In one town, the games raise something like $800,000 a year through the bingo games — a considerable chunk of the annual $2.8 million budget officials spend on operating expenses to bring baseball, basketball, soccer and lacrosse to area kids.
Bingo is fun.
But some jobs are like that.
“I’m at work right now,” said Marian Milton of Paterson, who could be found Sunday afternoon at one of the long tables at the Police Athletic League in Wayne, ready to put her shoulder to the wheel.
“This is like another job to me,” she said.
Milton has played bingo since she was 16. And she plays it seriously. She regularly goes to games at Paterson, Lodi, Clifton, Hawthorne. But since about 2017, she’s been going an average of twice a week to the PAL headquarters Wayne, which has been hosting games for 45 years.
Sunday’s yearly Marathon Bingo event, which drew more than 160 players to PAL’s roomy Sal Borrelli Hall, is something special, though.
A total of $6,000 — $300 per game, for 20 games — was in PAL’s pot Sunday, ready to be dispensed to any players who were lucky enough to get their B-15s and N-24s lined up properly.
“I would say the game itself draws me, and the money,” said Milton, who was there with her sister, Tunisha Wise, also from Paterson.
“Definitely the money,” Milton said. “You can put a star next to that.”
Red balls, black balls, blue balls, and yellow balls bubbled and frothed in the Ball Mixer— which sent individual numbered balls bouncing up to be read by the caller, Mel Odatalla, sitting at a console at the back of the room. Gone — at least in Wayne — are the days of the rotating cage.
“I-25,” Odatalla read out.
“I-17. N-44 …”
“BINGO!” came the cry from the front left of the hall. Hannah Smith of Budd Lake, there with her mother, Sylvia, had made $300 — just like that.
Well, not just like that.
In fact, bingo requires a lot of effort. It’s a game that calls for laser-like concentration and fast reflexes.
As the numbers are called, players have 16 seconds to simultaneously check 12 different bingo boards to see if they’ve scored on any of them. That is, if they’re lightweights. Hard-core players often buy two books of sheets ($50 each) — 24 boards per game — and try to scan them all in the allotted seconds.
And that’s not counting the games-within-games that people are also playing simultaneously — games like Pot of Gold, Twister, Pig Race and Lightning Poker. “Keepers,” they’re called — $1 a ticket.
One player, Ana Estrada of Bordentown, had a whole mound of the peel-off tickets, opened in advance and piled in a heap like shelled peas. Estrada had 100 of them, she said.
“During the game, they can be hard to open up,” she explained.
In short, bingo is not a game. It’s a career.
“This is work, and it’s not easy,” said Carol Sisti, trustee of Wayne PAL, and a bingo volunteer.
“When women come in and play bingo for a long time, it’s a very serious game,” Sisti said. “They come in here to win. When people are making too much noise, they get a little upset because they want to concentrate.”
It is mostly women — though here and there, a beard or a baritone voice signals a husband or boyfriend, brought along for the ride. Scott Rhodes of Secaucus came with his wife, Chris — only to discover his friend Tommy Gallo of Wayne, there with his girlfriend, Linda Cruz (also of Wayne). “As soon a I came in here and saw him, I said, ‘Holy (smokes),” Gallo said.
Bingo is not only a serious business for the players, it’s a very serious business for groups like Wayne PAL.
They raise something like $800,000 a year through their bingo games — a considerable chunk of the annual $2.8 million budget they spend on operating expenses to bring baseball, basketball, soccer and lacrosse to area kids. Sunday’s game alone was expected to raise in the neighborhood of $10,000 for PAL.
“This is a nice community thing, and we’re making money for a good cause,” said Patricia Jean O’Connell, of Elmwood Park.
At Wayne, they have bingo games three nights a week — on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays — with a chance to win a Suburu SUV every first Saturday. There are also Valentine’s games, St. Patrick’s games, Halloween games. For a while, they held midnight games. “Not anymore; I want to get some sleep,” said Jack Tant, the organization’s bingo commissioner.
He’s been running the bingo games for about 30 years (Wayne PAL has been around for 64).
“This is a day out,” Tant said. “It’s a social event. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a lot of money.”
Certainly, Wayne PAL is not the only organization that relies on Bingo to help make its operating budget.
Since the 1930s, bingo has been a reliable crowd-getter for churches and civic organizations. The game itself goes back a lot further. Some have traced it to a 16th-century Italian lottery game.
The version we know apparently goes back to the 1920s, when it was played with dried beans as markers. It was called Beano then.
It became bingo, it is said, when a winner in the 1920s got so excited that he yelled “Bingo!” instead of “Beano!” — perhaps remembering the farmer who had a dog, and Bingo was his name-O (that children’s song dates from the 1780s). That’s why, today, bingo is the game, and Beano is the anti-gas supplement.
“I’ve just seen bingo get bigger and bigger,” Sisti said. “With some people, it’s a gambling habit. They come here three times a week to play bingo, and then they play other places. When you’re a bingo fanatic, you travel.”
Of course, not everyone is a career bingo-ist.
There are many people who come mainly for a night out, to meet up with friends — including the ones they never see outside of a bingo hall.
“Basically, bingo for these people is a social event,” Tant said. “Everybody knows each other.”