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The best $2,000 I ever spent: many, many rounds of bingo

It’s the one activity where money becomes more magical and less weighty.

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The one time in my life, aside from sleeping, when I’m not obsessing about money is when I’m playing bingo. I know that sounds ironic, but bingo is my mental escape, offering a few hours where the numbers in front of me all start with a letter, not a dollar sign.

I’ve been in debt my entire adult life, first with student loans from undergrad and the law school I never graduated from, then from living above my means — not hard to do on a $40,000 New York City salary.

In my 20s and 30s, I ignored my debt, thinking it would somehow eventually resolve itself (how, I’m not sure, but I assumed more money would simply materialize the older I got). When, at 40, I realized that wasn’t quite how real life worked, I dedicated myself to earning as much as I could as a freelancer, with a mix of book royalties, articles, and a part-time copywriting gig.

The downside of self-employment is I never feel like I can truly be “off.” There’s always a potential story at my fingertips, and thereby a way to chip away at my looming debt, which hovers at a little over $50,000.

My local bingo hall is my happy place, somewhere I can go any night of the week and know I’ll leave with a smile on my face no matter what the outcome. It’s the one activity that lets me escape, well, me, where money becomes more magical and less weighty.

I live within walking distance of a bingo hall that offers games every evening, plus an additional 10:30 Tuesday night game, and Friday morning and Sunday afternoon games. Over the last four years, I’ve attended almost all of them, and win or lose, each was money well spent.

Entry costs $5, for the bare minimum number of two boards for 12 rounds, but I never play the minimum. You can buy extras for a dollar or two, depending on the value of the round; most offer $100 or $200 jackpots, with some rounds for larger amounts ranging from $1,000 to over $4,000, depending on how much has been bet. The first night I attended I spent around $30 and won $200, thus turning me into an instant convert. Now, I usually spend around $50 each time I go.

Lately, that’s every few months, but after the 2016 election I played bingo several times a week to help me forget about the news. I was a drag queen bingo regular in the East Village in the ’90s, but there we were competing for Queer as Folk DVD box sets and giant glasses filled with margaritas. This is serious, adult bingo, the kind where you’ll get shushed for talking too loudly.

The bingo hall is a place where I can forget about myself for two hours. For that small slice of time, I’m not a failed adult riddled with debt. I’m simply a middle-aged white lady with a dabber in her hand. All those money worries and existential angsty thoughts that rush to the surface whenever I have a free moment — Will be able to retire someday? Will I ever be a mom? What if [insert horrible catastrophe befalling anyone in my family]? — I can push to the back burner and focus solely on getting five stamps in a row, or a pyramid or four corners, or whatever variation of the game we’re playing at that particular moment.

I’d be lying if I said the prospect of winning doesn’t motivate me to settle in alongside women 30 and 40 years my senior, who come armed with special bingo bags that hold a rainbow array of dabbers and tape to fasten their boards together. Money, of course, is the main reason any of us lurk at the bingo hall. Another reason I stopped going to casinos is that the only games I like, slot machines, have the lowest odds. After reading that, I couldn’t quite bring myself to revel in their blinking lights and beckoning noises.

With bingo, I’ve never stopped to look up the odds (please don’t tell me if they’re bad). Instead, I let myself sink into a fantasy world where I fully believe that I just might walk away with a stack of cash. All that’s required of me is to stamp red or green or purple blobs of ink onto a piece of pre-printed paper. I love the sense of excitement that washes over me at the start of each new round — all those blanks squares, all those possible chances.

When my boyfriend and I moved within 10 minutes of Atlantic City, I worried that the lure of the casinos would be impossible to resist. Yet one evening in a smoky local casino cured any romanticism I might have had. I don’t know how to play casino games like poker or craps, and I don’t care to. I don’t want to think too much when I’m hoping to catch a financial windfall, or for it to feel like work, but I do want my mind to be occupied.

Bingo fills that purpose perfectly. There’s no free time to stare dazedly at Twitter. I can’t slack off or I’ll miss a number being called. The avid players know to look up at the TV screens to see which number will be called next before it’s actually spoken. Bingo makes me feel like I’m an active participant who, with a combination of luck and alertness, has a chance of winning. Bingo is full of colorful markers, breathless anticipation, and quick reflexes, surrounded by people who are a little more relaxed than the average casino-goer. Regular players give advice to newcomers, call out happy birthday to each other, and root for their friends as much as themselves. What I’ve learned is that I don’t actually love gambling; I love bingo.

I allow myself to be fully immersed in the drama. I double and triple check my cards, mentally noting which ones are close to winning and which ones are duds. I rub the orange hair of the troll doll I bought on my first visit. I silently chant “I-18” or “G-57” until the combination echoes in my mind. There’s a ripple of energy that races around the room when someone is about to hit bingo, knowledge that is transmitted either through a small gasp passed as if playing an almost-silent game of telephone or a collective Spidey sense shared by the players.

