What I Learned 

It helps to know something about the game if you want to win any money.

Having fallen prey to the common misconception that bingo is for old church-going types with nothing better to do than sit around card tables, eat jellybeans, and play a game regularly featured at children's birthday parties, my first bingo experience at Oakland's Foothill Square parlor was nothing like I imagined it would be.

Most players at Foothill's parlor are regulars: they sit in the same folding-chairs night after night and are on a first-name basis with floor volunteers. They know the drill, they know the etiquette — they get their news from the "Bingo Bugle." I knew nothing about bingo when I stepped through Foothill's double doors for the first time on a recent Wednesday evening. My only saving grace were the sympathies of a couple of kind regulars willing to guide me through what turned out to be a much more involved game than I expected.

Lesson One: Bingo has evolved. In some parlors, certain nights are so popular that you actually need to call ahead of time to reserve a seat. So imagine you are going to a movie on opening night: prepare for a mob scene, and don't be late. And be prepared to spend no less than $25.

Lesson Two: No loitering. You can't just hang out inside the parlor if you're not going to play. You have to buy your cards as a sort of "entrance fee" at what is called the "cage" at the front of the room.

Lesson Three: Buy lots of card. If you want to win, you'll spend whatever it takes to purchase the maximum number of cards allowed — both regular paper cards and computerized cards, which are played on what are called "e-bingo" aids or "handsets" that look like compact laptops. The number of cards you can purchase ranges anywhere from 150 to 500 cards for each game, depending on the parlor's rules.

Lesson Four: Don't fall behind. As I struggled to fill out my eighteen cards by hand after the caller announced each set (the caller allows 17 seconds to pass between each set so that's less than one second to fill out each 24-square card) my arm began to cramp. I started making mistakes. I fell behind. Meanwhile, every other player in the parlor let their e-bingo aids fill out hundreds of cards at the same time with just a few quick punches on a keyboard. While I was too busy filling out cards by-hand to check if I even had a bingo, the tracking and alerting mechanisms on the laptops meant that other players couldn't miss a potential bingo if they tried. I didn't invest the extra $5 it would have cost me to use an e-bingo aid. Instead I went the good old-fashioned paper way. Which is fine, according to the guy who sold them to me, "if you want to lose."

Lesson Five: Know the games. Ever heard of a "six-pack anywhere"? Or how about a "Crazy Kite"? Live it. Learn it. Love it.

Lesson Six: Go easy on the instant winner side-games. Which doesn't mean don't buy them at all. Just give yourself a limit and stick to it. Some regulars will spend $1,000 or more during the night on "pull tabs," which are instant winner bingo side-games similar to lotto tickets. In addition to the stand-alone bingo machines, which are analogous to slot machines, selling pull-tabs is where most parlors see the majority of their profits. Without the help of pull-tabs or bingo technology, I was up against some pretty unforgiving odds. Still, it was hard to stop playing. Which brings us to lucky ...

Lesson Seven: Know when to stop. An hour into the bingo marathon, I couldn't help but notice my senses had perked, my heart had begun thumping against my chest — I never thought bingo could invoke such an adrenaline rush. It's an allure all too familiar to the gambling addict in all of us. At one point I even leaned over to my neighbors to share my newfound enthusiasm for the game. "This is fun!" I said, full of amateur zest. An unsmiling man in the group leaned back and replied, "It's more fun when you win."

Competition among regulars is fierce, and the tension is palpable. Games move fast, lasting anywhere from two to fifteen minutes. Throughout the entire night, "volunteers" worked the room hard to sell pull-tabs, occasionally peeling off bills from their large wads of cash to the winners. State law doesn't allow more than $250 in payout per game (although that's about to change: come January, the max payout will be $500), which means that if there's more than one winner, that $250 has to be shared amongst them. If they don't win the first game, players know they have plenty more chances to win as long as they have the stamina to focus for the three hours it can take to bingo the night away.

I played for two and a half hours that night, spent a total of $20, and didn't win a cent. But I also didn't play my odds right. Next time I'll know better.


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