Skip to content

Online Journalism

reflections on a changing medium


Originally uploaded by ellemmfiftyfive

When Helen Casperson, 57, gets ready for a night out on the town, she packs some low-sodium snacks, scotch tape and pictures of her children. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, she says. Others bring their own quirky essentials, too. If she forgets her Tiny Twist pretzels, she can buy them once she arrives, so she doesn’t sweat it.

Every Saturday night after dinner, Casperson washes the dishes by hand. Once she has set them aside to dry, she habitually sits in her favorite floral armchair. She fidgets with the cord of her white rotary telephone and waits for her friend Ingrid’s voice to sound out, calming the automated ringing on the line. Ingrid picks up and the two chatter on for a few moments before the conversation is cut short. It’s better to speak with a friend in person, Casperson thinks. In fact, it’s better to speak without speaking: to shrug shoulders and slap knees, to sit, simultaneously, on edges of seats, savoring a mutual suspense. For Helen and Ingrid, the Saturday nights of the past 20-something years were made for these sorts of things and they weren’t about to end their tradition anytime soon.

Casperson touches up her makeup, climbs into the warmth of her chartreuse fleece zip-up and hits the road. She’s got places to be, friends to see and money to win.

Helen and Ingrid are just one coupling of friends who love nothing more than a handful of disposable bingo boards, some colorful ink-dabbers and a crunchy snack or two. They’re not the only ones going gaga over this game of chance, however., a Web site that catalogues the schedules of Western New York Bingo games, lists over 100 bingo games per week held in churches, community centers and other public spaces in Buffalo and the surrounding areas. Several games per week are organized at popular bingo venues such as St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Church in Kenmore, Cardinal O’Hara high school in Tonawanda and Amvets Post 13 in Buffalo, among others. These bingo halls fill up quickly, and many patrons arrive up to an hour early to ensure that they get seats. Jackpots range from the low hundreds to several thousand dollars prizes.

Some bingo players such as Irene Kurosky mainly frequent neighborhood churches. “We actually have a couple of churches that we like to attend on a regular basis,” she says. “We go here at St. Andrew’s, we go to St. Mark’s, we go to St. Margaret’s…”

Other players prefer larger, higher stakes bingos in Canada and at the Indian Reservations “because they offer more money,” says Casperson. Delta Bingo and Golden Nugget Bingo in Fort Erie, Ontario both host bingo games boasting jackpots of upwards of $3,000 every day of the week. These bingo games are also unique to many smaller bingos in that they have different bingo-pattern games. Rather than the traditional bingo, four corners, outer and inner square and cover-all, players at Golden Nugget Bingo compete to be the first to form alphabet letter shapes like “X,” “N” and “U.”
Several Indian casinos in Cattaraugus County including Seneca Gaming and Entertainment and Seneca Nation Bingo feature these same letter shapes with the addition of hourglass shapes, hearts and diamonds, says Casperson. With rules like these, Bingo is more than just a game of numbers.

According to, three out of every four bingo players bring a good luck charm with them to the bingo hall. These lucky objects often take the form of dolls, figurines or special bingo accessories like bags and dabbers.

James Mallenek, a senior player at Cardinal O’Hara high school attends bingo “quite a bit,” he says. He only misses Saturday bingo when he’s too ill to attend. Mellenek wears thick, wire-rimmed glasses which he peers over to examine his bingo cards each time a new number is called. In his younger years he used to watch more cards at once. Now he watches nine bingo boards at a time. “One eye has gone bad,” he explains.

When asked his age, Mallenek responds with a chuckle and adjusts his hearing aid. “I ain’t lucky though. I donate.” He smiles and removes his glasses with his right hand as he motions toward the rows of items that he’s lined up on the table in front of him, like a whimsical fortification. A rainbow of Dab-o-Ink markers, a patchwork floral bingo bag, a can of diet Pepsi and a red and white cardboard popcorn box make up the outer defenses. Inside, directly overlooking his bingo cards, are his elephant and ogre. “This one goes with me all the time and it’s old,” Mallenek says, pointing to his hot pink elephant bingo dabber topper. “It must be 20-something years old. It’s my elephant, but it doesn’t do any good and neither does this guy either.” The particular “guy” that Mallenek refers to is a green plastic ogre, about five inches tall. He wears short brown pants and a cream colored top and holds a keg of what Mallenek surmises to be beer. The ogre holds the keg close to his green body with two hands as if to say, “Get your own!” while the electric elephant stares, aloofly, a head taller than the other bingo dabbers. “I just come and play,” says Mallenek. “If we win, we win; if we don’t, we don’t. That’s all, just to get out of the house.” Then, ever-so-gently, he twists the grinning head off of his lucky partner and the games begin.

