Feature: Wednesday, February 01, 2006
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Alexis Salinas likes numbers, especially the ones that add up to the $95 in her hand.
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Peggy Mae Hill (left) and Sue Rhodes are deeply devoted daubers at bingo parlors, but all in the name of fun.
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Knights of Columbus bingo caller Brian Kasula announces the numbers that determine who wins or loses — with proceeds going to churches and charities.
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Despite her 83 years, Elsie Kusnierczyk isn’t above putting on a little face paint to get in the bingo spirit.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Bingo

Forget poker, ponies, and sports bookies. For thousands, life is a bet on Bingo

By JEFF PRINCE

Gambling parlors have become a way of life for people who love the excitement of the games, the thrill of winning, the drama of the calls, even the ever-present, whispered rumors about cheating and fixes.

Some come just to while away the hours in smoke-filled halls, enjoying the camaraderie of friends, with no expectation of making money. But others are “in the chase,” putting rent and grocery money on the line, looking for the payoff that will put them out in front, but more often finding despair — easier than ever these days, since computerization, as in other walks of life, has heated up the game, allowing players to spend more money faster than ever before.

Count Peggy Mae Hill as one of the former group. Church was for many years a big part of her life, but by the time her 13 kids were grown and taught to live the Gospel, she’d had enough of church leaders reaching into her pocket to pay for fancy cars and houses.

So when a new sanctuary opened its gates, she waltzed right in. Now 82, Hill has been playing the game every night for more than 20 years.

“I just love to play bingo, I surely do,” she said.

Odd as it may seem to outsiders, bingo has become a culture for thousands of people across the Metroplex, as seductive to the older-than-average crowd as the track to veteran racing fans, or a Texas Hold ’Em tournament to poker players. Substitute a bag of brightly colored ink daubers for a racing form and a glass case full of ping-pong balls for a stable of horses, and you’ve got, essentially, the same picture.

That picture, however, is cloudy. A dozen years of declining attendance and falling gross revenues show bingo’s popularity is waning, although it remains a powerful source of income for charities. Bingo has evolved to keep pace with other gaming sources in what has become a fierce field of competition. Poker’s popularity boomed with the advent of cable television. Slots are popular — Texas is bordered by three states with casinos. And anyone with a computer and internet service can gamble all day without getting out of their pajamas.

In recent years, bingo has gone high-tech, offering machines that allow customers to play an endless number of cards at one time. Some people embraced the change; others complained that it gave electronic players an unfair advantage or opened up new potential for cheating. Meanwhile, the advent of instant-win pull tabs made it easier than ever for players to lose their money.

Change doesn’t always sit well with the bingo parlor crowd. Hill likes the good ol’ paper bingo cards that require using daubers to block out numbers. She’s daubed a million through the years. She’s no addict, just someone who likes to get out of the house once a day, visit friends, and have fun.

Rookie bingo players might glance around and see rows of tables filled with people grimly daubing numbers being called out in a monotone drone, and say, “Uh, wake me up when the fun starts.” But some get hooked on the low-key adrenaline rush and return day after day, trying to beat the odds. And as the dramas, conspiracies, and evolutions unfold, those wearing the biggest smiles are the charity organizations that reap the benefits.

Bingo’s allure varies for Kim Salinas and her daughter, Alexis, 10. For Kim, a reformed clubber, it’s the lesser of evils. “It keeps me out of the bars, it keeps me from drinking,” she said. “Plus I have fun.”

Alexis, a math enthusiast, loves anything to do with numbers.

Together, they enjoy a weekly mother-daughter night out. No fancy machines for them; they prefer the old-fashioned paper bingo cards. Pull tabs are a luxury only to be bought in small numbers. Like the name implies, you buy a little card, grab a tab and pull it back to instantly reveal whether you win or lose. You don’t even need a penny to scratch off messy silver stuff. But these babies can be addicting and drain your finances in swift fashion, Salinas said.

“If you give in to those, they’ll eat you up,” she said.

The odds are squarely in the house’s favor. For instance, Salinas bought a $1 pull tab in a game called “Horse Race.” Bingo employees walked the floor yelling, “Pull tabs,” pushing these chances on patrons with a vengeance, since the game is an easy moneymaker. With 400 tickets available in the “Horse Race” game, the charity took in $400 and paid out $281 in prizes, for a $119 return. And an employee or two probably got some extra pocket cash since the big pull-tab winners tend to give tips.

