It’s easy to get in a weekday rut, especially now that the sun sinks before happy hour ends. Gone are the days when we rushed out of work for a quick hike, a long bike ride or a swim. “Indoors with you,” Maine says. And so begins the pattern: movie at the Nick, a night at the arcade, maybe a drink out … movie at the Nick? How about something new — and by new I mean old: Bingo.
It’s cheap, fun, odd and open six nights a week.
I went last Monday with a friend, hoping for beer, rowdy conversation and maybe a prize. Nope, nope and nope.
You can play bingo on paper or on computer systems. The hardcore bingo-ers do both. At the same time.
You get about 200 squares if you buy a package.
She won. She's very excited.
Food is cheap and fried.
The TVs have a live feed where you can watch the numbered balls come through the tube.
We did find a good time.
We quickly learned the South Portland Bingo Hall is not there for first-timers, it’s for the ladies and gents who attend with ferocious regularity and who do not find your bingo blunders charming. Take my word for it. Here’s what happened: It’s the first game of the night and everyone has a green sheet of three bingo cards (mind you, the regulars have a few sheets going at once, plus a computerized gaming system with dozens more). The man at the front of the room presses a button and, like Powerball, all the colored bingo balls float around in a clear box before one shoots up. He calls it and I — having a line of five connected numbers — yell “bingo.” A card-checker comes over and shakes her head. No bingo, she announces to the room.
“It’s 7-11,” she said, hunching over me. She goes on to explain that my one pathetic solitary line won’t do. In this round I’ll need my card’s inked out numbers to take the shape of a 7 and an 11. Later, other patterns are called out: six-packs (a rectangle of six), a “small crazy kite” (a diagonal line across the sheet that ends in a square of four bingo numbers) and a jug. Here, maybe these photos will help explain what happened:
I brushed off that bingo bungle and bought a grilled cheese ($3). The menu also includes burgers, fried baskets and some sandwiches. Every meal costs less than $7.
After that first game, bingo intensified. If you buy a set of paper games, they hand you a desk-calendar-size set. Each page is a different color and has 12 cards on it. Searching for B9 on 12 cards may not sound difficult, but trust me, it’s overwhelming in that Lucy-in-the-chocolate-factory sort of way. Once I’d get halfway through checking my sheet, he’d call a new number. “Even if I had bingo, I wouldn’t notice,” my friend said. So true. Thankfully, all the already-called numbers stay lit on a board at the front of the room so you can re-check your cards.
The huge bingo hall has rows of glossy plywood tables and aside from the thump thump thump of daubers and the announcer calling out the numbers, the room was silent. Like SAT-testing silent. That took me aback when I first walked in the space, which is by Home Depot and the mall in South Portland. I expected groups of rowdy grey-haired ladies with gem-bellied treasure trolls. But it’s crazy how much concentration it takes to play bingo. (“It’s not bad once you get used to it. The more you play, the more you get,” a staffer told me after the games.) Hence the standardize testing feel, except the proctors are trying to sell raffle and lottery-like tickets during the games.
During a 10-minute intermission people let their shoulders slump and got chatty though. Including two men at our table.
“It’s this or stay home with the cat,” said Rick, a curly-haired man who hates his cat, Oprah. He told us his ex-wife got him hooked on bingo, then left him.
Once intermission is over, back to silence. Even the winners say “bingo” in indoor voices, raise a hand and politely wait for a staff member to rush over and check their card. When they win, their eyes remain transfixed on the next game. No “whoopee!” or “BINGO!” or even smiling really. Which maybe is to be expected. The bingo hall, at least today, isn’t meant for hipsters who want to throw back a cheap burger and laugh with their friends (although I’m encouraging you to change that) — it’s a gambling hall. The night we went the games were worth $50 to $500 — most were about $100. Because the hall is run by the Maine Boosters Association, each night a different charity benefits — our money went to the Scarborough girls’ hockey team.
If you do go, go early. It might take you a while to get your bearings and figure out which game they’re calling first. When you walk in the bingo hall, you purchase your games at a counter against the wall (not the lottery ticket counters in the middle). Although it says $10 for paper games on the website, it was actually $16. Although they charged my friend $19. So who knows. If you don’t own a dauber and don’t want to, you could get a handheld computer instead. With those, you purchase games (a man next to me had more than 50 going at a time) and then just punch in the numbers as the announcer calls them. The computer scans your virtual cards for you and will let you know if you’ve won.
So, if you’re looking for something a little off-beat, new and fun to try I’d highly recommend giving bingo a whirl. Bingo is its own world with its own language, etiquette and rulesets, but if you can bring a friend, a troll doll and a sense of humor, you’ll be fine.
-Google Maps thinks the bingo hall is closer to 430 John Roberts Road. If you use GPS, be ready for it to be wrong by half a mile.
-There’s no beer.
-Your dauber has a cap. There is superstition about your cap. Think of it like a horseshoe: if you put it divot-down, the luck drains out. Keep it up like a cup to hold your luck.
-You can’t share your cards. $16 seemed like a lot of money for three hours of fun, so I told my friend she could play half my cards. Nope. Against the rules.
-If you buy a set of games, you’ll have enough for the whole night, which might be until about 9:30 p.m.
-Just because you have one row of five numbers blotted out does not mean you won. Make sure your board matches the diagram on the scoreboard. You might need to blot out a jug shape or an X, for instance.
-Pricing is wonky. The website says $10 for a paper package (games for a night), but expect them to throw bonus cards at you. Bingo has a whole language around it and I didn’t understand most of the words or what I was paying for.
-For more information visit sopobingo.com.