Once every six weeks or so, I volunteer to work the Friday night, smoke-free Bingo game at the Falmouth Firehouse. There are close to 20 weekly bingo games in the Fredericksburg area, all run by civic and religious groups as fundraisers, and for my organization, it is by far our most profitable money maker. The game is a far cry from the Catholic Church bingo I played once or twice as a kid with my mom. An air blower keeps the balls moving, then the automatically selected ball is placed in front of a camera for the players to view on television monitors around the room. The number board in front of the room lights up, and computerized bingo machines are starting to replace the paper bingo sheets, allowing players to track many more cards at once. And now, a major feature of bingo is the sale of pull-tabs, essentially lottery tickets, with money prizes that can reach into the thousands.
Opponents of bingo, and pull-tabs in particular, say that the game (and all gambling, really) exploits the poor, who mistakenly believe the odds-gods will eventually shine on them and they will win big. I don’t completely disagree. As working class folks and senior citizens fork over a continuous stream of $20 bills to buy pull-tabs, I can’t help but wonder why they’re wasting so much money that could obviously be put to better use. But for most of the people at the Falmouth Firehouse, Bingo is probably their one big night out a week. They pay an average of around $40-50 for their bingo set-ups, not an unreasonable amount for a Friday night out. The group seems pretty friendly, and many people come early, bring dinner with them, and spend some time socializing with their neighbors. And as a pull-tab seller roaming through the crowd all night, I have to say that of all the places I’ve gone and events I’ve attended in the burg, this is one of the most truly diverse groups. The players are a racially and ethnically diverse mix, there are school-age kids along with seniors well into their 80’s, and people with a variety of disabilities enjoy the game without limitations. Husbands and wives play together, girlfriends get together for a night out, parents help their children with the games, grandparents show off photos of the grandkids. Clearly an evening at Bingo is not quite the same as an evening playing the slots in a casino.
As I walked around, I took notice of all of the little good luck charms people were surrounded by: a small wooden angel, several ceramic elephants, a stuffed Bingo ball, twin rubber duckies, Pokemon cards and figurines, a small square of batiked cloth, a plastic tiger, a souvenir frog from Paradise Island, a surfing penguin, a colored stone, an oversized ladybug, a sheer drawstring bag filled with what I can only describe as “magic sparklies,” and of course, a red rabbit’s foot. If I weren’t trying to make money for my organization, I’d let them know that lucky charms or no, the odds are stacked against them.