Despite her misgivings, Salina allowed herself $10 worth of pull tabs at Everman Bingo on a recent Wednesday. As luck or fate would have it, Alexis won $100. She smiled and held out her palm as a floorwalker handed over $95. Prizes from bingo and pull tabs are taxed five percent on the spot, a charge that doesn’t apply to lottery scratch-off tickets.

The crowd at Everman Bingo was sparse that night, even with free barbecue sandwiches being offered for players. Texas’ charitable bingo attendance peaked at 37 million in 1991 and, since then, has declined almost every year, to 21.5 million in 2004. Revenues are also shrinking, although not as fast as attendance, meaning individual players are spending more money now. Gross receipts of $668 million in 1991 had fallen to $561 million 10 years later, but rose to $604 million in 2004. A modified pull-tab system helped reverse the trend.

“Total gross receipts since 2003 have started to increase, and that’s been driven by a new type of pull tab we authorized in the first part of 2003,” said Billy Atkins, director of the Texas Lottery Commission’s charitable bingo division.

The new pull tabs offer instant winnings, but also a second chance to win in a drawing once all of the tickets in that “deal” are sold.

Lone Star Bingo on Blue Smoke Court in Fort Worth used to draw as many as 300 or 400 patrons on a weekend night. Half as many show up these days.

“This is a dying thing,” said assistant manager Gary Woods.

Observers offer any number of explanations for the decline: lingering economic effects of 9/11, competition from Oklahoma’s casinos and bingo halls with bigger payoffs, the rise in the mid-1990s of local 8-liner game rooms, and the boom in online gambling. Throw in the fact that more people are staying put to enjoy their home theater systems and computer games, and the crunch on bingo revenues was inevitable.

In addition to pull tabs, Texas bingo halls have relied on electronic gambling to bring in more money. The fastest dauber in the West can play only a limited number of bingo cards at any one time. Players who use bingo machines can play as many as 66 games at a time, per machine, without frantically having to blot out numbers. It’s all done for you as the caller hollers out the numbers. Of course, in a game frequented by elderly people, many of whom are computer illiterate, evolutions such as these increase suspicions that someone is trying to rig up some funny business and cheat people out of their money.

Many of the players interviewed for this story suspected bingo halls of cheating. Theories include drilling tiny holes in the bingo balls so that air passes through them and makes them less likely to be sucked up into the caller’s chute, or customers passing secret signals to callers who are in on the fix. Despite patrons’ widespread suspicions, Texas auditors have never found evidence of anyone manipulating the outcome of bingo games or pull tabs, the lottery commission’s Atkins said.

“We get the same complaints,” he said. “We’ll go out there and do observations and investigations and inspections, and we’re not able to identify anyone sending signals or the callers manipulating the balls.”

People who win frequently might be playing more games at a time, increasing their odds of winning but also boosting the amount of money they pay. With the advent of electronic bingo, it’s hard for someone to know how many cards someone else is playing.

“We’ve not detected anyone cheating in terms of fixing the win,” he said.

Certainly some skullduggery has occurred in other states, although on a larger scale than rigging individual games. In the late 1970s, Tennessee lawmakers legalized charity bingo, but numerous scams, bribes, extortions, and frauds soon wracked the games. Lobbyists and state officials helped set up fraudulent bingo charters. Lawmakers were bribed to kill bills designed to toughen regulation. Bingo halls were tipped off about audits. Legitimate charities received little of the money. Eventually, a former state representative was convicted of bingo conspiracy and fraud. Another legislator committed suicide in March 1989 on the day he anticipated being indicted. The secretary of state, also implicated in the fraud, shot and killed himself later that year.

In 1997, a former youth league bingo manager in Virginia was convicted on charges that he diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars from a charity bingo game.

In 2002, a federal grand jury in Chicago indicted 10 people suspected of skimming more than $3 million in profits from a bingo operation.

The following year, a Cincinnati businessman was given a 25-year prison sentence, accused of taking millions generated by instant bingo games and diverting some of the money to Islamic terrorists. The conviction was later overturned on appeal.

Things have been relatively quiet in Texas since legislators established charitable bingo games in 1982. Currently, 645 facilities are licensed to hold bingo games, including 43 in Tarrant County, an area that loves its bingo. (Fort Worth is usually among the top cities in revenues generated.) Profits go to charities, although most of the money goes toward prizes, rent, and employee salaries. In 2004, bingo players won $443 million in prizes, and about $30 million was raised for charities.

