The Introverse, chapter 3 - Bingo
The Cast - David Paddock
We continue our romp through commonplace activities, finding emotional danger under every overturned rock. This week: Bingo!
I use numbers throughout this travelogue for rhetorical effect. Please assume they are all wrong. While we’re at it, please assume anything I say as if it's fact is wrong as well. We’re all friends here; let’s just be in the moment, shall we? Enjoy.
Bingo is an old game for old people. It’s a staple of churches across the nation whose hallowed halls open weekly to bring their parishes together for some lighthearted gambling (where this is condoned in scripture is anyone’s guess). For folks of my generation, us kids of the 90’s, Bingo’s primary relevance is as a vehicle for jokes about how predictable our lives are where we fill the squares with stereotypes about people or the events they attend. All good low-grade fun, no doubt, but I think the game has some value in its original form, and occasionally I’m pulled back into its sway by—who else—family.
My relationship to this sit-down sport for all comers isn’t all that deep or involved, but it takes place over a long stretch of time and can be attributed both historically and presently to my grandmother. She loves Bingo. It’s been a pillar of her life for as long as I can remember, so much so it never occurred to me to ask her what she likes about it so much. She could very well surprise me with her answer but, at a high-level, the main reasons seem obvious.
For one, the game gives you a low-risk opportunity to win something. No real stakes or exertion factor into it beyond loose change. For someone as non-confrontational and uncompetitive as my grandmother, this is an ace few activities besides gambling can play. The appeal of a disproportionate lucky win is universal; it keeps the billions of lights on over the Strip and amply funds every lottery from local to national.
For two, the game is communal. I assume most people construct a similar mental picture if asked to imagine when and where it ought to be played, but my first memories of Bingo are actually of sitting around a dining table after dinner with relatives, taking turns either daubing for dollar prizes or spinning a transparent globe stocked with 75 white plastic balls, barking out letter-number combos as they roll out (a job any self-respecting 7-year-old takes very seriously). This evening tradition never broke orbit from my grandparent’s house, but it was a persistent one for quite a few years, co-existing with the likes of Monopoly and Scrabble in a grand continuum of parlor games our family played during get-togethers. Now Grandma uses Bingo as an excuse to catch up with her friends as a pricey shoe-in analogy for a bar or a movie theater, to the same communal effect.
For three, the game scales in complexity to your current attention span, no matter how large or small. This notion will rear its head a few times during our excursion here but, if you aren’t convinced of it yet, consider as a starting point that who wins and when is dictated by myriad variables—the number of cards in play, the geometry of the numbers called so far with respect to the individual columns B-I-N-G-and-O, the shifting value of the dozens of success conditions of each of your cards—and that most of the figures dictating those odds shift every 10 seconds when the next number pops out.
I had plenty of time to chew on these ideas during a recent trip to visit the old folks. My grandparents live in Las Vegas (also for reasons I’ve never bothered to get to the bottom of), a place sporting infinite opportunities to exchange cash in one direction or the other based on the playful/sinister use of numbers. Grandma roped me into two hour-long Bingo sessions in the three days I was there. “Roped” sounds a little harsh, but I have an unbecoming relationship with gambling weighing down my ability to enjoy such outings, as will become apparent.
Vegas aims to impress by presentation just about everywhere you go, aping the instantly recognizable style of other locations (New York, Egypt, Rome) and reproducing it in monolithic, hotel room-accommodating shapes. This construction sense bleeds out a long way from Las Vegas Blvd. In any town outside the desert valley where they were built, the SunCoast and Rampart Casinos—located 20 miles west of the Strip—would look like the bank of a megalomaniac and an overbudgeted country club respectively. Yet after spending an afternoon staring up, down, and around the architectural swagger, caprice, and outright vanity Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson have brought to bear on Sin City, Grandma’s two favorite haunts look positively pedestrian.
Even this comparative mutedness, however, only lasts for as long as you remain outside the building. Our first venture takes us to the flat-faced front step of the Suncoast, where 80-pound glass vault doors shield the magic inside from the arid parking lot. Once you push past the two-stage marble foyer and step onto the casino floor, the mood fully transforms. As someone who won’t paint his walls because he thinks the uneven primer white is pleasant to scan in moments of pause, words like “anathema” don’t convey the gap between my sensibilities and whoever the fuck thought anything about this jewels-on-jewels, gold trimmed, thick rugged, gaslit, noisy, smoky vision of damnation was worth the ecological rape of land and material it took to produce it. We haven’t even mentioned the slot machines: train yard-sized lines of electronics shining and screaming in every color, theme, and denomination to remind you of how much richer you would be if only you were a little luckier than you are. I suspect these sirens hit even closer to me than most for a second reason. As what Electronic Arts’s marketing division would call a “Mid-Core Gamer”, it pains me to watch dolts who bitch about spending 20 dollars on entertainment with an arc and a design philosophy behind it feed most of a paycheck into these things…these Swiss-watch calibrated, emotionally lobotomized cousins of video games and movies.
