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The Globe and Mail

Waxing nostalgic for bingo’s glory days

Although weekend crowds are still strong, Planet Bingo’s revenues have declined steadily.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Part of The Big Gamble, a series examining British Columbia's complicated relationship with casinos.

On a recent raw, weekday morning, the second floor of North America's largest, freestanding, charitable bingo operation is, shall we say, quiet. Only the soporific drone of the bingo caller disturbs the silence that reigns over the dim, sparsely filled hall. Finally, a man in the distance raises his arm and his voice and says, of course, "Bingo!"

It's not always like this at Planet Bingo, a fixture on Main Street for the past quarter century. At night and on weekends, the joint is often jumping. But few dispute that the heyday of bingo in British Columbia is now merely memory.

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The seductive glitz and glamour of casinos stuffed with easy-to-play slots, a ban on smoking and a diminishing base of enthusiasts have combined to slash annual bingo revenue in B.C. from $175.3-million in 2007-08 to less than $100-million four years later, a decline of more than 45 per cent.

Planet Bingo, run by the Community Gaming Management Association, which distributes receipts to more than 80 city charities, has felt the pinch. A third floor has been rented out, and the operation's intake slipped below $10-million last year, down significantly from the $17-million Planet Bingo brought in five years earlier.

Amid all the loot pouring in from slot machines, the so-called table games and poker, bingo hangs on as the problem child of the B.C. Lottery Corporation's multibilllion-dollar business.

"It's not like it was," agrees Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for gambling. "It's more appreciated, if we're honest with each other, as a social game."

Loyally, Mr. Coleman, who once worked a church bingo hall as a kid in Penticton, points out that bingo still brings in more revenue than poker, and the growth of community gaming centres, which include slots with the bouncing bingo balls, has prompted a mild revival in a few places. Online bingo is also winning new fans.

Assessing the situation overall, however, the minister is blunt. "[Bingo] has a kind of a future, but it's certainly not a major product line."

None of that deters those who embrace the game. They keep coming back.

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Heading into Planet Bingo, under the building's large sign proclaiming "Have Fun! Win Big!", Tina Lally says she likes to play whenever she has a bit of extra cash, in this case $40. "It's cheaper than going to the casino. I'm a smart gambler."

Janet Chaykoski, pausing for an outside smoke break, offers another reason. "It just calms me," the 28-year bingo veteran says. "My girlfriend lost two of her sons in an accident. She was having a tough time, and I suggested she come to bingo. She loved it. It took her mind away from everything."

Adds her husband Dennis, a retired railway man from Squamish: "It's better than drinking. There's a lot of nice people in there. You can drop a couple of hundred dollars, but that's not as bad as casinos. Slots are way more addictive."

And as with every gambling venture, sometimes, as the sign declares, you do win big. Mr. Chaykoski recalls every detail of the the time he won $8,000. Still a tad hungover from celebrating a wedding the night before, he had no idea of the size of the jackpot, until the person at the counter asked for some ID. "I got so excited, I emptied my wallet all over the floor."

Meanwhile, despite thinning turnouts, the game continues where it has always thrived – church basements, community halls, Legions and school gymnasiums.

In North Vancouver, up to a hundred players pursue their passion every Wednesday in the spartan gym at St. Edmund's elementary school, where parents who volunteer get a break on their child's tuition.

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Betty Gerela is one of the regulars. "It's the fun of the game. I love to daub," she explains. "Doctors say it keeps the memory going."

Once a month, for the princely sum of $50, Ms. Gerela, 67, calls the numbers herself, scoffing at a suggestion the task defines boredom. "Bingo players expect callers to know what they're doing. You've got to be on the ball. As long as they'll have me, I'll call."

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