The lingo of bingo
Over the last 20 years, bingo has taken a lickin,' but it keeps on tickin,' as Timex used to say about its watches. The board game was lifeblood revenue for churches, schools and organizations for decades into the 1990s. Many games are dark now, but the lights are lit every Thursday night at 7:30 at American Legion Post 186 by the North Fork in Katama.
On a recent Thursday about 20 people played in a hall that seats 70. "The crowds are way down now," said Al Noyes, the member in charge of bingo. "We averaged 21 players for 47 events last year." Players pay $5 for admittance and one book for the evening's play. Additional books cost $4.
Conrad Kurth, the genial godfather of Island bingo, was also in the house Thursday night. He has seen the ups and downs of bingo. "We began the first game in 1973 in Vineyard Haven and at one time, there were four nights of bingo on the Island - Vineyard Haven, here, and two in Oak Bluffs. Now it's Vineyard Haven on Monday night and here on Thursday, both at the Legion," he said.
State regulation, along with competition via lottery games and nearby casino gambling, have impacted the game, and the Internet generation, like young people before them, continues to stay away in droves.
"I didn't like it when I was young, either," said Pat Johnson of Edgartown, who's been playing on the Island for 20 years. "Bingo was something my parents' generation did," she said.
While most of Thursday night's players looked like grandparents, it is not your grandfather's bingo game. It's faster, for one thing, employing more complex patterns, and the technology has changed.
In the old days, callers called a number and players would search for the number, then if they had it, they placed a small disk over the spot on a cardboard card - or multiple cards. Now players use 'daubers,' large felt-tipped pens, to fill in the spot on disposable paper cards.
The cards look the same: the letters B,I,N,G, and O across the top and five numbers under each letter. But they are computer-coded so the player's card doesn't need to be checked for accuracy. Winners call out their winning card number and the computer confirms that the winning numbers are on the card.
Each number called is displayed on four closed-circuit TVs in the hall and on a huge electronic board that tracks the called numbers.
To the neophyte, the culture and jargon of bingo seems daunting. The VFW will roll through 28 games with exotic names like Inside Picture Frame, Layer Cake, Telephone Pole, Blackout, E, and Z - all under the guidance of caller Bob Lehman of Edgartown. The names are visual descriptions of the format of the winning combination for that game. Z, for example, requires the winner to fill in the top and bottom rows and the diagonal row from top right to bottom left, forming a letter Z.
Bewildering to the novice, simple for the regulars. "We had a guy, a summer resident, about 10 years ago, who had a photographic memory" Mr. Noyes said. "It was amazing. He'd buy five cards and run his finger up and down the rows, open a book and start reading. When they called one of his numbers, he'd stop reading, fill it in and then continue reading. "He came for two years, haven't seen him since."
"Maybe he goes to Foxwoods now," Mr. Kurth said.
A night of bingo, Edgartown-style, requires about three hours to play all 28 games; the average game takes four or five minutes. According to Mr. Noyes, a night's big winner can win $60 to $70 against an average $25-30 loss for a big loser - far different from pot sizes when halls were packed and a single game could be worth several hundred dollars.
Ms. Johnson was a co-winner of the first game, one of the evening's larger pots, and was handed a $20 bill. "I won this same game 20 years ago and the payoff was $200," she said, happily placing her winning twenty in the clutches of the Bingomeister, a statuette provided by Mr. Noyes for regulars.
The game and its culture have changed. The days when the hall was packed, the pots paid serious money - and players could smoke - are over. It's not all about the money; it's more about community contact these days. "We thought about stopping it a few years ago, but people wanted it, " Mr. Kurth said. "They told us to reduce the games, lower the payoffs. We did both and our numbers have held up pretty well."
Both men enjoy the weekly ritual they've produced for more than three decades. It pays for itself and allows the legion to coordinate the July 4th parade and provide a scholarship for the high school each year, totaling more than $25,000 over the years.
Jim and Roberta Morgan have made the drive from Menemsha on Thursday night for about four years. He's a 'Cricker' - a nickname for Menemsha natives - and she's from Vineyard Haven.
Roberta likes to play; Jim likes to be with her. He believes he became a big winner a long time ago. In September, they will be married for 60 years. "Best thing that ever happened to me," he said.