Where was I?
Anyway, we make it to Bingo. Thankfully, the Bingo hall keeps neither the aesthetic nor din of the rest of the complex. The pimp gaudiness gives way to plain pillars, ample lighting, and long wooden tables whose inornateness reminds of me of the fold-out tables used during extracurricular church gathering (sometimes even for the same purpose). The room has big but somehow unimposing screens for displaying BINGO numbers and prize tallies in large unflashy text so no one with measurable eyesight can misread them. Even the barker’s desk is just an elevated, desk-high length of wood with a large tumbler built into the center. Swirly carpet notwithstanding, if anywhere in Vegas can be called stately (in the sense of somewhere state or local business might be conducted), this is it. Both sites even cordon off the smokers to their own separate but equal space opposite a pane of glass so I don’t have to smell or interact with them while they engage in two cash-burning vices at the same time. This is a luxury of separation all too fleeting in the rest of the casino.
Grandma has been explaining what card packs I should buy since we left the house, including such nuances as whether to “Validate” or not and if I’ve got what it takes to play more than one “Paper Out”. None of what I just said should make sense to you. You’d think (or, less presumptuously, I’d think) the process for buying into a game as easygoing as Bingo should be so apparent as to require no explanation: hand someone a 20, get some cards, grab a dauber, have a complimentary Coffeemate-brewed latte and relax. I regret to inform you that shit has changed, at least if you want to step to my Grandma’s game. While waiting in line at the card kiosk behind her, I stared desperately at an undersized menu of the possible options so I could feign some degree of intelligence when my turn came to order. This was eerily similar to ordering food at a chain I’d never been to. By the time I walked up to the teller’s booth, I realized the futility of my efforts and said “I’ll have whatever she just got”. This leap-of-faith configuration cost me 33 bucks, which seemed exorbitant but I was in no state to judge the value proposition of it. I know the following about the spread I got: it included at least two “small rainbows”, which have a low-end assortment of the four payout colors (in order ascending blue, green, red, tan), a dual daub card for use in a specific intermission game, and one paper out.
What does “paper out” mean, you might ask, if you’re as out of touch with old people sports as I am? Well, dear third-degree spectators, the digital revolution appears to have engulfed even such veterate pastimes of Bingo. The walls next to the kiosk where you buy cards have long bookshelf-shaped charging banks holding lines of thick black attache-sized touchscreen computers. Once you negotiate terms at the teller booth, you’re given a receipt with a code on it. Receipt in hand, you grab one of these computers by its big beach pail handle, haul it over to the table where your friends are patiently waiting, punch in your nine-digit code, and then sit back while the computer takes care of everything else from keeping track of what numbers have been played to displaying your best current cards to actually playing a MIDI rendition of “I’m in the Money” when you win.
“That sounds super lame and terrible,” I and everyone probably thought the first time they heard about this. At the same time, the transition makes sense a dozen ways (only most of which are greedy and cynical). The most important is volume. Daubing a Bingo card might compare unfavorably to Blue’s Clues as a grey matter exercise when keeping tabs on a single grid, but handling more than 12 requires real focus to avoid mistakes. This puts a practical constraint on how many cards one person can play and, by extension, a limitation on how many cards the casino can sell—something I have to assume they consider a problem. The pack I bought contained 46. Before the question becomes too glaring, I should clarify my Grandma is not a high roller for this crowd. In fact, she makes a point of calling out multiple people she knows in the room who play 200 cards depending on what the jackpots have reached. These are the dreaded “people who win every time”. Increasing the card count presents nothing but upside for the casino, so while I can begrudge it, I’m hardly surprised by it. Regarding the digital versus tactile rift: as with all change, you get used to it pretty fast. The computer also has Solitaire so, if you’re bored of watching your losing Bingo cards and talking to your friends, you can do that too.