Charities, in fact, hold most of the cards in this high-stakes game of fund raising. Commercial bingo operators host the games for numerous charities, but the charities are responsible for collecting money and paying prizes, leasing bingo halls, and paying employee salaries. A bingo hall receives a maximum of $600 in rent from charities for each bingo session, with a maximum of three sessions a day. Charities get the rest, although they can allow operators to establish their own concession stands.

The state regularly fines operators for infractions of the Bingo Enabling Act, but typically for minor discretions and oversights rather than for cheating. Money generated through the sale of bingo cards and pull tabs leaves a detailed paper trail that is audited to keep everyone honest.

“We have a pretty good system that operates from the manufacturers of bingo products to the distributors of bingo products to the bingo halls,” Atkins said.

Still, suspicions linger among this skeptical and superstitious bunch.

“Bingo players themselves are a particular group of folks,” Atkins said. “Whenever I go into a bingo hall, I hear the same thing you hear, something to the effect of, ‘This is the least crooked hall in town.’ Why are these people going if they suspect the hall of being crooked? That defies all logic.”

Even if someone could figure out how to manipulate a win, putting it into practice without getting caught by one of the state’s 24 auditors seems like a lot of work for a little payout, he said.

“Prizes in Texas are limited to no more than $750 a game,” Atkins said. “Given what all it would take to cheat at a game, is it worth the payoff?”

Bingo hasn’t been played at All Saints Catholic Church on Fort Worth’s North Side in 20 years, although, back in the day, the game provided a steady source of income for the church and its private school. Morality aside, it was gambling, pure and simple, and in conflict with state law, but it was also a common source of money for churches and long overlooked by law officers. Once state lawmakers started threatening the games, voters responded by approving an amendment to the Texas Constitution allowing local governments to decide whether to allow bingo, as long as the proceeds went to charities. The first licenses were issued in 1982.

Father Stephen Jasso has been a pastor at All Saints for 11 years. He’s unsure why bingo died there but would consider resurrecting the game. “If we had the possibility of getting bingo back in our parish, I would consider that as an option to look into,” he said. “It’s a way of recreation for people and raising funds for the needs of the parish. But for the time being, we don’t have it.”

Fort Worth resident Vince Perez remembers well when the church ran a bingo game. He was bingo chairman at All Saints. Games were played at the church and at the Catholic Men’s Club until the state began regulating the system. Things went awry after that.

A nonprofit organization that receives a bingo license is limited to $2,500 a day in payouts. A session of games doesn’t take long to play, yet some players are willing to daub away for hours. Commercial bingo halls began popping up, each one aligning itself with several licensed charities. That way, more games could be played and more prize money awarded under one roof on the same day.

The game’s popularity soared, more nonprofits began seeking licenses, and more bingo halls were created. The commercial facilities provided staggering competition for the churches.

“We started losing a lot of customers and couldn’t get enough people to play, and we went in the hole,” Perez said. “It just fizzled out.”

Naturally, Perez preferred the days before regulation.

“Before it was legalized, you could pay whatever, and we drew the crowds, and we had good payouts,” he said.

After regulation, the church’s bingo games barely generated enough to cover the light bills and the annual fees for the licenses. Some nights, there wasn’t even enough money to pay the winners.

“I had to use some of my personal money to make some of the payouts,” Perez recalled.

And some decidedly unholy behavior was occurring at events hosted by the houses of God. Perez recalled how customers would allege the games were rigged and how they fought over “lucky” seating spots. Church members questioned whether money was being taken from church collection plates to fund the bingo games. Finally, the priest at the time blanched after a drunken customer, ejected from the Men’s Club, was struck by a car and sued the church.

Once the commercial bingo halls came to town, the customers fled the church games, and the priest pulled the plug on bingo.

The Knights of Columbus hall on South Cooper Street in Arlington continues to offer small bingo sessions that allow the group to raise money for local Catholic churches and charities. Unlike the commercial halls, the Knights of Columbus relies on volunteers to sell the cards and call out the numbers. Tips given to the volunteers are turned over for charity.

“We’re one of the few that’s 100 percent charity,” bingo chairman Brian Kasula said.

Rudy Rejcek, the grand knight at the Arlington hall, has been a member for almost 50 years and recalls bingo games being held throughout that time. The games were much more lucrative before the state began limiting the payouts and charging for licenses, he said.

