My hands are a little clammy, and there is a marked beat at the temples. It is the last game of the night—a Blackout special—and on three of my four boards I have only three spaces uncovered. I actually have a chance.
"G-53," says the caller, his voice coming over the public address system into this side room, which holds the overflow from the main hall. No one screams out, and I squirm in my chair. I want an N-36 because it appears on two of my boards.
“I-17," and there is another hushed pause as we wait for a delayed yell, but all is quiet. I peek at neighboring players and see that they, too, have only a few open squares, but that doesn’t dampen my hopes.
“G-57,” and there is a whoop in the main hall. Before it dies down the women next to me are on their feet, scooping their ink markers into their purses and making for the door, and someone in the main hall is collecting $200.
I have never been a gambler. The only allure Las Vegas holds for me is that of the desert, not of the gaming tables. But here my pulse rises, my foot taps nervously, and my eyes dart from player to player, my ears remaining cocked for the first syllable of that word that will mean defeat for me. Perhaps I have the gambling bug after all.
As it turns out, I will go home eight dollars poorer. That represents six hard boards which I play through 11 games, and eight “throwaways" which I play through three specials. Some of the people near me go home with green in their pockets.
For 97 years California had varying restrictions on bingo games, but the restrictions were seldom enforced. The situation in other states has been similar. In Pennsylvania, for example, bingo is outlawed. but the prohibition is not enforced. Some bingo games there .are even advertised in the Yellow Pages.
The last crackdown on organized bingo locally occurred in 1974, when police raided a game at a singles apartment complex in Pacific Beach. No arrests were made, but the police confiscated bingo equipment and $55 in cash.
In 1975, Assemblyman Leroy Greene of Sacramento introduced legislation that would legalize bingo. His bill passed by one vote in the Assembly and one vote in the Senate, but it could not take effect until passed by the voters as Proposition 9 in the June, 1976 primary election.
"There are 1,911 places in my district where bingo is being played," said Greene. “We might as well legitimize it." And the voters did, but not until both sides in the controversy had expended considerable time and effort.
The chief foe of the legislation was Assemblyman Robert H. Burke of Huntington Beach. He argued that Proposition 9 failed to provide for mandatory licensing, regulation of bingo advertising, state-wide standards for games, a state-wide supervisory agency, or tax revenue. “An aggressive organization could legally promote and operate bingo on a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week basis and reap a fortune,” he claimed. “Besides, grocery money will end up in the pockets of bingo operators.”
This last fear was partly confirmed by the bizarre case of Mrs. Helen O’Donnell of Birmingham, England. She admitted to her city council that during 12 years she had sold the family residence to cover her nightly bingo debts, had spent $2,000 in one four-month spree in 1966, and had failed to keep an appointment with a psychiatrist who was to help her overcome her bingo habit. She went to a bingo parlor instead. But there seem to be few Mrs. O’Donnells in San Diego.
“This is my first time playing,” admits Gertraude Katerina Ferguson, whose graying hair highlights her clear eyes. She arranges her boards at St. Catherine Laboure Church while a new game gets underway. “I won $40. It was supposed to be $80, but another lady won and we had to split the pot.
“I played before, but that was a long time ago,” she says, “and I’ve gotten a little rusty. I wouldn't have found the winning number at all if it hadn't been for this lady sitting next to me; she pointed it out.”
She is asked about the new bingo law, which has been in effect a little more than a year. “I like it. I don’t think people should go to Las Vegas and spend their money there. We should spend it here, especially in the churches, which need the money. My husband and I have never liked Las Vegas anyway.”
At the other end of the table sits Isabel Paulino, another winner. She is a regular and comes here every Thursday night. Each week she sits alone in the overflow room. The parish hall at St. Catherine Laboure is not large enough to accommodate all 500 players, so that last hundred find their way here. This room is connected with the main hall and the caller’s platform by a loudspeaker and a lighted board that shows which bingo numbers have been called.
Miss Paulino has eight boards before her, and as the numbers are called her fingers fly across them, like a weaver’s fingers across a loom, pushing the little black tabs that cover up the spaces. “I’ve been lucky this year,” she says. “I’ve hit a $100 jackpot three times, and I’ve had lots of smaller ones. And I don’t only go here; I also go to St. Columba’s on Friday nights. Their top prize for the regular games is $100 but it’s only $80 here. Now, tonight I split a $20 consolation prize, so I’ve broken even.
“I come by myself and really haven't met anyone,” admits Miss Paulino, “because we don’t have time to chat; we have to pay attention to the boards. If I could. I’d be in Las Vegas, but it’s just too far away. This is like my night out, and I enjoy gambling, any type of gambling. Maybe now that the horses have come I’ll go to Del Mar instead.”