The few times my good-luck tactics have actually “worked” and I’ve looked up at the screen to see my number about to be called, I’ve felt euphoric. It’s what I imagine winning a game show — my ultimate bucket list item — would be like. I don’t care whether it’s luck or chance or fate. In that moment, I’m not, for once, thinking about the money. My entire being is focused simply on hearing that magic letter and number spoken into the microphone by the person sitting behind that spinning wheel, at which point I can shoot my hand in the air and call out as loud as I can, “BINGO!” There are no other moments in my life where I get to literally yell out a victory.

That possibility is truly why I play bingo. For $50, I get to spend an afternoon or evening utterly caught up in the dramatic highs and lows of being three away, then two, then one. I know going in that I have just as much of a chance as anyone else in the room.

While the result may be just as predetermined and out of my control as playing the lottery, bingo feels more active, like if I pay close enough attention, I just might win. History has shown that I truly might; I’ve won four times, out of approximately 40 visits, totaling $1,350 (with one momentous Super Bowl payout of $1,000). I’ve spent around $2,000 by my estimation, so my total losses are $750.

Given those numbers, you might assume I’m just sinking myself deeper into debt, and technically, you’d be right. But I’m purchasing much more than that potential chance to become a champion. I’m buying myself a temporary shortcut to mental health, a reprieve from that constant inner refrain that loops from you’ll never be good enough to why even bother trying. Unlike casinos, I never sense that the people around me are gambling with their rent money in a last-ditch effort to get rich. We’re all playing bingo, with an emphasis on play. With bingo, I don’t have to be smart or ambitious. I’m not being measured by my net worth, or anything else.

In lottery player parlance, I’m a dreamer, someone who sees their gambling as the “chance to fantasize about winning money.” A bingo victory feels likely enough that it makes sense to try, while knowing that what I could potentially win during any given round, while exciting, wouldn’t change my life. At best, I’d pay down a small fraction of my debt. Competing for a welcome but not mind-boggling amount of money, though, feels more sane and satisfying than wondering if I’ll win the next Mega Millions.

Plus, bingo is more communal, and more fun; in that room, I’m a dreamer surrounded by dreamers. I know that someone in the same room as me will be walking away the big winner. I can say congratulations, and see the look on their face when they win — and know it might be me next time.

Rachel Kramer Bussel writes about sex, dating, books, culture, and herself. She is the editor of over 60 anthologies, including the Cleis Press Best Women’s Erotica of the Year series.

Millions of people rely on Vox to understand how the policy decisions made in Washington, from health care to unemployment to housing, could impact their lives. Our work is well-sourced, research-driven, and in-depth. And that kind of work takes resources. Even after the economy recovers, advertising alone will never be enough to support it. If you have already made a contribution to Vox, thank you. If you haven’t, help us keep our journalism free for everyone by making a financial contribution today, from as little as $3.

It’s the one activity where money becomes more magical and less weighty.

NEW TO BINGO?

WHAT TO EXPECT

WHAT TO BRING

  • Be sure to bring cash with you – we are a CASH ONLY establishment. We have ATMs on site for your convenience.
  • 2 pieces of I.D. (must be 18 years of age or older)
  • A dabber to mark your Bingo cards. All new players will receive a free dabber on their first visit!

COST

HOW TO PLAY BINGO

  • Arrive 30 minutes before the scheduled Bingo session
  • Work with a staff member to determine if you’d like to play paper Bingo or digital Bingo*
  • The caller on the stage will begin calling Bingo numbers, and they will appear on the screens. Your goal is to dab the numbers on your card as they are called to complete the required pattern for that game.
  • Game patterns are announced by the caller, displayed on the screen, and on the program sheet.
  • Each session lasts about 2 hours, with an intermission in between

Be sure to let a staff member know that you are new, and they will be happy to help you through the process! *digital Bingo not available at all locations.

LEARN TO PLAY IN 90 SECONDS

MORE THAN JUST BINGO!

CELEBRATE WITH US!

The cost to play Bingo can be as little as $20! Additional cost is based on the number of cards added once you become more comfortable playing. Prices vary per location, day, and session. For an accurate breakdown of pricing per location, visit the pricing and programs tab of the website.

Most Bingo Sessions last 2-3 hours with a 15 minute intermission in the middle. Our locations in St. Catharines and Brampton offer shorter sessions on specific days/times. Visit their page to learn more.

Yes. Everyone who enters the gaming centre must be 18 years of age or older and have government issued photo identification. For wins of $10,000 or more, a second piece of ID is required in combination with your primary photo ID to claim your prize. This second piece of ID is to confirm your name and can be a debit/credit card or student card.

Each Delta location has multiple Bingo Sessions daily. Plan to arrive about 20-30 minutes earlier than the scheduled Session. This will ensure you have enough time to buy your cards, find a seat and get ready for some fun! Choose a location to view session times.

We do not accept debit/credit cards for gaming purchases so make sure you bring cash with you! We have an ATM on site for your convenience. You’ll also need government issued photo ID to show proof of age (18+). All new players receive a free dabber to play the game!

Only cash! We do not accept cheques, debit cards or credit cards for gaming products. We do however, have several ATMs. At some of our Red 7 Eatery locations, debit purchases for food can be made.

