S-l-o-t-s may spell end for commercial bingo

Sun Staff

B-12, I-21, B-6, N-32, I-25 ...

During a recent night at Bingo World in Linthicum, three sisters from Glen Burnie - Sandy, Donna and Brenda - play nearly 100 cards between them.

"This is our time out: no work, no kids, no husbands," says Sandy Turner, 44, a once-a-week regular at the commercial bingo hall, where the smells of French fries and cigarette smoke hang in the air.

Like a hopeful handful of the more than 400 other players, the sisters are just one call from winning bingo.

Commercial bingo operators, on the other hand, worry that they're one call from losing their game. They are waiting to see if the state approves slot machines as a way to bring in needed revenue.

Maryland's for-profit bingo, a vestige of the last century that is unique outside Nevada and Indian reservations, will be hard-pressed to survive against Maryland slots, they say.

"It's like a nuclear bomb going off," said Edward O. Wayson Jr., an Annapolis lobbyist who represents the county's parlors and whose family has run bingo games for decades.

"There's life after a nuclear bomb, though."

There are other big decisions on the table as well. Anne Arundel - home to nearly half of the state's commercial halls - may raise its tax rate on bingo.

The county's leaders also must decide whether to allow a linked, big-stakes game among the county's three halls.

None of those may matter if the General Assembly approves slots.

"I would think that [slots] would pretty much put professional bingo out of business," said Mary Baldridge, the chairwoman of the Anne Arundel Amusement License Commission, which oversees for-profit bingo.

The game survived when the state banned slots in 1968. It remains alive in Anne Arundel, Calvert and Washington counties. Three halls operate in Anne Arundel - in Laurel, Linthicum and Wayson's Corner in South County - two in Calvert and two in Washington.

Tough competition

Buses come from as far as Virginia, Delaware and Washington to the Arundel halls. While other states and Maryland counties allow private companies to run commercial games, they require at least some charity involvement. Not in these halls.

The Wynn family, which runs the behemoth Las Vegas-based Mirage Resorts Inc., opened Wayson's Bingo in the early 1960s. It is now a Wayson family business and, like the other halls, has stumbled upon tough competition for the gambling dollar.

The way Wayson tells it, first came Keno. When the Maryland Lottery introduced the bingo-like game in 1993, the bingo halls felt the pinch.

In 1995, Delaware approved slots, and the pinch grew tighter.

"We haven't done well since," Wayson said.

Anne Arundel's county council explored abolishing the game three years ago but relented and opted for increased regulation. Gradually, the game has recovered from the changes.

The amount of tax money collected from Maryland commercial bingo halls last fiscal year - nearly $712,000 - exceeded every year since 1998, according to data from the state comptroller's office.

Future of the game

Randy Clemens, the general manager at Bingo World since it reopened in 1987, says his hall makes more money than it did a few years ago but from fewer people. Like the other bingo managers, he wonders about the future of the game.

John Cameron's family business bought Daily Double Bingo in Laurel last year, and he's already looking across the street and pondering.

His hall sits across Route 198 from Laurel Park, a horse racing track and proposed site for slot machines. Daily Double is his first venture outside Canada, where Cameron said he watched the proliferation of slot machines devastate the bingo business.

"If Mrs. Jones plays bingo four times a week, she's going to now come to bingo once or twice a week, and go to the slots once or twice a week," he said. If that happens, "I've lost 50 percent of my business."

Bingo operators say they would like to operate slot machines, but they haven't put forward any such proposal.

A tax increase would hurt less and would be limited to Anne Arundel. The county executive has discussed raising the county's amusement tax to 10 percent from 7.5 percent. Calvert County and Chesapeake Beach, which is in Calvert, tax at 0.5 percent and 1 percent, respectively. Washington taxes at 3 percent.

Anne Arundel's bingo practitioners are careful not to complain about county regulation, but they would like to loosen some rules.

They made a preliminary proposal last month to the county's Amusement License Commission to abolish the limits that prevent one evening's giveaways from topping $15,000. (Calvert County has no limit.) They also want to hold a simultaneous game involving Anne Arundel's three halls. The prize could be as large as $100,000, Clemens said.

'Competitive world'

"It's a different competitive world," Wayson said. "You've got to have more tools, you've got to be more flexible, and you've got to be able to move quickly."

The license commission's Baldridge said she hears the same argument every time bingo practitioners want more freedom. "To me, it's just rhetoric," she said.

Bingo hall operators counter that gamblers can log onto their computer and play nearly any game. Already, they attempt to replicate the "play any game you want" atmosphere within their halls.

At Bingo World, a stack of about 20 sheets, each printed with 27 game cards, costs $29.

In one game, the goal may be to get a traditional line of five - horizontal, vertical or diagonal. But the next game could require players to make a C, N, K, L, T or X by filling in the squares on their cards.

On a recent Tuesday night, players at Bingo World tried to fill all 45 spots on the card in 52 calls or less. Success would yield $10,000. No one won.

And while the players try to fill their cards- as if focusing on 27 at a time isn't enough -attendants roam the floor selling instant games.

These are where the parlors make their money - and why some bingo players say they spend hundreds in a night.

If bingo has survived for any one reason, its promoters said, it's the socialization that a slot machine doesn't provide.

"There's a certain camaraderie," said Gerald Donovan, the mayor of Chesapeake Beach who has operated a bingo hall there for 24 years.

"Bingo is a social experience. You're in a room full of people who leave their cares and troubles at the door.

"It's the lowest form of gambling. It's almost like it's not gambling."

At Bingo World, players sprawl across 15 rows of tables. It's like a little village inside: a glassed-in no-smoking area, three restaurants, including a Subway, and television screens displaying the most recently pulled bingo ball.

The regulars

The regulars - and nearly everyone there is one - bring their special markers for dotting bingo sheets, and they bring their lucky charms.

Thelma Martin, 43, of downtown Baltimore wears her "Thelma's Lucky Bingo Top," a white T-shirt saying as much and covered in pin-on plastic money.

Frank Dukes is noticeably different than the average person in the crowd.

He's a male and in his 20s. The first time he came to Bingo World, he was supposed to go later that night to the slots in Delaware. But he won $300 and stayed. "That was two years ago, and I still haven't made it to Delaware," he says.

The Glen Burnie trio of sisters still needs one call for bingo. They're pulling for I-19, as the next ball appears on their television screen... G-55.

That prompts a lot of calls for bingo. A lot of people will share the $1,000 prize.

It also prompts the sisters to tear away the top sheets of their bingo card packets. It's time for the next game.

"The more you spend," Turner says, "the more you win."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad