Issue 1 Invented Languages Winter 2000/01

Not Just for Silver Foxes

Louisa Kamps

If bingo still conjures the image of some twenty-odd snowbirds, huddled around rickety card tables in the church basement or Elk's Club on Tuesday afternoon, perhaps you don't get out as often as you should. Small-scale games are stronger than ever, and bingo has even reached the big time, in Vegas, Atlantic City, and, most dramatically, Mashantucket, Connecticut, home of the Foxwoods casino and America's largest bingo hall. Seating up to 3,200 players at a time, Foxwoods' bingo parlor is jumbo-jet-hangar. It is both vast and equipped, as one of the hall's managers points out, with such amenities as a new, state of the art smoke-sucking system ("When you used to have 3,000 people out there, and 1,000 of them were smoking, it would look like a cloud across the room."); waitresses serving "coffee, tea, and choice of soft drinks"; and "very clean, comfortable cushioned seats." The extra padding might be a positive incentive for senior citizens, who flock to Foxwoods on buses from all over the Northeast, but, as officials at the casino are proud to report, the bingo hall's latest improvement-a video arcade where players can mark their cards by touching a computer screen-is even luring young technophiliacs to the game. Given that ancestors of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns Foxwoods, were once violently driven from the land around the casino by colonists (the Indian population in the area dropped from approximately 8,000 in 1600 to 151 by 1774), it's tough to begrudge the Tribe the voluminousness of their present-day gambling operation, which, having expanded exponentially since it opened in 1992, now looms like a shimmering mini-Monte Carlo over the green fields of eastern Connecticut. Still, the vigorous bingo boosterism I encounter when I call up to speak to casino employees about the game suggests that Foxwoods must always do a tricky dance to distract from the fact that it has built its multi-billion dollar success on slowly-or not so slowly-and steadily draining the pockets of its 40,000 daily patrons. Mike Holder, V.P. of bingo operations, waxes enthusiastically about the financial and social "value" of playing bingo at Foxwoods: "You can sit at a slot machine, drop all your money in half an hour. But with bingo, you can buy in at $10 to $500, sit there for four hours and have a good time with your friends." (When I ask if I'm detecting a little friendly rivalry with Foxwoods' brisk slot business, Bruce MacDonald, the head of P.R. for the Tribe, who's listening in on my call, can't help laughing nervously, "That's fair! That's fair!" He seems relieved when Holder explains that the relationship between bingo and slots at the casino is actually symbiotic. "There was a concern at one time that slot machines would kill bingo, but it's had the opposite effect," Holder says. "Slot players sit down to play the slots, and they see the bingo and become interested in it. Bingo drives the slot business, and vice versa.")

Robin Oddo, a former waitress in the bingo hall who's worked as a bingo caller for the last six years, expresses similar excitement about the game. The variety of games played at Foxwoods, she tells me, is virtually "limited by the imagination. There's Full Card; Double Bingo, where you've got two rows side by side; Hard Way, where you can use the middle free space. There's Small Picture Frame, Triple Bingo, and Four Corners, as well as letter patterns, like 'T,' 'L,' and 'X.' Then there are the 'quickie' games, where you call the numbers fast-they get the blood flowing!" Though she says she occasionally has to soothe the frayed nerves of players who think they've won when they haven't, Oddo says the atmosphere in the room is generally genial. Patrons, many of whom bring along Beanie Babies and troll dolls ("you know-the little ones with purple hair") for good luck, cheer each other on. (Here MacDonald, listening in, again pipes up: "As soon as the caller says the first number, it goes dead quiet" in the hall, "like a library," he says. "Then when someone calls out 'Bingo!'-shoosh! The sound goes right back up.") For Oddo, the biggest thrill is calling the annual Firecracker Bingo game on July 1, the anniversary of the opening of the casino, when the prize payout is a million dollars. Whenever the prize is $5000 or higher, Oddo tries to interview the winner, inviting them up onto her podium. "You try to ask the patron their name, where they're from, what they're going to do with the money. Maybe they'll say pay the bills, buy a new car, or go gamble. With the Firecracker, though, you usually can't interview the winner, because they're so stunned they're just off in their own world." Because she watches bingo day in and day out, I have to ask Oddo the obvious question, Does she ever takes a busman's holiday and play bingo herself? Oddo can't help laughing, "In a blue moon!" Then she takes a second to th­ink how to put it diplomatically. "It's something that just doesn't grab me. I guess I'm protective of my dollars; me, my child, and my granddaughter come first. I'm just a cautious person by nature."

Louisa Kamps was a 1999-2000 fellow at the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. She has published in the New Yorker, Elle, and Mirabella, among other places.

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