Leave your pretensions and jokes at the door. These folks come to play.

They made us as soon as we came through the door.

We didn’t stand out in the crowd that much – a few decades younger than the average age for certain, but by no means the only younger folks there – but the look was plain in our faces.

It was Friday night Lions Club Bingo at the St. Francis Community Center and my wife, Erika, and I didn’t have a clue. Neither of us had played the game competitively since childhood (and what better place for a seven-year-old Wisconsin lad than with his grandmother in a bingo hall with 900 seniors smoking Pall Malls for two hours?). We were pretty sure we knew the rules, but it was clear at the start we hadn’t a clue. We each bought a packet of game cards and a volunteer mercifully handed us the schedule of that night’s games and tried in vain to explain. There were names like “layer cake” and “peace pipe,” illustrated with box-n-dot artwork that resembled maps of the constellations. We found seats and hoped for the best.

All this said, bingo is a very easy game to pick up once it gets going. The only real skill required is the ability to pay attention. For regular games like the bi-weekly Lion Club romp, shapes and “coverall” matches are used to spice things up during the 20-game evening, only two or three times a night relying on the old-school line-and-diagonal method. Certain games (small diamond with corners, flag, and letter X to name a few) actually discard certain spaces or columns on the board altogether, allowing the thrill of working within a designated artistic space. In short, this is some very satisfying daubing.

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There are many things about the bingo hall setting that can tempt people of a certain age to smart-assery. The game and its setting are rife with unintended kitsch: retirees in custom-made bingo-wear, the various tokens and gee-gaws spread out in front of players to summon luck, and the oh-so-very Midwestern offerings at the concession table (nothing like bingo hall eggsalad!). And then there are those certain numbers that just beg for some kind of grade school response. “B 4.” “Before what?” “I 25” “Can you buy me beer? I only 17!” “O 69” “(painfully muffled laughter).”

But be warned, do NOT screw around at bingo. Once the balls get rolling and the game starts, the bingo hall is a DEADLY serious place. The entire room falls nearly silent, to the point where you can literally hear the daubing of cards. As the game progresses, the tension builds. On the first game we played, both of us neared a layer cake configuration that would have been good for a $50 prize. One square from victory, Erika’s heart raced. But it wasn’t the money, it was the fear – the pure terror – of having made an errant stamp and calling out a false bingo. There was a truth in the air that was as plain as the neon pink spots marking our cards: false bingos would be met with hostility.

The only moment of levity during play is the calling of “I 22,” which is greeted every time with a smattering of whistles and bells. Asking around about this, I was told that a 22 is known as a pair of ducks and it was considered good luck to quack when the 22 was drawn. As for how quacking became bell-ringing: “Maybe they felt dumb quacking.”

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When bingo was called – each and every time – the room’s tension broke with a disgruntled murmur. Cards were crumpled or tossed towards the trash and the confirmation of the bingo only aggravates the stress of a hundred near-misses. It’s the one part of the game where the personality of the caller – who must be all-business during the calling – can show through. “Get your glasses on, so you can see what the heck you’re doin’ there, will ya, Karen?” “G 50… no, wait, that ain’t right.” “How about I just shut up and call, eh?” The bingo is inevitably verified, the balls returned to the drum, and the audience moves from the heartbreak of one game to the promise of the next.

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