Gambling for a good cause

Gary Patton rotates a randomly-drawn ball in front of a video camera so that it is displayed on monitors throughout the dining room at Mid-Columbia Senior Center during a bingo game Thursday. Games are held at the center Thursday and Saturday nights.

Photo by Mark Gibson.
Gary Patton rotates a randomly-drawn ball in front of a video camera so that it is displayed on monitors throughout the dining room at Mid-Columbia Senior Center during a bingo game Thursday. Games are held at the center Thursday and Saturday nights.

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Denise Patton, Meals on Wheels director at the Mid-Columbia Senior Center, works through the paperwork she uses in her report to the Oregon Department of Justice after each game.

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Tamara James watches a video monitor located behind the photographer as she inks her cards during a Thursday night bingo game.

"Bingo!”

The triumphant cry rings from the back of the room and runs like a ripple through the crowd, breaking the quiet tension created by the game. A volunteer moves to the winner’s table, reads the winning numbers aloud: “One. Three. Seven. Seven. Five.”

The volunteer calling the game, Gary Patton, checks the numbers on a computer screen, confirms a winner. “We have a Bingo!”

Fifty dollars – in cash – is awarded the winner, seated at a back table.

Players shuffle used Bingo cards off the tables, line up a fresh set for the next game.

It’s Bingo Night at the Mid-Columbia Senior Center.

THE GAME

Bingo games are held twice weekly at the center. On Thursdays, funds are raised to support the Meals on Wheels program. Games on Saturdays support the center’s general fund.

Just what is Bingo? Bingo is described in Wikipedia as “a game of chance played with different randomly drawn numbers which players match against numbers that have been pre-printed on 5×5 cards.” At the Center, printed paper cards are used. Players buy as many cards as they want for as many games as they wish to play. Prices vary depending on the game.

At the front of the room, the volunteer calling the game – on Thursday its Gary Patton – sits at the Bingo machine. To begin the game, balls stamped with letters and numbers are circulated with a blower in a clear chamber.

One by one, a ball is randomly expelled to the top of the table. Patton picks up the ball, rotates in front of a video camera until the letter and number read correctly on a series of video monitors located throughout the room.

The ball is then inserted into an open hole in the top of the Bingo machine and the number is displayed in a large, lighted board to one side of the room. Patton then calls the number over the public address system – at that time, another ball is already started through the process.

Many versions conclude the game when the first person achieves a specified pattern from the drawn numbers. The winner calls "Bingo!" when they have completed the pattern, which alerts other players and the caller of a possible win. A volunteer reads the card aloud, and the caller checks the player’s numbers on a computer screen, which has been recording the draws.

When a win is officially confirmed, the winning player receives a cash prize or jackpot. The amount of the jackpot varies depending on the game and how many winners there are.

Since its invention in 1929, modern bingo has evolved into multiple variations, with each jurisdiction's gambling laws regulating how the game is played. There are also nearly unlimited patterns that may be specified for play. Some games require only one number to be matched, while cover-all games award the jackpot for covering an entire card, called a “blackout.”

On any given Bingo night at the center, a handful of variations are played.

SOCIAL GAMING

Some come on Bingo nights to win – but many say it’s the social aspect of the game that draws them in.

“It’s great to come see everybody, and it all goes to a good cause,” said Tamara James on a recent Bingo Thursday. She was seated at a front table, and although she had played before – some 15 years ago – she only recently began playing again. “I guess I’m hooked. Everybody says I’m lucky: I pretty much get a free night out.” Her strategy? “You buy lots of tickets, you win.”

Sharing the table with James are Tammy and Kevin Fuller. They run a game in Condon, southeast of The Dalles, and visit the center to play the game themselves. They have been playing the game for a year. “We’re newbies,” chuckled Kevin.

“As a caller, you see the other side of the game,” Kevin said. “You have to handle the problems that come up. Players know what to expect, and they correct you if you are wrong.”

The game they run at a local bar is an important event in Condon. “There’s not a ton of stuff to do in a small town,” Tammy said.

The couple drives 140 miles round trip to play the game – and enjoy the company. “The people here are really friendly,” said Tammy.

A GOOD CAUSE

Doreen Can has been attending games at the senior center for over 10 years. She doesn’t mind losing a little money. “Even if you don’t win, it goes back to the program,” she said. She enjoys the game, but the people are more important. “I like the people here, they’re nice. We have a lot of fun here, I really enjoy it.”

Does she win? “Pretty much,” Can chuckled.

McClain only comes on Thursday nights, and always sits across from Can. “She watches my cards, catches my mistakes. And she saves a place for me,” said McClain. “I donate more than I win, but I’ve won ‘the big one’ twice.” The big one? That’s the final game, when a blackout brings the biggest

payout of the night.

But McClain likes the Bingo variation called “lucky” best. “It’s the best one, because Luckey was my name growing up. Scott calls me ‘Luckey’ all the time.”

“Scott” is Scott McKay, director of the senior center. During the first part of the Thursday night game, he could be found in a side room making hamburgers for the concession stand.

Saturday games benefit the senior center as a whole, and the funds make up about 25 percent of the revenue coming in, McKay said. “I would like to increase participation on Saturday, get more people,” he said as he fried hamburgers behind the concession window.

On Thursday, Bingo supports the Meals on Wheels program, which provides free meal deliveries every weekday.

Denise Patton, the program director, said Bingo nights are run totally by volunteers.

“Since the early 1980s, Bingo is what has kept the Meals on Wheels program going. It’s all volunteer, everyone that works it. No one gets a dime, it all goes back to the program.

“We average 50 players most nights. A lot of the same people, although they come and go – maybe they have a baby, or have to care for a family member. They are gone for a while. But then they come back.”

“I love that all these people get together, play a game together. It’s just a great atmosphere, we’re like a big family here,” Patton said.

PLAYING THE ODDS

On average, games bring in about $700 a night on Thursdays, $300 to $400 on Saturdays, said Patton.

Planning the night’s game, with its many variations, is a matter of estimating the odds, she said. When she sets up the night’s game, “I’m gambling against all of them,” she said.

“We are incredibly fair with the players, and they trust that we are going to do the right thing,” she added.

The game is both complex – there are many variations – and simple.

“If you haven’t played, there are plenty of people who will help walk you through it,” Patton said.

She holds a license that allows her to run the games, and games are regulated by the Oregon Department of Justice. She has to document each game, provide reports on the night’s play.

“It’s gambling, and they take it very seriously,” she said of the regulations and oversight.

On a recent night, there was a big crowd because there is a guaranteed $1,000 payout for the “big game” at the end.

“Tonight, the odds are in their favor,” she said, smiling.

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