am one of them. And so is DeAger, if you count an elongated "sh" sound minus the conclusive "it."
The Fountain residents became friends at bingo around five years ago, and now split their winnings whenever they play together, usually about three times weekly. "That way, if I win, she doesn't go home broke," explains Shipp.
"When we win big," DeAger later tells me, "We go to Red Lobster, just the two of us, and get whatever we want."
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the real bingo.
Up in smoke
DeAger concedes that she fits the bingo stereotype of a retired military housewife. But she reports seeing more and more young couples, again mostly military, playing in Fountain.
So I venture down in that direction, winding up at a KC hall in Security. There's a refreshing melting pot of cultures and nationalities in the building. But age-wise, it's almost all old, older and really old, and predominantly women.
There's not only a generation gap at hand, but something of a time warp, with drab-colored walls, painfully basic card tables and chairs, nondescript clothing styles, generic concessions and giant rectangular scoreboards on the walls that would look at home next to a Tron machine. (Hell, neither Bingo World nor KC has even come around to 1990s-era environmental ethics: Neither recycles the mass of paper created at each gaming session.)
However, there is one young couple here.
Rich and Christina Jones, 32 and 30 respectively, came to Fort Carson from Iowa; he's an Army officer, she's a homemaker. When I meet them, Rich is just back from Afghanistan, about to re-station to Virginia. It's his second time to play, "a date-night thing." Christina had played several times before with her friends, though neither of them has yet to win any money, after spending around $30 on this most recent buy-in.
"For date night, it's easy. You can sit and talk, unlike at a movie," says Rich, whose own hobbies include outdoor pursuits like fishing and bowhunting. (Hook, arrow, bingo dauber — the gear of a true Renaissance man.)
That said, he's pretty dialed in: "That last game, I was one number away. I had that card with two numbers on it [a double action card]. I needed a one or a three, and they called a two ..."
When asked, Rich says he believes bingo can be a young person's game. He mentions that two other certifiably non-geriatric couples sat near them on a recent date night.
But according to numbers provided by Andrew Cole of the Colorado Secretary of State's office, the cavalry is slow in coming.
As of early this summer, there were just 24 bingo halls in Colorado. Bingo licenses made up 398 of 1,055 overall bingo/raffle licenses, but that overall number is just about half of what was out there a decade ago, according to his office staff.
You can't blame the decline on unattractive prizes. Progressive jackpots — accumulating monies from multiple games played during a single session — indeed can grow to multiple thousands of dollars. At $15,000, the state liquidates them. The halls themselves make money on concessions and by renting space to the nonprofits. (That doesn't count facilities that nonprofits run themselves, such as the KC fraternities.) The state collects taxes on the charities' income, nowadays about $15 million annually, between bingo, pull-tabs and raffles.
Ken Peterson of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie No. 3260 maintains that what really hurt the industry was the smoking ban, enacted in 2006. Gamers simply couldn't abide having to wait for intermission to smoke outside — which the remaining smokers still do in droves. Then the recession hit, taking numbers down yet again.
Peterson is eager to talk about the Eagles' civic service — Aerie No. 3260 is helping fulfill a $25 million pledge toward diabetes research — but I instead prod him on further bingo generalizations. He confirms a trend that attendance noticeably rises at the beginning of each month when pension, Social Security and welfare payments are distributed. Then he dishes the dirt on bingo juju.
"People will fight to the death for their seat," he says, adding that some people will arrive half an hour early to claim their favorite chair. "You don't want to get in between those women — it's vicious."
He's had to ask certain players in the past to not come back.
Peterson also points out the trinkets and such that adorn the middle of the tables, set just above the players' arm-length-wide sheet spreads. Shipp says that as Catholics, she and DeAger don't do the "idol thing," though DeAger admits to having used "good luck charms" in the past, including a penny she found heads-up in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
They introduce me to Augusta Jordan and her seven troll dolls. You know the ones I'm talking about: small plastic body, creepy smile, neon tufts of Einstein hair, big in the '60s and somehow, inexplicably, subject to minor revivals in just about every decade since.
They're lined up next to empty daubers, a couple of decorative glass spheres and a set of miniature pig figurines. Jordan tells me they bring her good luck. But not this night, as I don't see her bingo. (Yes, you can use it as a verb.)
Nor do I come close to minor fortune, myself. I leave admittedly a bit dejected.
Like probably most people there, I briefly imagined what I'd do with an extra grand in my pocket. But I wonder: If I had won, would it spur me to play bingo often? Would I be that guy sitting there some day with 20 bingo grids spread out under a bizarre altar of my own voodoo sacraments, throwing elbows at whoever eyed my lucky chair?
Later, I decide I'm kinda glad I didn't win, after all. Even my young, glasses-free eyes were getting tired scanning for numbers after a while, and I found myself yawning. At one point, I felt officially bored as I daubed, ham-fisted, between sheets. I guess that's where drag queens and techno music come in handy, to shake things up a bit between the monotone ball-calling.
Maybe the bar setting is just what bingo needs to really reach its revival amongst our disaffected youth. Maybe being "a calm, happy form of entertainment," as Bingo World's website puts it, is everything that's wrong with the game.
With irony being such a tenet of hipsterism, the Springs' bingo halls are certainly ripe for mustachioed action. ("Dude, have you seen my lucky '80s sweatbands?") But in the end it's about real gambling versus door prizes and drinks. We're talking bingo and bingo light — like Vegas versus casino night at your company party.
What's happening in clubs and bars isn't really bingo. But maybe it's the gateway drug: Even cool kids grow old, and one day there'll be a warm seat inside a legitimate bingo hall awaiting them — if they arrive early enough or fight hard enough for it.