Keep your eye on the ball

The TV screen flickers, and the image of a machine appears. The humming sound of whirling, trapped air fills the room. Behind the glass, numbered ping-pong balls swarm and collide in a chaotic dance of destiny. After a few tense seconds, the first one is randomly sucked up from the melee and its number shown, magnified, on screen. You’re in luck: You have that number. The next ball is drawn, joining its comrade on victory lane — and your heart beats faster, as you realize you have this one, too. The tension grows thick, and you dream of what you’ll do with the money you’ll win … if only your numbers come up.

It sounds like a typical Friday-night fantasy, played out in living rooms from Florida to California — but not in North Carolina (at least, not yet). One of the hottest issues now facing our elected officials in Raleigh, however, is the debate over a state-run lottery. But even as they argue over what’s morally and economically best for the Tar Heel State, anyone with a hankering to wager some hard-earned money on numbered ping-pong balls can do so, legally, in state-sanctioned gaming halls from Hatteras to Hickory. (In fact, the scene described above was witnessed, live, in one such venue — right here in Asheville.) It’s called bingo, and last year, it generated an estimated $31 million in revenues in North Carolina.

For many, the word “bingo” conjures images of blue-haired grandmother types whiling away their sunset days. Or, worse, painful memories of sadistic kindergarten teachers and their brain-numbing ditty about the farmer’s dog of that name. (With each successive verse, this poor pup would inexplicably lose a letter to his name, forcing us to clap along. But I digress.) The point is, “bingo” has become an integral part of our vocabulary. It is synonymous with victory; a euphemism for sexual conquest. It can be vague or exact, depending on the context.

One use of the word, however, stands above the rest, at least in terms of clarity: when it’s uttered (or, better yet, shouted) while playing bingo. Barbara, a 49-year-old player from Swannanoa, said it best: “Yelling ‘bingo!’ for $500 or $5 is a good feeling. It’s just like getting a good orgasm — it gets you all warm and happy.”

This isn’t your grandmother’s game anymore.

Luck of the draw

For the uninitiated, competitive bingo can be a mind-boggling experience. Like many games, it requires fluency in an elaborate jargon. Loyal players know the meaning of such terms as “hatpin,” “six-pack,” “big nine” and “postage stamp” — each of which represents a winning configuration on an individual bingo card, depending on the version of the game being played. Simply getting five numbers in a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line, it seems, is but a prelude to the many more elaborate ways to win.

But deciphering the types of bingo played in North Carolina, the laws governing them, and the agencies responsible for policing them can be even more confusing.

To begin with, one must choose one’s words carefully when talking about bingo. Mention “gambling,” for example, and you might be shown the door. Bingo, you see, is not gambling: Bingo is a game of skill, and games of skill are legal in North Carolina. But games of chance are not. This explains the interactive nature of the slot machines at the casino in Cherokee.

In most casinos, you drop your money in the slot, pull the handle, and wait for that cruel mistress, Lady Luck, to decide the outcome. At Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, however, you get two spins for your money. Suppose the first spin leaves you with two cherries and a seven. You then skillfully touch the two cherries on the screen, locking them in place. Finally, you pull the handle again (to spin the remaining, unlocked wheel), hoping Lady Luck will surrender that crucial third cherry. In North Carolina, this is considered a game of skill.

According to the North Carolina General Statutes that cover bingo (14-309.5 through 14-309.14), the game becomes gambling only when the operator violates the law. There are nine pages of definitions, licensing procedures, session limits, prize limits, operations and accounting guidelines — all set forth to regulate what’s known as “charitable bingo” (games conducted by tax-exempt organizations to raise money for worthy causes). These groups must be bona fide nonprofit organizations, as defined by the Internal Revenue Code. They include: religious groups, fraternal organizations such as the Moose or Elks, volunteer fire departments, homeowners’ or property-owners’ associations, veterans’ associations and patriotic groups.

Here in Buncombe County, this translates into bingo games at churches, Moose lodges and even the Woodfin Community Center. The Tuesday-night game in Woodfin has been running successfully for two years now. “We thought it’d be a good way to help the community,” said Edward Tweed, one of the 13 members of the center’s board who oversee the program and parcel out the proceeds. “If elderly people get sick, we help them. If a family is down on their luck at Christmas, we help get the kids presents.”

Which way to the beach?

But there’s a second form of legal bingo that’s a far cry from its benevolent brother. “Beach bingo” games can be run by a private citizen, strictly for profit. In Asheville, you need only apply for a privilege-tax license; lease a suitable location; set up some tables and chairs; plunk down some money for a ball machine, light board and other supplies; and you’re in business.

