Casinos have fans’ number when it comes to bingo

Elba Montesdeoca, 82, pushes a lever on her toy elephant and it emits a mighty roar.

"It’s a Canadian elephant," she says needlessly, pointing out the maple leaf sticker on the toy’s head. Once a dark turquoise or green, its color has faded after so many years of pulling bingo duty. But its good luck has not.

She moves quickly through the rest of her lucky charm collection, introducing each one like a friend whose virtues are apparent.

"This is 15 years old," she says, holding one of the six troll-headed daubers spread before her. "The head is made in China. OxiClean’s supposed to clean anything but that’s bullshit. It doesn’t clean this. And this is my frog (pill holder), for my pill, which I already took. Elephants are for luck, frogs are for money."

Several Buddha figurines and stuffed animals round out the menagerie that Montesdeoca is counting on to bring her a jackpot during $60,000 Bingo Extravaganza at the Gold Coast on a recent Tuesday.

Montesdeoca is the stereotypical bingo player: the little old lady with her good luck trinkets, superstitious attitude and a decades-old bingo habit that goes beyond a desire to win. She used to play daily until a health scare forced her to cut down to twice a week.

But one glance across the bingo room shows that players like her have become nearly the exception than the rule. For the past few years — some bingo experts say 10, others say three or four — bingo’s draw has reached across generations, appealing to people as young as their 20s and as old as, well, Montesdeoca.

And that’s no accident.

Once considered a loss leader, bingo has become a potential moneymaker to casinos. The game brings people into a property where they spend money not only on bingo games but on food, entertainment, slots and other gaming.

"Bingo is extremely important to the company," says Weldon Russell, director of ancillary gaming for Station Casinos. "The truth of it is, you know, if you bring 200 people to the property eight times a day, there’s residual value there."

Recognizing that bingo needed a face-lift to attract a broader demographic and increase its popularity, local resorts came up with ways to satisfy the regular bingo crowd while appealing to a younger player.

Casinos have added more electronics to their bingo rooms and created a variety of games that offer larger payouts.

"What we’ve done recently is put some stuff in to interest the younger generation," Russell says.

Earlier this year, Station Casinos hosted million dollar bingo, a two-day event during which a total of $1 million was paid out. Gold Coast’s Bingo Extravaganza also was spread out over two days with $30,000 given out on each day. Such events are popular, Gold Coast bingo manager Kathy Veltre says.

For this one, the casino had to double the number of seats and electronic bingo machines to accommodate more than 700 people. Players came from across the country, including Justin Pedrosa, 29, of Colorado. He joined a group of friends who come to town a few times a year just to play bingo. On the first day of the bingo event, Pedrosa won $500.

Winning tends to solidify your interest in bingo, he says.

Bingo used to pervade the Strip, with the Riviera, Sahara and other resorts featuring it prominently. During the 1990s and early 2000s, those bingo halls were replaced by nightclubs, gourmet restaurants and other attractions. The New Frontier, across from Wynn Las Vegas, was the last Strip hotel to host bingo. The hotel was imploded in 2007.

Some were quick to proclaim bingo a dying game that has lost its appeal, says Kerrie Burke, general manager of the Gold Coast. But it’s probably the most stable form of gaming right now for locals casinos.

"Bingo has been popular but never more so than it is now," Veltre says. "Head counts aren’t what they used to be but that’s because there are so many bingo rooms."

When Veltre moved to Las Vegas in 1990, the valley had five bingo halls. Now, there are 28.

The reasons for bingo’s appeal tend to be universal no matter a player’s age. It’s a cheap form of entertainment — a typical buy-in costs about $4 — where people have the chance to win some money, bingo players say. The buy-in also includes free drinks, and morning games often come with doughnuts.

The game requires no skill and is largely social, allowing people to interact between sessions. It also comes with its share of thrills, says Pedrosa’s friend, Steve Varnell, 39.

Varnell started playing bingo 20 years ago in California. Now living in Colorado, he plays bingo weekly and comes to Las Vegas for big bingo events. Once, his wife won $5,000. They tend to stick with Gold Coast, he says, because that’s where they’ve had their best luck.

"I also play poker and this is right up there for me," Varnell says. "Winning a bingo is like hitting a full boat on the turn."

Bingo is believed to have originated as a lottery game in Italy during the 1500s. Over the centuries, it grew and spread until finally arriving in the United States in the 1920s. Then, it was called Beano, referring to the beans players used to mark their cards. The story goes that a winner one day shouted "bingo!" instead of "beano!" and the modern game was born.

The game has been played on card stock or hard cards, paper and now, computers. Players often develop a preference for the medium, some demanding only hard cards while others prefer paper and save their superstitions for their daubers, the giant colored markers used to check off the numbers. Somewhere along the way, lucky charms became a part of the game with troll dolls representing a large percentage of them. Players like Montesdeoca still rely on them, certain that they bring luck.

Then there are players like local Lori Fortner, 47. She’s a mix of modern player and traditional. She started playing bingo more than 20 years ago at the El Rancho on the Strip. Fortner doesn’t use a charm or totem and prefers the stationary computers to paper bingo cards. But Fortner wasn’t always like that.

"I used to make fun of the people who used the computers. I said, ‘Why even bother coming to bingo?’ Now I love it," Fortner says.

When electronic bingo machines started appearing in rooms across the valley, they made up a small percentage of format options. Now, the ratio is about 70 percent bingo machine to 30 percent paper, hotel representatives say. The computers can hold potentially thousands of bingo cards, which increase a hotel’s profits when players buy multiple cards.

The computers automatically read the numbers as they’re called, so Fortner can read the paper or socialize during the game. She has to attend to her electronic card only when the computer beeps, alerting her to an impending bingo. The computers also enable players to watch television, play solitaire or other games during the actual bingo game.

Like many other bingo devotees, Fortner really got hooked after she hit a $26,000 jackpot at the Gold Coast a few years ago. On this night, at the Bingo Extravaganza, she hopes for a win, even though she isn’t sitting in her usual spot.

On the days she plays, at least a couple of times a week, she and her co-workers eat lunch at Panda Express. There, they get a handful of fortune cookies and go through them, looking for a sign. The lucky ones go right into her wallet.

It doesn’t always work but on the days she wins, she attributes some of her luck to those efforts.

"Whatever it takes, right?" she says.

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564.

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