In the High Stakes Bingo Room

At Connecticut's Foxwoods Casino, the bingo game never stops.
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Feel the fluorescence.

Photo by Nick Murray.

The largest casino in the country, Foxwoods contains more gambling space than the Bellagio and Mandalay Bay put together, rivaled in size only by its crosstown competitor, Uncasville’s Mohegan Sun. But unlike those destinations, Foxwoods first opened not as a casino but a bingo hall, the largest in the state of Connecticut, and only expanded after the local district court legitimized its existence with the 1986 Mashantucket Pequot Tribe vs. McGuigan ruling.

Even at Foxwoods the game has become something of an anachronism; few of the tens of thousands of people who pass through daily even aware of its existence, much less how central it was to the history of the entire operation. Still, that bingo hall is exactly where I’m heading. Because of a quirk in Connecticut gambling law that allows teenagers to play casino bingo but nothing else, it’s also where I spent a few too many nights in the years after I turned 18 and before I hit 21. I’m drawn back by a mix of nostalgia and curiosity, hoping to find a few likeminded teenagers continuing to exploit these laws. Was this really how I lived? Did I really have nothing better to do than go to the casino and play bingo for fun? Apparently, I still don’t.

It's a fairly easy trip to make from New York City. Greyhound buses depart regularly from Port Authority, but in places like Flushing and Sunset Park, Chinatown buses charge shockingly little and provide gambling coupons that can either be redeemed in the casino or flipped for a quick buck.

On the bus, older couples share seats in the front while single men fill alternate seats, checkerboard style. As we approach Stamford, one of them takes out his iPhone and begins playing a fishing game that requires him to repeatedly throw his arm in a casting motion over the seat. He does this through Darien and into Norwalk.

In the mean time, I’m busy with my reading material of choice, the revised edition of Avery Cardoza's boldly titled The Basics of Winning Bingo, the only book Amazon sells on the subject now that Joseph E. Granville's How to Win at Bingo and Andrew Bowser's Bingo! How to Improve Your Odds have both gone out of print. Cardoza's Basics offers 56 pages on the rules and their variations and only three on the advertised winning strategies. Strategy one, if you’re wondering, is “Find the best games.” Strategy two? Enjoy yourself.

***

When I was in elementary school, I came to Foxwoods for my friend's tenth birthday; when I was in high school, a different friend set the conference record on the casino's championship-caliber Lake of Isles golf course. When I was back in the area for college summers, I stayed at home while my friends with fake IDs drank vodka at Shrine, the casino's recently opened nightclub.

Now I'm back and again feel out of place. “Oh, you’re playing?” the woman asks me as I buy my packet of bingo cards. I take it as a compliment.

I've missed the Early Bird Special, a series of warm up games that begin at 6 o’clock and pay only $200 to the winners (even though this is a "Super Saver" session, the night's total purse easily tops $30,000), so seating is quickly becoming harder to find. Eventually I settle down at a table not far from the exact center of the 5,000 person hall, my back to the caller and my front to three women, all in their late 50s or early 60s, whose heads dart back and forth between the balls and their cards, hoping that at least one of them will produce this round's bingo, a big X with the top row covered.

The woman to the right is the most helpful. I assume that my experience will allow me to enter the game without missing a call, but the quick speed of play immediately throws me off. Between rounds, she teaches me precisely what Avery Cardoza couldn't, explaining everything from the advantage of using a different colored stamper to mark your bonus squares to what exactly a bonus square is in the first place. She also explains how to play side games like Bonanza, the jackpot round that ends the night, and seemingly self-explanatory U-Pick-Em, remaining patient even when I attempt to fill out my card with the same number in different squares. When the next round begins, she marks off her own cards so quickly that she'll occasionally reach over and mark a few of mine as well, and for the rest of the night, I get a small satisfaction every time I glance at her card and find myself slightly closer to victory.