Marlene Sanders admittedly hates playing bingo, but you’d never guess it; she’s a regular. “There’s nothin’ else to do,” she laments, “so I come to bingo.” Sanders sits alone at a small, round table in the cafeteria of Cardinal O’Hara high school reading a romance novel during the 15-minute intermission at Saturday night bingo. At the bingo, she tends to keep to herself. When her eyes reach the bottom of the right-hand page of her well-worn paperback, she folds the top corner inwards, creasing it with a long, red fingernail. The smooth, enameled acrylic reflects the fluorescent lighting, drawing attention to the purple plastic spider-shaped ring that she wears on her left ring finger.

At a glance, one might think that Sanders is married—married to the game of bingo. But the ornament isn’t anything that she holds particularly dear to her heart. “Oh, somebody gave this to me but…” and she trails off with a chuckle. Sanders doesn’t buy all of that superstitious mumbo-jumbo; she calls it like she sees it. “You never can get ahead at bingo, that’s for sure,” she says, casting off the inefficient arachnid.

Moreover, Sanders is skeptical of the bingo hall claims of fair play. “I think they cheat sometimes—a lot of different ways,” she says. Sanders recounts stories of bingo numbers being purposely changed before callers have announced them. Without television screens that display the bingo ball as it is chosen, it’s easy for callers to manipulate the random in favor of their friends, she says. By placing a hand on top of the open chamber of the bingo machine, the airflow is blocked and the caller can deliberately cause a ball to drop. “I’ve seen that done,” says Sanders.

While some frequently choose to attend bingo alone, others view it as an opportunity to socialize. Kurosky and Casperson both agree that bingo offers them a great way to bond with their girlfriends.
“We just get together for a night out and we leave the husbands home and just enjoy ourselves,” says Kurosky. As a resident of a senior housing center, she views her bingo hobby as positive activity, breaking up the monotony of life in the center and giving her the opportunity to interact and socialize with outside friends. “It just keeps friendships going, too. It keeps me young,” says Kurosky. “It keeps me young!”

Casperson tells a similar tale. “It’s just become a very big social network of mine,” she says, of bingo. Casperson has met several longtime friends at bingo games, some of whom she met over 20 years ago. Today, she meets them regularly for bingo and spends time with them outside of the bingo halls. “Sometimes we go out and we have dinner together, other times we go out for coffee,” she says. Some nights, when Casperson would just rather stay in, she dials up one of her bingo-buddies on the telephone just to talk. “It’s just a social network of friendship,” she says, “… and I just look at it as a big part of my life that I don’t want to get rid of because I enjoy it so much.”

For the past two years, Gordon Reese has put on his white Booster Club polo shirt and headed to Cardinal O’Hara high school every Saturday for a night of bingo. He doesn’t go to mark any free spaces or daydream about jackpots, though. Reese has different reasons for his involvement in bingo. He is a member of the Cardinal O’Hara Booster Club and the proud father of a sophomore attending the high school. Through his membership, he reaps the benefits of reduced tuition rates.

The Booster Club organizes the weekly bingo event and garners some of the profits in order to offer students financial aid.
Typically, Reese arrives at the high school at 6:30 p.m. After helping with player check-in, he makes sure that everyone is situated in either the cafeteria or the gymnasium and ready to begin the first game at 8:00 p.m. Then, says Reese, “I either pay out people, I call back numbers for bingo or I’ll call back numbers for the cafeteria.”

During the games, Reese rarely stops moving. Traveling between both gaming rooms and the office where the prize money is kept, bingo keeps him on his toes. Reese doesn’t seem to mind all of the bustle, however. In fact, he’s happy to work Bingo nights with the Booster Club. “It’s just nice seeing people winning money and getting happy,” says Reese. “I’ve seen people win a lot of money and basically that’s what bingo’s all about is winning money, and people get excited.”

Bingo is about the prospect of winning money, but as many avid players have expressed, it’s also about entertainment, community and socialization. As Kurosky puts it, “a little pocket money” is never a bad thing, but mostly it’s sheer enjoyment that keeps her coming back.

Casperson, like Kurosky, plays for the excitement of it all. She chalks her love for the game of bingo up to the atmosphere of the bingo hall and the suspense that one feels while playing.

“You know when you’re waiting for a number and you see the B come up and you just get all excited?” she asks, “Or the I or the N or the G or the O?…all of a sudden someone else yells ‘BINGO!’ and then you get disappointed and you start the cycle all over again.”


%d bloggers like this: