Move over, Grandma. The classic game of bingo is finding fans among a new generation that likes partying as much as playing.
The room goes dark and music blasts. Then tiny dots of red and green neon dance across the walls, while a line of people snake out into the lobby at Mystic Lake Casino in Prior Lake.
Cosmic Bingo is about to begin.
“I have a good feeling,” said Cynthia Raymond, 18, about winning one of the $100 jackpots at this late-night bingo session.
The first-time player and her friend Haley Gazda are feeling lucky. As Raymond debates which song request to tweet to the DJ, Gazda jumps and catches one of the glow-in-the-dark necklaces flung into the screaming crowd.
Bingo has left the church basement.
It’s left that sedate setting for more raucous surroundings — from casinos like Mystic Lake to bars dotting the Twin Cities metro area. Along the way, a younger, louder clientele has wrestled those colorful daubers away from the gray-haired crowd, sometimes leading to a culture clash. Still, bingo emporiums say, the new blood is helping to reinvent this aging game.
“We used to have regulars that would play five times a week,” said Kathy Dorma, manager at Saints bingo hall in Bloomington. “We don’t have that anymore, but we have a lot of younger people filling in that gap.”
The changing demographics are slowly but surely changing bingo’s most common player stereotype.
“You think of a bunch of 80-year-olds with hard cards, but it’s developed into something different,” said Warren Walberg of the Minnesota Gambling Control Board.
The James Ballentine VFW Post 246 is a small-town bar in a big city, the kind of place where the bartender puts your drink on the table before you sit down. Located in the heart of Minneapolis’ Lyn-Lake neighborhood, it’s your typical veterans hangout — wood-paneled walls, cramped booths and Bud Light by the bucket.
On bingo days there are no neon lights, and the only music comes from a jukebox against the wall. Even so, twenty-somethings flock to this VFW for the 1 p.m. Saturday bingo session.
“We have to bring out fold-out tables and fold-out chairs,” said Landon Steele, the VFW post chaplain. “It’s packed.”
At a recent session, two pitchers of beer and three bingo cards sat on a table in front of Candice Findlay, 24, and a group of her friends. As the caller yelled out numbers, Findlay scanned her card, dauber hovering at the ready to strike a brightly colored ink blob on a winning square.
“Everybody thinks if you play bingo, you should be old and a smoker,” said Findlay, who plays every other weekend.
Bingo was a longtime staple in churches and traditional gaming halls until it started moving into bars in the 1990s. The trend began in northern Minnesota and then moved south, said Walberg, who has worked for the gambling board since 1986. The VFW in Uptown is one of about 30 bar bingo sites in Hennepin County.
The games are sanctioned by the state as charitable gambling, with proceeds supporting local sports teams, Boy Scouts and veteran programs. In the past few years, pseudo bingo games with names like “Bargo” and “Bango” have popped up at bars, too (those games don’t charge player fees, so aren’t technically gambling). The state launched e-bingo in bars last month, betting on proceeds to help fund the Vikings stadium.
Traditional bingo halls typically draw a middle-aged clientele, but 25 percent are under 30 years old, said Dorma, the manager at Saints. Regulars don’t mind the younger players as long as they stay quiet, she said. But age demographics at bar bingo is much more evenly split.
“In a regimented bingo hall, you can’t talk. Everybody will holler at you,” said Jim Munson, gambling manager at the VFW. “At bar bingo, everybody is jabbering and talking and the bartender is serving drinks.”
Findlay and her friends said they like the VFW atmosphere because it’s cheap entertainment — $1 a game.
“You’re not just sitting at a table drinking,” said Findlay, who lives in Coon Rapids.
She said some of her friends made fun of her for playing bingo — until they tried it themselves.
On this particular afternoon, she was vying for a modest pot: $48. Usually that first win is all it takes to get skeptics on board, she explained, before smacking an orange dot on B10 and yelling out, “Bingo!”
Back at Mystic Lake, Cosmic Bingo is in full swing. A spare seat is hard to find — but that’s not for lack of illumination. The games pack an average of 550 people per session, rivaling a busy downtown nightclub.
“It’s a place you can get away from your parents,” said Tina Thompson, 19, who lives in Farmington. “It’s so much fun.”
Thompson plays almost every weekend. On this night she clipped pink light-up pigtails to her real hair to “dress crazy.” The carnival atmosphere has players competing in hula-hoop contests between games and yelling just to be heard. When a player gets a bingo, the whole table has to scream in unison to get the caller’s attention.
Playing across the room, Gazda, 18, wore her newly acquired glow-in-the-dark necklace with pride. She’s new to the game. She says bingo is something her 94-year-old grandmother plays for fun.
But her grandma never needed all of these bells and whistles to play the game — bass-thumping music, neon lights, glowing jewelry and hula-hoopers.
Beyond all the razzle dazzle, Gazda said, there was one thing missing from her experience:
“I think it’s about time I won.”
Morgan Mercer is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.
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