The tumbler at the front starts to whir, settling into a low tenor hum while the balls bubble around inside. The Bingo room lights may not dim like a movie theater, but this machine has the same Pavlovian effect on the room. With thousands of dollars in social security checks on the line, and we all sit in quiet excitement awaiting the first number. It’s O-73, important both as the inauguration of events and as the cashball number for this hour. The woman in charge of the tumbler declares, in a practiced mellow rapport through a mellow PA system, that if you win a game on the cashball number you win the cashball prize of $1,200 provided you validated on the winning card. Grandma leans over to assert she never validates and what’s good enough for Grandma is good enough for me. With a Suncoast-branded red dauber in hand—grasped nimbly between three fingers like any professional Bingo player would do—I scan my 6 “paper outs” down the O-column for 3’s, knowing with inexplicable certainty that 73 is the only number between 60 and 75 with a 3 in it. I smudge a 63 on the second card before I can pull my hand back and briefly consider how many American taxpayer’s dollars were wasted teaching me mathematics. Other than this brief lapse into madness up front, I perform the role of an organic computer admirably there on.
The first game is Hardway Bingo. This gambling hometown crowd, so jaded, begins their festivities with a twist on the standard win condition. For the undoctrinated, in Hardway you don’t get the free space, limiting your options for success to the 4 horizontal and vertical lines (if you don’t know what the free space is it’s the center of the how have you lived so long without encountering Bingo? Is nothing universal anymore?). Once someone forms a satisfactory line, the game dovetails into double Hardway, which of the 80 or so people in this room probably only sounds dirty to me. And on it goes.
The volume of cards in play on the machines shores up the time for each game, leading to a commensurate increase in the number of games they can schedule within the allotted hour. We cycle through 14 at the Suncoast. Beyond the Hardways already described, at least one of each of the following win conditions also showed up:
- Six pack, forming a 2x3 rectangle
- Nine pack, forming a 3x3 rectangle
- Postage stamp, where you need to cover some specified number of the 2x2 squares in the corners of the grid (special because the N-column balls are not called out)
- Wildcard, standard Bingo where the first number called covers every square ending in the same number (ie G-56 covers 6, 16, 26, and so on)
- Dual daub, where each square contains two numbers, and
- Coverall (self-explanatory)
A Bingo during any of these games nets you 50, 100, 150, or 200 bucks depending on the color of the winning card (blue, red, green or tan, respectively). In the case of ties, winners receive their respective payout divided by the number of winners. For example, if two blues split the pot, they each get 25 (a blue $50 payout / 2 winners). If one blue and one tan split the pot, the blue gets the same 25 as before and the tan gets 100 (a tan $200 payout / 2 winners) This payout model is an example of the twisted actuarial intelligence casinos are infamous for. Consider the second scenario with blue and tan: the casino pays out 25 + 100 for 125 total. At first blush, that seems perfectly fine. After all, either the blue or the tan could have won alone and cost the casino 50 or 200 instead, which averages out to same 125 as the tie. That’s not the proper alternate scenario to consider, however. The real alternative the casino is playing toward is for an even greater split between more than two people, to dilute the winnings across even more buy-in’s. I’ll let the Excel-inclined among you do the rest of the homework on this one, but suffice to say the casino has an incentive to sell more cards AND to maintain a calculable ideal ratio of blue-to-tan cards in the process. As an off-the-clock actuarial enthusiast, I find the interaction there fascinating. If Suncoast Bingo players were to unionize to maximize their revenue, they would all agree only to buy tan cards because the total payout per round would increase to 200 dollars, and—more critically—reduce the incidence of ties which, in aggregate, rob the total prize pool after buy-in expenses. Alas, casinos have the tragedy of the commons on their side here when it comes to buying more cards—everybody wants to win—and we can barely resist the phenomenon even when the social peril of falling for it is obvious. The house always wins.
When I wasn’t thinking about how incredible/soul-crushing it would be to implement thinking like the above 40 hours a week for a paycheck, I watched my screen and Grandma’s screen next to me. After each number, the computer cycles in your six best cards so you don’t have to do the spatial math yourself. This spectator sport, dull as it sounds, is actually preferable in one crucial way to the paper cards: elitist guilt. I’ll try to explain but be forewarned some introverse shit is at play here and you very well may consider me hopelessly sentimental for it.
Once you daub the first dozen or so numbers of a game by hand, your paper grids start filling out, and you start seeing patterns. Some cards have a lot of red; some don’t. You start seeing promise in some cards and not others. As play proceeds, you scrutinize the more promising cards for other possible avenues of success you might have missed (it happens when the win conditions get obtuse). Even before a card is “on” (meaning one number shy of success), you start memorizing what numbers would put those cards “on”. This is part of the third kind of interest I mentioned at the beginning—there is a ton to keep track of and anticipate in this game. Before long, you’ve got a list of 4 or 5 numbers you are eagerly waiting to hear. Each near miss frustrates you, possibly to the point of exasperation if the round has been going for some time. The cards feed you the near-term fantasy of victory gambling trades in.
What about the other cards though? By any statistical understanding of chance, they are worthy of our attention as well. In fact, by sheer volume, one of the rabble is far more likely to race ahead of your current favorites and win you the prize. Yet marking these marginal cards starts to feel like due diligence rather than opportunity. When your diva card is looking for I-23 and they call I-24, it’s so flustering that once you’re finished exasperating and get around to dealing with the rest of the pack you might not scan the columns as studiously as you ought or be less discerning about how the ink covers the squares, settling for a smudge in the rabble. On glorious occasions, another pedestrian card catches your eye and, recognizing its potential, you’ll welcome it into your mental club with a smirk, possibly cleaning up previously sloppy marks to make sure your new best friend is receiving the respect it deserves, leaving the rest of its old friends back outside in the cold of your peripheral vision.
I understand this feeling, but I cannot come to terms with it. It is yet another demonstration of our (my) hard-wired idolatry. Acting on the potential of a bright star to shine even brighter, gutting the prospects of a hundred other (possibly only temporarily) dimmer stars in the process. It is an evolutionary scourge of a bias. We cling to the results of standardized tests; we quote insipid billionaires; we cast the same characters; we retell the same stories; we—emotionally, socially, mythologically—love Tony Stark. One man or idea or organization will return a profit or reveal the meaning of true love or fix the environment or end war; a power independently vested in them and merely untapped. It’s simple, it’s romantic, and it’s vilely unreal. I feel this bias in summa when I forget to mark a number on a bingo card, and I hate myself for it. Wrap that in the opportunity to win back money, and the tension in the room can get tight. At least if you sit next to me.
The Suncoast meet is a flop: no winners between me or Grandma’s circle. We collapse the kick stands on our gambling computers, grab our bags, and head home. Today’s Monday. The Rampart’s on Wednesday, and you’d better believe we’ll be ready.
I go see Piff the Magic Dragon on Tuesday with my brother Patrick. His show’s pretty good.
Wednesday. We drive past the Suncoast, still bitterly holding our prior defeat in memory, to the Rampart. Everything I said about the Suncoast applies as a superset to the Rampart: garish interior, legions of heartless neon money machines, refreshingly normal-looking bingo room. Meaningful differences between the two sites are: none. Thanks to my abilities as a planner and organizer, I walk up to the kiosk to buy cards armed with no additional knowledge whatsoever from last time. Worse, Grandma already sat down, so I can’t even pull a “me too” this time. Left to my own devices, I enlist the aid of the terribly kind woman behind the counter who has been occupationally forced to deal with me in this moment.
I put my hands up in front of me, palms facing each other about a foot apart, like I’m about to explain to the nation that we need clarity of vision to achieve long-term bipartisan consensus on this issue. I lean my head back 10 degrees, breathe in, hold one beat, then say “I have 40 bucks. What does that buy me?”, releasing all these gestures slightly in her direction, like I’m casting a pathetically weak spell at her. She fails her Will save, and begins to explain the inner workings of the Rampart card distribution matrix. I receive all and comprehend none of this, saying “That sounds fine” at strategic moments to improve the efficiency of the “conversation”. After four “That sounds fine”’s she allows me to give her money in exchange for a nine-digit code I can punch into one the Rampart’s suspiciously familiar touchscreen computers.
The same routine settles in. We grab some chairs, wave at friends, the tumbler hums to life, and we play. One caveat: I win the second game. The computer’s MIDI processor chirps “I’m in the Money” while I spend the moment allotted me regulating the intensity and inflection with which I declare “Bingo” from my seat to the assembled congregation; my natural speaking voice is so boomy I can’t use it during group recordings, so this split-second attenuation was critical to avoid an awkward reaction from the room. This will seem impossible to most of my friends, but there are very few moments in my life where I feel genuine smug self-satisfaction. The time spent lounging back in my chair between yelling a nonsense word and being handed 50 bucks by the cashier on her circuit around the room is one of those times.
