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And Bingo was my Game-o

The game that pays to play

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Even the amateurs quickly learn that to win, you have to keep your eye on the ball.

That means ignoring the caller. It means playing ahead of the numbers flashing on the board and instead, stealing glances at one of the TVs posted high around the room.

Behind the plexiglass front of the caller's "desk" at Boise Bingo in Garden City, 75 plastic balls flit about in some invisible storm until one is sucked up into a swirling vortex that delivers it through a narrow tube, directly into the eye of the camera, which beams it live on all three screens.

"B-9," says the caller over the loudspeaker. Tonight the caller is a young man who looks just old enough to gamble, but he's seasoned enough to know how to taunt the crowd, telling us when the first chance "to bingo" arrives in a game, reminding us just how much money is at stake in the high-money games.

"B-9," he repeats, the number nine flashing on two boards, hovering somewhere between the called numbers, which are lit, and the uncalled numbers, which are unlit.

But the televisions show "G-49."

I quickly scan all 18 rows of G's on my six cards and daub four number 49s. It's a cartwheel game, which means that instead of just making a traditional "bingo" by lining up five numbers in any direction, I have to make an "x" plus a straight horizontal line second row from the bottom and I have to get the middle square on the bottom row. In serious bingo, each game is a different shape, and for novices like myself, it's confusing. On the advice of a friend, I learned to keep it all straight by highlighting the required boxes of each game, using the provided cheat sheet, before game time.

"G-49," thumps out over the loudspeaker, and rather than glancing at the TVs, I scan my cards.

In 13 round, green ink circles the size of quarter, all of which are connected by faint purple highlighter underneath, is the "cartwheel."

I have milliseconds to second-guess myself (a false bingo, my friends have informed me, is not looked on kindly by this crowd) or risk losing my victory.

"Bingo," I yell.

Coincidentally the woman who sold me the card is standing at my table when I yell. She'd come by to stamp a red star onto my "regular" player's game card, which sadly had only one other stamp, a faint red heart.

She grabs my card and reads off the game's numbers to the caller. We're seated way in the back at a long, brown folding table marked "non-smoking," and he can't hear the number.

She reads it again.

I don't know how much money the game is worth, and with the entire bingo hall turned around in my direction, I don't care about money. What I care about is that I haven't committed a false bingo.

"It's a bingo," confirms the caller.

A collective grunt rises from the audience of about 50 players, and they rip away the spent top sheets to reveal the next game.

Before I can relish my victory, we're moving on, looking for four in an "L" around the free space in any direction. I'm so excited about my win I can't keep up on the new game. I utter aloud that 18 cards is too many. It's Monday night—buy two cards get one free. As I'd hemmed and hawed over buying one card or two, my friend convinced me to get two—which meant three—so that I'd have better odds. In my inexperience, no doubt, I'd overlooked a few numbers that should have been daubed green, perhaps I'd even missed a bingo.

Bonnie, the floor attendant, pads over to take down my name and count out my winnings. While frantically daubing, I spell out my name and she counts out four $20 bills, a 10, a five and five ones. Between trying to tip Bonnie and trying to tune out the rotund mother-daughter team one table over, I fall behind.

With every new ball on TV, the daughter calls the number to her mother, which is a ball ahead of the number on the loudspeaker. I can hear the daughter admonish her mother for not paying attention and missing numbers. Both are dressed in black T-shirts and black Capri pants, their long hair pulled back in matching ponytails, one many years grayer than the other. Like many around me, they're playing on folding electronic bingo cards, as well as paper cards. Around them, a half-dozen different colored daubers stand guard, barricading them in against the rest of the table.

"N-34," says the daughter.

"I-16," calls the loudspeaker.

A hoot escapes from the center of the room. It's 44-year-old Kelly Santas who, a few games back, won $899 on a hot ball I-16 bingo.

The hot ball is one of those side bets in serious bingo like the bonanza and the progressive. It takes a couple of trips to the bingo hall, or a well-educated guide, before a newbie understands them all.

Santas, who's a student at College of Western Idaho studying drug and alcohol counseling, tells me later that he's going to pay bills with his winnings. In fact, his entire attitude toward bingo has a responsible tone to it.

"You can easily spend more than you can possibly make, and if you think you'll catch up—other than the entertainment—you won't," he warns. Santas plays with his mom, Ila Fleetwood, who says she's never won anything close to what he's won.

Seven or eight years ago in Washington, Santas won $1,750 in a bingo game. Chat up the regular crowd and everyone has a story about their jackpot winnings.

Mary Beth Denney says the most she's won in a single night is around $900. She did that by hitting the star, and even after she explains what that means, I still don't fully understand.

After a years-long hiatus, Denney and her husband started hitting the bingo cards again in September as a way to escape their four kids. Tonight her husband is out of town, and though she says they only play about twice a month, she's set up like a serious regular with a rainbow of daubers, a roll of tape, electronic and paper games, and trashcan nearby.

The only thing I don't notice is a good-luck charm.

My friend, whose big bingo jackpot was $75 on a "postage stamp" game two years ago, tells me Beanie Babies are the good luck charm of choice.

Even I buy into the idea of a good luck charm.

When Bonnie makes a trip back to the non-smoking section and thanks me for the tip, I tell her I'll tip her more next time if she brings me some luck and helps me win again. But my luck has run out for the night. For the remaining couple of games, I'm part of the crowd grunting in disappointment while someone else bingos.

I put the lid back on my green dauber and try to remember whether I still have my blue dauber at home from my last game. My Tuesday night game at Balcony, drag bingo with the buxom Minerva Jayne, won't require a dauber, so I figure I have a week to find it.

Then again, I remember, I hadn't won a dime with the blue dauber. Better stick with green, I think, and not press my luck.

Check back for part two on drag bingo in the coming weeks.