In addition to your Bingo booklet (which contains your bingo cards for each game throughout the session), a special is a separate strip of Bingo cards that you can purchase for specific games played throughout the session. If you do not buy the specials, you will not be dabbing when those games are being played. Specials generally have a higher prize amount available to be won.

A jackpot prize is a cash prize associated with a special. If the game is won within a specific number of balls called, the jackpot prize will be paid out to the winner. A win of this nature requires a government-issued picture ID.

These are “break-open tickets” that are sold separately on the gaming floor for $1 per ticket.

Objective: The objective is to get a ticket with all matching symbols for an instant cash prize, or to get a ticket with three bingo numbers on them, to be played during that bingo session for a chance to win a set prize and a progressive jackpot. Tickets with mismatched symbols are considered losing tickets and can be discarded.

Tickets with bingo numbers on them are to be played during that bingo session. If a number called during the specified session in on the balls ticket, player is to use their dabber to mark that number. A $200 guaranteed prize is paid to the first person to dab the 3 bingo ball numbers on their ticket. If a player dabs each number on the ticket, they yell “BALLS!”. Once the ticket is validated as a winning one, the winner must pick a number from 1 to 10 for a chance at winning the progressive prize.

Some locations may have different renditions of the balls tickets with names such as “Maniac balls” and “double action balls”. There will be some differences with how these balls tickets are played. Be sure to ask a staff member to explain the difference to you.

“HARDWAY” means you cannot use the free space in the middle of the card to complete the required pattern for that game.

One line HARDWAY One line NOT HARDWAY

No. All purchases made by a player are for the player. You cannot share cards.

Yell bingo loud enough for the caller to hear and stop the game and put up your hand. A customer service representative will then come over to verify your winning card with the caller and you will be paid the prize according to the game.

When a session is labelled “Wacky”, it can mean that geckos packages (electronic bingo) are half the price. For example, if a Gecko package usually costs $50, this same package would cost $25 on a Wacky Wednesday/Matinee/Evening. It can also mean that prizing for that session has been increased! Be sure to ask a staff member before playing.

*Not available at all sites. Some conditions may apply. Subject to change. May differ per location.

There are a total of 75 numbers in the bingo machine. The ‘designated number’ or ‘ordinal’ is the maximum number of balls that can be called in order for someone to win the bingo prize. For example, if the designated number for a game is 50, you must get the bingo in the first 50 numbers called to win the big prize. If you get a bingo when 51 numbers or more are called, you receive the smaller prize amount called a ‘consolation’ prize. Designated numbers and consolation prizes are constantly changing for each game. You can find these numbers on the jackpots page of our website and in each centre on the jackpot board. Designated numbers are usually included on the ‘Super Jackpot’ and ‘Progressive’ games.

You have the choice to play paper bingo or digital bingo. Playing paper bingo, you will need to use a dabber to mark your cards. You decide how many cards you’d like to dab based on your experience level. The more cards you play, the faster your dabbing skills will need to be! We recommend that beginners start with a 2-strip package (6 cards per game). You’ll notice experienced players dabbing 12 strips at a time, or more!

For digital bingo, the computer plays for you, notifying you when a bingo is won.

The caller on the stage will begin calling Bingo numbers, and they will appear on the screens. Your goal is to dab the numbers on your card as they are called to complete the required pattern for that game. Game patterns are announced by the caller, displayed on the screen, and on the program sheet.

Be sure to let a staff member know that you are new, and they will be happy to help you through the process!

No. Cost of play is the same for Digital Bingo and Paper Bingo.

Playing digital bingo, you can play up to 36 faces per game. On paper you can play as many cards as you can manually dab.

No. Bingo prices vary from day to day. However, ‘specials’ are always the same price.

The licensing and regulation of charity bingo is the responsibility of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO).

A Tap N’ Play machine is a modernized version of the conventional break open ticket.

The minimum bet on our Tap N’ Play machines varies by location. The lowest is about $0.50 to $2.00 per play. Some locations also have multi-denomination as well as Progressive Jackpots.

Yes, many of our locations do serve alcohol. You must be 19 years of age or older to be served. (Licensed locations include: Brampton, Downsview, St. Catharines, Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Peterborough, St. Clair, Val Caron, Sudbury, Barrie, Hawkesbury, Penetang, and Pembroke)

Of course! All of our locations have an in-house eatery offering a number of fresh and delicious menu items. And many of our locations have a fully licensed bar with a variety of beverages to choose from. We have everything you need for a great night out!

All of our locations are wheelchair accessible with handicap parking spaces available.

No. You must be 18 years or older to enter and play at any Delta Bingo & Gaming. You must be 19 or older to purchase alcohol.

Yes. Customers are welcome to use cameras while visiting and are encouraged to share these with us on social media! Please refrain from taking pictures of other customers or of the actual game in progress.

If you win on an electronic gaming machine, your prize is added to your account that you can cash out at the end of the session. If you win on paper, someone will come to your table to pay you your prize.

With the exception of certified working dogs, pets and other animals are not permitted into our facilities.

Learn how to play Bingo at Delta Bingo & Gaming