Unfortunately, though it feels good to have made back some money, my body has shifted into a new mode on account of this windfall, and it dampens the rest of the time. When I play Bingo and don’t get lucky, losing gets normalized and my blood pressure only rises when things come down to the wire—even then by just a few points. I expect (almost always correctly) not to win, and this attitude puts some distance between my immediate feelings and the wishful thinking driving the whole affair. Once I’ve got one under my belt, those thoughts come into focus. The 1 in 40-or-so odds of the next number being a hit shift from an abstract off-chance to a recallable possibility and I don’t recover from this shift over the course of a session. It’s unhealthy in the worst way. Sadly, though, there’s precedent for this outside of Bingo in my life...literally right outside where I’m sitting. Back when I was 22, the first time I ever went gambling, I was dealt 4 aces on a hundred play bonus poker machine in the first few hours: a 400 dollar win on a 5 dollar bet (probability just south of 1 in 50,000 per deal). That screen, stacked from top to bottom with rows of aces, flashes into consciousness every time I enter a casino. It even managed to kill the appeal of other poker machines (which, as a subgroup, are the understated, approachable sisters of the geriatricidal slots I described in detail earlier). I would bet most addicted gamblers won big early on in their dabbling with the pastime. Just about everyone feels the tug of karma to exact revenge for a loss, but having a memory of a major win to call on makes belief in a comeback much realer.
Shifting in my chair, more alert, more invested, the next game kicks off and in short order I win again, splitting the pot with two others on a red for 33 bucks. I let out a lighthearted chuckle at the coincidence, which marks the beginning and end of my levelheadedness about the situation. I raise my hand and say Bingo a second time, and I feel a pang of indignation from a table across the way where a retired couple is shaking their heads. Fuck you, old man. You think I cheated or something? Well guess what, I’m just that good at Bingo. How do you like them apples? Other choice blips of neurotic commentary coast through my head from then until I leave the room. Man, how many games am I going to win? Could I win every subsequent game? How much money does that work out to? How long are the odds? How long were the odds on already happened? There have to be a hundred people here and some paid a lot more than I did to be here...those saps. These thoughts race along, making sure every subsequent number called without netting me a win or significant progress towards one feel personally unfair. I’m riding a high: it is equal parts adrenaline, imagination, and shame. Grandma wins the coverall game: the special final game of the night worth a thousand dollars. She splits it four ways, but that’s still 250, which is a damn good haul, and it takes every ounce of my sanity not to express my jealousy of her undermining my own success. I’ve never had a panic attack in public before, but I’ve been in the moment just prior to them on many occasions: when the urge to not freak out crashes into a sudden awareness of my surroundings. The thought of Grandma’s innocence and good fortune blows through my simmering obsession with being the chosen one of Bingo and I get vertigo like I’m looking off the side of a tower for a second or two. Patrick is present for this whole episode. Even though he didn’t win and would have been the most thrilled of the three of us to do so, I can guarantee he had a better time than I did. Given how often I’m told my face and body do none of the talking for me, I also feel confident the rest of the table was unaware of the fire burning next to them.
I am 40 bucks richer (85 in winnings minus 40 from the buy-in minus 5 in tips), technically up for the trip, Bingo-wise. We walk out of the room, but I get the feeling I’m not done here yet. And so, cash in hand, I scan the sparse upstairs lounge for a poker machine. I leave the casino with nothing.
On Tuesday, in the interest of comprehensive coverage, I and my brother Patrick experienced the resentful mysticism of Piff the Magic Dragon at the Flamingo downtown. Piff advertises himself on his billboard as the Loser of America’s Got Talent, which is great not only because it so perfectly encapsulates his brand of standoff prickishness but also because he is British. Between his stints on the magic show Fool Us, America’s Got Talent, and his semi-professional friendship with Penn Jillette (which is how I heard about him) I imagine a lot of Piff’s customers know who he is before they step in the theater. In the word-of-mouth way, he’s quite a bit like a stand-up comedian. It seems hardly coincidental, then, when his act is essentially comedy with magic begrudgingly stuffed into it. Patrick didn’t know who Piff was beyond a cursory Google search and, though he did enjoy the show, he commented on the lack of actual tricks (of which, in the hour we watched, there were less than ten). For my part, this wasn’t a loss. Piff’s show does nothing to expand the technical canon of magic—I’ve only personally seen two other magic shows and all his tricks were present in those other shows—so emphasizing the attitude and style around the magic makes a lot of sense and it pays off. It also doesn’t hurt that, when he finally turns to the audience at the end of a bit and essentially says “alright, here’s your stupid trick”, the execution of the magic is quite good. Know who you’re coming for, but I heartily recommend Piff’s show as a diversion from the sensory flood of the rest of the Strip.