“Now there’s bingo halls all over this area,” he said. “You can’t get enough people to support all of the bingo parlors.”

The club raises about $1,000 a month through its bingo games. The lighter the crowd, the harder it is to make money. For instance, if 100 people showed up and each paid $27 for a set of cards, then $2,700 would be generated. After the $2,500 in prizes was paid, $200 would remain. Add in the licensing fees and the overhead costs for space and utilities, and charity bingo can be a losing proposition.

The Knights of Columbus volunteers could raise more money if they were more aggressive, but they don’t pressure anyone to buy pull tabs or play multiple games. Still, people “in the chase” sometimes get barred after writing bad checks to buy cards and pull tabs.

“People who can’t afford to play shouldn’t be gambling anyway,” Rejcek said.

Elsie and Stan Kusnierczyk are typical of the bingo players at Knights of Columbus. The retired couple in their 80s has shown up three nights a week for 20 years. Elsie wears a bracelet given to her by a granddaughter that is inscribed “Bingo Queen.”

“This is our thing now,” Elsie said. “We had our days with children and cooking. Now this is our second home. We’re real loyal.”

“Or real stupid,” Stan said. “I hate this stupid game.”

The couple and their friends laugh, because bingo is a love-hate relationship for many people.

“Nobody wins playing this game,” Elsie said. “If you break even you are lucky.”

Stan was one number away from winning a $150 prize. All he needed the caller to say was “B4.” But another number was called, and someone nearby yelled out “Bingo!” Game over.

At a table nearby, a woman sitting with two friends was also losing. But she was happy. “If I keel over at bingo, just say, ‘She went the way she wanted to go,’” Arlington resident Sue Rhodes said. “Bingo players are crazy. We skip funerals to come play.”

But even if she’s a self-described bingo nut, it doesn’t mean she’s in the chase. She lives on a fixed income, watches her money closely, and plays only when she can afford it.

“I look at it as entertainment, but not everybody does,” she said. “I never come to try and win so I can pay the bills. Some people do.”

Some people are so deep in the chase that they never catch up. Richard, a longtime Fort Worth resident, watched his elderly mother, Alice (not her real name), exhaust her bank account and lose her home while playing bingo compulsively during the 1980s. The scandal created much disharmony in the family, and Richard asked that their full names be withheld to prevent his mother’s embarrassment.

“She started going out of boredom,” he said. “My father was a truck driver, and all the children were grown. Over about a year and a half of going, she became very, very addicted. When we finally figured out what was going on, she had hocked closedto $50,000 worth of jewelry and hadn’t made a house payment or a car payment in four or five months. The utilities were about to be cut off. It all went to bingo.”

Her husband had relied on her for years to take care of the house, pay the bills, and balance the bank accounts while he did long-haul driving for a living. “He assumed she was taking care of things because she always had,” Richard said.

Before her bingo binge was done, Richard’s mother had spent the couple’s savings, hocked all of her jewelry (including a $19,000 anniversary ring that she pawned for $300), and let her mortgage go unpaid to the point that the bank foreclosed.

“Every time she talked to me, she would say, ‘I won $300 on Wednesday’ or whatever, but she never bothered to say that that $300 cost her $900,” Richard said. “Before she knew it, she would go through the car payment or the house payment and would try to win it back, and that’s how it got out of control for her.”

The older couple eventually moved in with Richard’s sister until they were able to scrape up enough money to put a down payment on a modest house. Alice and her retired husband now live on a fixed income in Oklahoma and stay away from bingo halls.

“It was an ugly sight for a while, very scary and hurtful,” Richard said. “It caused us kids to have a lot of anger toward her, to see that [their father] had worked so hard, and she basically threw away everything they had. We’ve recovered from all of it, and its OK now, but it caused a lot of family grief.”

Compulsive bingo gamblers such as Alice don’t get much help from the Texas Lottery Commission. In the past, the commission set aside a modest amount — $375,000 in every two-year budget — to educate compulsive gamblers. In 2003, state legislators quietly killed that funding. Now, the state sets aside no money to provide counseling or education, although lottery officials offer literature on responsible gambling, provide internet links, and print a “Play Responsibly” logo on products.

For the state to refuse to set aside a small percentage of money for educating the gamblers who become compulsive addicts is an outrage, said Michael D. Osborne, executive director of Maryland-based Harbour Pointe, a six-bed residential treatment center established in 1985 for compulsive gamblers.