To date, after more than a year of legalized bingo, the city has issued only 39 licenses; three applications are pending. A few applications have been denied on the grounds that the proposed games were to be held on property not belonging to the sponsoring groups.
In El Cajon there has been a protracted battle between the Reverend Ronald Blodgett and the city regarding Blodgett’s application. Blodgett is a minister of the Universal Life Church and received his honorary doctorate of divinity degree in the mail last year. He leased some property in El Cajon and immediately applied for a bingo license, but the license was rejected because Blodgett could not provide for enough parking. Police Chief Wallace Dart notes that no religious services had been conducted in the leased building, and to him it appears that Blodgett had signed the lease solely for the purpose of holding bingo games. Dart says he thought this violated the spirit of the law, and Blodgett still has not received a license.
Under the present California law, only charities that can prove state and federal tax exemption are eligible for licenses, which are issued by cities or counties, and the operators of the bingo games must be volunteers. None of the operators may receive compensation. Lastly, no more than $2S0 may be given in any one game.
Licenses for bingo games have been issued mainly to churches, about two-thirds of them Catholic. That will probably soon change, though, as there is a move afoot locally to amend ordinances to allow’ fraternal organizations and other nonprofit groups to sponsor games.
For the most part, the Evangelical churches will not hold bingo games since bingo is a form of gambling. The Reverend Dr. William MacInnes of the San Diego Presbytery of the United Presbyterian Church says, “We have never encouraged bingo in our churches as a tool for fundraising. The church is most definitely against any form of gambling.”
But the Very Reverend John Quinn, assistant chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese, has a different view. “Although we are never in favor of one squandering his income on bingo, in this diocese there are so many retired people that the bishop feels bingo provides a social outlet for a night out.”
Paul Otjens is a senior physics major at San Diego State University and works as a volunteer at St. Catherine’s every Thursday. He verifies winning boards and distributes those used in the specials. He says he will marry shortly, and is asked if he plans to finance his honeymoon with his bingo earnings.
“No way. I find no interest in the game itself as recreation, but I like the social thing with the people here. My fiancee and I work this room together. We met at bingo a year ago.
“I’m a volunteer here because it’s a good fundraiser for the church. We’ve been working toward a main church building—for years we have used the parish hall for services— and the money also goes to pay off debts. In fact, this side building was built with bingo money when they played it years ago.”
Otjens says St. Catherine’s is one of the largest games in town. Perhaps the only larger one is at St. Columba’s. About 80 percent of the players are regulars, he says, and the remainder come and go. Summer appears to be the slack season because people go on vacation. In winter the people come in droves.
At St. Catherine’s parish the head bingo volunteer is Gregory Rodriguez. He explains that his church has sponsored bingo for about a year and that St. Catherine’s got the first license in the county. When asked how much the church brings in. Rodriguez says the information is not publicized. “Some people claim to know how much we make, but nobody really knows aside from the pastor and a few of us.” At the very least, it is a.tidy bundle, and testimony to that fact is the uniformed guard who watches over the head office, his eyes steadily on the doors. When bingo was first legalized there were a few reports on earnings, and during the first three months of play St. Catherine’s was said to have brought in $20,000.
“We had a debt so deep that without bingo we’d never get out of it,” says Rodriguez. “People just don’t put anything in the Sunday envelopes anymore. Something had to be done.
“Some people say you shouldn’t use bingo for fundraising, that you should rely on people’s independent generosity. And maybe it’s true that people go to bingo because they hope to get something out of it, but that’s not an ideally pure motive. And to a certain extent I think I agree. But really, people don’t donate like they used to. You can come up with a building fund and get a commitment, but they just don’t come through anymore.
“You have to do something to raise funds.” he says, “or you’re not going to have a parish school or maybe even a church.” The denominations that refuse to use bingo as a fundraiser arc mainly those that have few or no parochial schools, hospitals, or missionary efforts to support.
At St. Catherine's there are 11 different games played, three of them twice. In the Crazy L game the players cover two adjacent sides; in Crazy Letter T they go for one side and a perpendicular; in Blackout the object is to cover the whole board.
The players are not partial to any one game. Rodriguez says, but they might like the Blackouts a little more than the others—after all, the payoffs are $200. People pay a certain fixed amount for a number of cards and they play these cards through every game but the specials, and at St. Catherine’s the specials are usually Blackouts. For the specials people buy printed sheets which can be marked with crayons or ink markers. These sheets are the throwaways.
“The profit comes from the specials,” says Rodriguez. “If we didn’t have the specials, we’d just break even. What this means is that there are a lot of winners, and some people win more than once in a night, and eventually almost everyone wins something. So it’s different from regular gambling, and fun, too.
“You know, our pastor had a health problem, and I think it came from worrying about finances. He wasn’t getting the money to pay the debts. Now he’s feeling better. He even took a short vacation and is looking good.”