Overwhelmed by the standard nine cards per game, I'm continually amazed at how many people double up and play a full 18. Finally, after I find my rhythm a few rounds in, I begin to see the appeal: When you play nine cards, there is still downtime—you hear the number, you stamp what needs to be stamped, and you look up and wait a moment to hear the next number—but double that and there's no time to wait and barely any to look up. You become less of a bingo player than a bingo machine, entering a trance of B-11's and O-72's that isn't broken until someone finally shouts bingo and the room lets out a collective moan. Often, the calls are premature or incorrect, but many people trash their cards regardless, as if the game ends not when a bingo is confirmed but when the focus is interrupted.

The woman to my left is a bingo machine. She drove up from New Jersey at 5 o'clock in the morning and now keeps her left hand glued to a giant Styrofoam cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee. During the thirteenth game, a strong bonus pushes the woman to my right remarkably close to an early bingo, and when she begins talking to herself—mostly just repeating the letter and number she wants called—the woman to my left is pulled from her trance and starts repeating the phrase “No one cares.” The woman to my right, still in her trance, is unfazed. The woman in the middle hears it all, and chuckles to herself. None of us win anything.

At intermission the woman to my right begins reading a Scholastic chapter book about two girls competing to win the affections of the cutest guy in junior high, and I head over to the soda machine to grab us a pair of cokes. On the way over I spot my first 18-to-21 year-old of the night, a skinny kid with a baggy t-shirt and backwards hat emblazoned with the name of the Boston hardcore band Vanna. The hat makes me feel both old and young—old because I no longer know a single person who likes the Boston hardcore band Vanna; young because, unlike anyone else in the room, I can remember a time when I too liked the Boston hardcore band Vanna.

I try and start a conversation but instead get two words: “Thanks” (following “I like your hat”) and “Sometimes” (following “Do you and your friends come here a lot?”). It then occurs to me that this is probably two more words than I would have said when I was his age, so I wish him luck, grab our sodas, and return to the table.

Despite purses that push well into five digits, the final five games feel more tedious than climatic, and many ditch the much anticipated Bonanza round to head for their cars, their hotel rooms, or whatever restaurants remain open until midnight or later. Some, undoubtedly, will begin to save their money for July’s 26th annual Firecracker Bingo, a Fourth of July blowout that costs $500 to enter and offers players the chance at two million dollar jackpots. No one reaches over to mark your card at Firecracker Bingo, and no one skips Bonanza.

***

On the bus home, I flick my iPod to the only song I know that treats the game not as a metaphor or an interjection but an actual activity that actual people do. Recorded in 1977 and released in 1978, the Fall's “Bingo-Master's Break-Out!” tells the story of an aging bingo caller who “checks the cards through eyes of tears” and “breaks out” with a lethal combination of wine and pills.

Quoted in Simon Ford's Hip Priest: The Story of Mark E. Smith and the Fall, the titular songwriter recalls the particular session that inspired the song: “It was incredible... There was this guy there with these balls going. It wasn't like a place you'd go for your leisure, it was a glorified works canteen. And the people were going there straight from work.”

In many ways, little has changed. Where Smith once saw the game mirroring the forms of industrial labor, anyone who enters the Foxwoods bingo hall can see that the increasingly prominent computer terminals do the same for today’s digital world. Still, it strikes me as curious that pills provide the caller with an escape from the game when, at least from my experience, the bingo player's trance-like state recalls the experience of pills, particularly painkillers or anti-depressants.

Bingo may be the least respected game at the casino—too feminine and too old, associated not with Las Vegas glamour but the musty scent of a church on Thursday night—but in many ways, it's also the purest. Contrary to what Avery Cardoza suggests, there are no winning strategies, and unlike those at the nearby poker and blackjack tables, no one in the bingo hall maintains the illusion that they can somehow beat the house and reverse their fortunes. Even if you come all the way from New York or New Jersey, you don’t go to the bingo hall to win money; you go sit in a room with more people than you can count, to kill four or five hours, and listen to the caller-cum-hypnotist read his lullabye of letters and numbers, waiting for the one that will complete your card, but mostly just waiting.


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