Legend has it that beach bingo gets its name from the games of skill that once lined the boardwalks of popular tourist beaches. You paid your money and took your chances. If you won, you got a small prize. Kewpie dolls, snow globes and other tempting trinkets lured those seeking a respite from sun and surf. But these beach-bingo games got a serious boost in 1983, when the General Asssembly updated the regulations governing charitable bingo. An exemption was tacked on permitting beach bingos to operate without being subject to the restrictions controlling charitable bingo. The law also stated that, “No beach bingo game may offer a prize having a value greater than ten dollars ($10.00).” But that meant beach bingo could legally give a $10 bill as a prize for winning one game.

The Raleigh Report — the legislative newsletter of the North Carolina Council of Churches — alleged in its March 11, 1998 issue (as summarized by the News and Observer of Raleigh on March 15) that, in 1983, “The parents of former Speaker of the House Carl Stewart owned a place at Carolina Beach where bingo was played every night. Prizes were small, often nothing more than stuffed animals, and it was a place that catered to families during summer beach vacations.”

Allegations of nepotism are often difficult to prove. The beach-bingo exemption may simply have resulted from the well-intentioned efforts of legislators looking to preserve the time-honored traditions of a dying beach-boardwalk culture. But, like an amphibian with newly sprouted legs, beach bingo soon made its way inland.

I was first drawn to beach bingo by the lights. While driving home after a night of culture and carousing downtown, I was bemoaning the fact that, for all of this city’s great nightlife, there is little for a night owl to do in West Asheville. Then I saw the lights. Sleepy Haywood Road had not one but two joints (one of them now closed) that were positively hoppin’ in the wee hours of Saturday night — within a block of each other, no less.

My curiosity piqued, I swung the car around to get a closer look. Much to my amazement, both locations sported “beach bingo” signs. Beach? Bingo? I thought it odd that here, hundreds of miles from the nearest strand of sand, on a street lined with more churches than houses, there existed these brightly lit gaming dens. I had heard more than once that this neck of the woods is the Bible Belt’s shiny buckle, yet here stood a little bit of Vegas. In these brightly lit, smoke-filled rooms, one could pursue the American Dream: winning more money than you lose, simply by playing a game.

I drove home and spent a fitful night chasing sleep, as the notes and words of a long-forgotten melody seeped from the deeper recesses of memory: “B-I-N-G-O, B-I-N-G-O, B-I-N-G-O, and Bingo was his name, oh!”

The short arm of the law

Even today, the laws governing beach bingo limit the prize money to $10 per game. This seems like chump change compared to charitable bingo, where the payoff can top out at $500 per game, with a maximum of $2,500 awarded in any single session of games. Of course, the buy-in (the fee you pay to play) differs accordingly. The bigger charitable bingos may charge $25 per session, while the smaller beach bingos average $5 per session for a set of cards. Beach bingo is also generally exempt from the rules and regulations governing charitable bingo.

The North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement Agency is responsible for monitoring charitable-bingo operations throughout the state. Besides complying with state statutes, each tax-exempt organization that uses bingo as a fund-raiser must submit a yearly financial report — detailing the money taken in, prize money awarded, money given to charity, and operating expenses. Each charitable group pays a $100 licensing fee to A.L.E., to offset the cost of administering the program.

The A.L.E.’s Bonnell Senter administers the bingo program. According to her preliminary figures, there were 13,958 charitable-bingo sessions in North Carolina last year. They produced $3l,240,130 in receipts (the final figure will probably be higher). More than three-quarters of that amount — $23,508,831 — was paid out in prizes. Charitable causes received about 12 percent of those gross receipts, according to Senter.

But when it comes to beach bingo, hard numbers are harder to come by. No state agency oversees these games, and local government seems mostly concerned with enforcing fire-code regulations. And while charitable bingos are limited to one $2,500 session per week (or two $1,500 sessions), beach bingos can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week — as long as they draw enough players to make it profitable.

This lack of regulation and oversight has raised concerns across the state. In 1998, the state legislature appointed a special study committee to address these concerns. The Bingo Regulation Committee brought together representatives of both charitable and beach bingo to hammer out an acceptable solution. As Rep. Arlie Culp, a committee member, put it, “If you’re going to regulate one, you should regulate all of them … a level playing field, I guess.”

Former state Sen. Jesse Ledbetter of Asheville also served on the committee, which he felt was doomed from the start. “There was never a consensus among the members of the committee,” he said. “It was obvious it was not going to work; it was a mixed bag. I think it ought to be regulated enough so there is accountability of the money. I’m a little leery of these people who have these places strictly for profit, often taking money from people who can’t afford it. It is gambling — in a way.”

Another committee member, Rep. David Miner, sees things differently. “I’m somewhat of a libertarian on this issue,” he said in a recent interview. “For a certain economic class, this is a form of entertainment. These are people who don’t golf or belong to country clubs. I don’t think the state [i.e., government] should dictate what people do for harmless entertainment.”

