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Death and taxes may be the only things you can absolutely count on, but Muriel Shields's arrival at Delta Bingo Country each morning isn't far behind. Seven days a week, 12 months a year, you can find Ms. Shields at her regular table with her bingo dabber, hoping that her ship will finally come in.

"You have to get lucky some time," says Ms. Shields, who has been going to bingo halls for more than 20 years, but has won only two times -- once for $1,000, and another time for $75.

At 81, she remains addicted to the game, even though she's now forced to travel halfway across the city to participate. For years, she played at King Street Bingo Country, which was in the basement of a grocery store near her apartment in Parkdale, but the hall closed last year because of falling attendance.

Now, she rises early each morning to catch a series of buses that deliver her to Delta Bingo Country on St. Clair Avenue West, near the old stockyards. Ms. Shields is unfazed: "I just make a day of it," she says. "It gets me out of the house."

But her game of choice is going through rough times. Four years ago, the former municipality of Toronto had six bingo halls. Now, it has just two. The trend is repeated across the province -- in 1998, Ontario had 230 bingo halls. Now, there are fewer than 150.

One recent Toronto casualty was the Knights of Columbus bingo hall on Sherbourne Street, which had been in operation for nearly 50 years. The last game was played in October, and the three-storey Victorian building is now for sale.

Operators cited a steep decline in the popularity of the game that created an economic death spiral. Revenues plunged while operating costs and property taxes rose.

"The bingo hall is not feasible to operate," said John Murphy, Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus Council 1388. "Bingo has been on a steady decline in popularity."

Ian Thurbide, a pensioner who plays bingo regularly, expressed hope that Delta Bingo, which operates 12 halls in the Toronto and Golden Horseshoe area, might take over the Sherbourne facility: "With Delta running so many bingo halls in Ontario, it would be a natural fit for them," he said.

But the company quickly shot down the suggestion, saying the game of bingo faces a dismal future in Toronto because of tough new anti-smoking bylaws. "The bingo business is going through some tough times, and with the new antismoking legislation coming in, you will see a lot more closures, so we are not interested in expanding," said Cam Johnstone, general manager and part owner of Delta Bingos.

In fact, the game has many of the hallmarks of a sunset industry: Revenues are falling -- in 1998, Ontario's bingo halls took in $1.1-billion, but by last year, the figure had fallen to about $850-million -- and the average age of the customer base is steadily rising. Few young people seem interested in taking up the game, so as customers die off, there are no newcomers to replace them.

And competition for the players' entertainment dollars is more intense than ever, thanks to the rise of licensed casinos, which have seen revenues soar since the first one opened in 1994. Some bingo players have also migrated to the Internet, where on-line games are offered 24 hours a day -- in the privacy of a player's home.

"The environment has changed," says Ab Campion, a spokesman for the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. "People are interested in trying new products. There's a lot of competition, and the game is seen as something that older people do."

Those trends are clearly visible at Delta Bingo Country, where Ms. Shields sits at a table with her nickel-plated cane and a thick pad of bingo cards. The clientele runs heavily toward elderly women who look like Wal-Mart greeters, and smokers are clearly in the majority. The room is divided into smoking and non-smoking sections by a huge glass wall that runs down the middle: The smoking side is packed.

Like many of the customers, Ms. Shields is far from a high roller. She lives on a small pension in an apartment that costs $347 a month. She budgets $16 a day to play bingo. For this, she gets six sheets of cards, which she marks with a blue dabber that she carries in her purse.

"I can't explain why I like it so much," she says of the game. "I just love coming here to see everyone, I guess."

The hall is tailored to an aging customer base that doesn't have a lot of money to throw around. There is a tired-looking snack bar, and the ceiling is lined with fluorescent tubes. The tables are purple, and the walls are covered with huge paintings of Rat Pack era entertainers -- Liberace, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Elvis Presley and Tom Jones -- many of them long dead.

Because of her restricted budget, Ms. Shields spends only a small percentage of her day actually playing bingo. She usually arrives by 10:30 a.m., but doesn't play until 1 p.m. The game typically takes about half an hour. She plays again at 4:30 p.m., socializes for a while, then goes to a restaurant on King Street for an inexpensive dinner.

Although many bingo customers have been lured away by casinos and Internet games, Ms. Shields has no interest in trying them. "I like to come here every day and see how everybody's doing," she says. "If I didn't do this, I'd be bored."

Ms. Shields doesn't see bingo as a game in decline: "Look at all the people here," she says. "Everybody wants to play."


A bingo hall in Toronto was incorrectly identified in The Globe Toronto story "Last of the dabbers" on Jan. 15. It should have been identified as Delta Bingo hall.