“It’s like any type of gambling — if checks and balances are not put in place, there is going to be a downside to it,” he said. “People who benefit from bringing in this revenue stream should also be responsible for providing help for that 5 to 7 percent who cross the line and become addicted to some legal form of gambling.”

Bingo appeals to elderly people, many of them seeking escape from boredom. His residential treatment center has dealt with all types of compulsive gamblers, including those who played only legal bingo games. “A lot of these elderly people don’t even partake of gambling until they walk into a bingo hall,” he said.

Most states have legalized lotteries and charity bingo, but few are setting aside money for treatment of problem gamblers. “The majority of our states are balancing their budget off legalized gambling,” Osborne said. “It’s not free money that’s helping them balance their budgets. The money is coming from citizens. Elderly citizens and adolescents are the most vulnerable to becoming addicted to compulsive gambling.”

It’s difficult to determine how many bingo-related crimes are committed, and police don’t recognize a trend in bingo hall robberies or thefts. But even though bingo payouts are modest, they apparently attract criminals from time to time.

On Valentine’s Day last year, a Fort Worth resident won several hundred dollars while playing at Lone Star Bingo and was robbed a short time later while driving home. A car suddenly pulled in front of him, blocking his path, and a robber stuck a gun in his face and forced him to hand over the money. The suspects were never caught.

The next month, a woman called police to report she had been robbed at an apartment complex after winning at bingo. Police officers quickly found holes in her story. “She later recanted,” Fort Worth Police Lt. Dean Sullivan said. “Come to find out, she made the report because she had lost all of her money at the bingo hall and didn’t want her landlord to kick her out.”

On March 21, 2005, a 19-year-old man was playing at Town Center Bingo when a floorwalker passed by, selling bingo cards. The teen grabbed the walker’s cash and cards and high-tailed it for the door, striking two witnesses on the way. He was tackled by a security guard and detained until police arrived.

Few officials of the charities that benefit from bingo express concern over the occasional crimes or the more frequent cases of folks who become seriously addicted to the game. It’s a legal game, aboveboard, sanctioned by the state. Stories of compulsive bingo players ruining their lives are uncommon, they say, and such people might just as likely fall apart abusing alcohol, lottery tickets, or drugs or going on shopping binges.

“Bingo is a source of entertainment first and foremost,” said Odessa resident Rosie Lopez, who represents charities as a first-term member of the Texas Lottery Commission’s Bingo Advisory Committee. “There are a lot of other attractions that people blow their rent on — alcohol, nightclubs.”

Lopez’ day job is serving as executive director of the nonprofit Keep Odessa Beautiful. Finding money for nonprofits is a challenge, and bingo offers an important source of funds, she said.

“Your bingo business is a totally separate market where you have an untapped resource of funding,” she said. “The customers who come and play at your hall, they are coming to play because they want to win cash and have fun and have a social outing, but deep down they don’t always realize they are donating funds to nonprofit organizations.”

Lopez sees a turnaround in the bingo industry after years of declining attendance. Last year’s hurricanes that wiped out Gulf Coast casinos have reduced the competition. Less competition means more money going to local bingo halls and local charities. It’s a win-win (not counting the hurricane victims, of course).

“In Odessa we have seen over the last six months a multitude of new faces, new people who have never played bingo before, coming to our hall,” she said.

The Southside Optimist Club of Fort Worth relies on bingo money to help with its many community projects, such as sponsoring youth baseball and providing college scholarships. Bingo revenues have fallen in recent years but “in all these years of doing bingo, our club has done fairly well. We’ve been able to provide scholarships to all the local colleges,” said the club’s secretary-treasurer Harley Maberry.

As for charities benefiting from a game that is, in effect, a vice that can send some people reeling into despair, he said, “We are not for anything like that at all. Occasionally someone does get involved like that and should not, but bingo [provides] recreational outlets they might not find elsewhere.”

After Peggy Mae Hill raised her 13 kids, bingo was the form of recreation that most appealed to her. She’s glad the money goes to charity, and she has little patience for people who are in the chase, turning a game into an obsession, desperately trying to win to keep from being evicted.

“When you’re playing for the money, you’re gambling, and the Bible don’t allow it,” Hill said.

You can reach Jeff Prince at Jeff.Prince@fwweekly.com.


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