The committee’s report recommended extending the charitable-bingo regulations to cover beach bingo, too, and appointing a three-person committee to oversee all bingo in the state. The beach-bingo people were agreeable, provided they could increase their prizes from $10 to $20 per game.

But the legislative session ended before any action was taken. The report was never made public, the corresponding bill died in committee, and the committee itself was disbanded. Sen. David Weinstein, the co-chair, said recently, “This issue needs to be addressed — there’s no oversight of beach bingo — but right now, it’s a dead issue.” And when Rep. Rex Baker, the other co-chair, was contacted for this article, he replied, “I am no longer involved in that issue, and I have no comment.”

While researching the work of the committee, I came across an article in the July 29, 1998 News and Observer, in which Weinstein estimated that commercial (beach) bingo operations had taken in $100 million in 1997. (That year, charitable bingo generated $33 million). When I asked Weinstein about the $100 million estimate and what it might be based on, he replied, “These were figures thrown out in the committee; the truth of the matter is, the state has no idea how much they bring in.” When asked if it was fair to say that beach bingo brings in more than charitable bingo, Weinstein replied, “Absolutely — they’re running some of the charitable bingos out of business.”

“It’s just a gamble”

Eager to see for myself who these bingo players are, I visited a beach bingo on Haywood Road. On a Tuesday night at 9:30, the room — a small storefront adjacent to a barbershop in a strip mall — was filled with 20 players of diverse age, sex and race. When you walk in, the first thing you and your lungs notice is that there are two seating sections in the bingo hall: smoking and chain-smoking. Bright, fluorescent lights impart a bluish tint to the omnipresent haze. The accommodations might best be described as Spartan. Cinder-block walls encase simple folding tables surrounded by plastic chairs. But there’s a logic to this minimalism. Bingo demands supreme concentration — aesthetics be damned.

Black-and-white TV monitors are strategically mounted in the corners of the ceiling. A closed-circuit camera eliminates any possible discrepancies between the ball drawn and the number called out. A few signs display winning formations, such as the hatpin bingo — four blocks in one corner, intersected by a diagonal line. (It’s cubist, but I can see it.) One hand-lettered sign lists a few house rules:

“Children must be seated with parents.

No toys allowed in Bingo Hall.

It is parents responsibility for their child safety outside Bingo Hall.”

But don’t worry about the kids being bored or restless — they can play right along with mom and dad (assuming they have the money). The few North Carolina statutes that cover beach bingo have nothing to say about minors playing. In fact, on this night, a couple and their pre-teen daughter occupied one table. The young girl could track her cards with the best of them. She hit two bingos in an hour, pocketing $20. Not a bad take, for a school night.

At the Woodfin Community Center bingo, I came across a seasoned player with more than 16 years’ experience: 26-year-old Becky McHone. “It’s just a gamble,” she said. “I’ve been playing ever since I was 10 years old; my mom and grandma got me into this, tagging along and watching their cards. I’ve won the $500, like, 10 times. I usually play a double set each, at $27.25. I spend, on average, between $54 and $80. … I don’t win every time — winning comes in streaks. I play four nights a week: Moose Lodge, VFW, here … you know.”

Falling through the cracks?

The Asheville City Code makes no mention of bingo. But it does require a privilege-tax license and imposes a $25 fee. Many local businesses — such as convenience stores, bars, strippers and masseuses — must obtain a privilege-tax license. City ordinances detail the restrictions and requirements associated with every privilege-tax license, categorizing the various businesses and occupations and the corresponding license fees. The regulations governing masseuses, for example, are quite detailed. Yet, oddly, beach bingo was nowhere to be found.

After scanning the index and looking under the obvious categories, I decided to go through the privilege-tax regulations page by page. And finally, I found it — penciled in, under the following category: Bagatelle Tables Merry-go-rounds, etc. “Every person engaged in the operation of a Bagatelle Table, Merry-go-round, or other riding device, hobby horse, switchback railway, shooting gallery, swimming pool, skating rink, other amusements of a like kind, or a place for other games or play with or without a name (unless used solely for private amusement or exercise), at a permanent location shall pay for each subject a numerated license tax of $25. The tax under this section shall not apply to bowling alleys, music machines, billiard or pool tables, or electronic video games.”

North Carolina voters may one day have a chance to cast their ballots for or against a state-run lottery. Advocates’ strongest argument is probably the millions of dollars that could be raised to help fund our educational system. Opponents, however, have their own ready arguments to counter that. Lotteries, they say, are regressive taxes that disproportionately target the poor and their hopes for a better life. And gambling, many feel, is a slippery slope that can corrupt youth and spawn crime.

One thing’s clear, however: If and when such a vote is held, it won’t be the first time our state has dealt with legislating, sanctioning and controlling a game where money is wagered and won or lost. And if you think further study of this game’s positive and negative impacts on our state might enable more honest debate and more informed voters, well … bingo.

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