The participants show up early up to four hours before game time. As many as 200 competitors set up their areas inside the smoky hall of the century-old athletic club for this deep-rooted form of gambling. Daubers, trash bags, thermos-cupped drinks, crystal stallions, troll dolls, crafts and sometimes even candles emerge onto the tables. The game is bingo, and it brings in the most serious of players. They do not fit the character of the classic high roller; instead, the typical patron is rather ordinary in terms of life. However, the stakes are high in this game of called numbers with multiple jackpots (some up to a payout of nearly two grand). Buying a book of cards is not for the nickel-ante risk taker; the game starts at 15 dollars a book and goes up from there. Most players opt for the add-ons and can accumulate more than 100 individual bingo cards per game.
Most players are regulars and have fit the South Broadway Athletic Club's Sunday bingo night into their weekly regimen. Often, many of the participants are professionals who are known to hit other bingos from the Carondelet Sunday Morning Athletic Club to the Ambassador. The crowd is a community of friendly and enthusiastic people from various backgrounds. Primarily female, most of them are city-based from old schools and newer schools of the neighborhoods. The place has a very grandparent-taking-the-lead feel, with a healthy representation of younger generations following in the footsteps of their gambling elders. Enthusiasm over this sport is strong, with many showing off their bingo spirit by wearing official bingo-player jackets and sweatshirts. Conversation hums in the hours prior to the bingo caller taking his seat, with regulars playing card games, knitting or catching up with each other since the previous week's bingo. The bingo has also started to attract a slightly different crowd. The draw of something different has brought a small crew of young hipsters for the long evening of scanning multiple bingo sheets in search of the big payoff.
The crowd is interesting. There is an older, grandmotherly woman named Cheryl who sells her own line of hand-made mini-couches made out of bricks. They are seasonally decorated and placed around her series of bingo sheets. There is a woman named Irene (who sits in the same place every week) who helps everyone else get situated. There is a happy couple that plays together, with a cowboy-styled male half who hails from Mexico and drinks pitchers of beer. There is a young, buxom woman who is always very happy to win and is not afraid to show it. There is an odd guy who will want the flaggers to wave their flags over his sheets for good luck. There is the wrestling promoter, Tony, who will call bingo one week and then play the next week. Most every player has their own particularity for their show time at this game.
The play is cutthroat over the sixteen-game evening, with various different styles of bingo played, with names like wedding cake, popeye, coverall, and blood, sweat and tears. The room comes to a hushed, collective concentration when the numbers are called. Some expert players don't even need to daub their cards after each called number, for they rely strictly on memory. The players will begin to flutter when the call of bingo nears. The room groans as a bingo is called by a thrilled player, and the SBAC member-volunteers rush over to give the player the checkered flag. The sheet is then taken to the bingo caller at the giant bingo machine to confirm the numbers.
"Are there any more bingos? Are there any more bingos? We recognize six bingos."
The volunteers then take the cash to the players. There is a certain amount of formal regulation for this state-sanctioned gambling, which raises funds for the non-profit SBAC. Bingo players must sign all of their sheets and tallies, a custom many have adapted to by making personalized rubber stamps for all of their bingo sheets. All the cards are numbered and the specific machine is licensed by the state. The gambling culture is constant, with SBAC volunteers hawking add-ons and pull-tabs to patrons who will play cards during the intermission.
The food is classic and the concession is staffed by the Lady's Auxiliary arm of the SBAC. Fish sandwiches, fries, chili and more feed the hungry masses, along with a plethora of homemade and store-bought desserts. The SBAC is staffed by hardworking members who serve up mostly canned soda, chips and pork rinds, but also serve plenty of southside brew to the few patrons with that extra thirst and the many extra-thirsty volunteer club members.
There is a great amount of camaraderie between the volunteers and the players that defies societal generalizations. It is a weekly ritual that brings everyone together. One half comes in to play and to win and the other half comes to volunteer their support of the boxing club that most joined decades ago. The turnouts are on the increase, which ensures this tradition of bingo will continue on for at least a while more.
Steve Smith is a member in good standing of the South Broadway Athletic Club and bartends every fourth Sunday for the SBAC bingo night.