There’s almost no place Sandy Burris would rather be than at her unofficial home away from home.
Sitting in a dimly lit room filled with cigarette smoke, surrounded by others also looking for a fun way to bide time and win cash, she hopes it’s her day to shout what they all want to say: BINGO!
“It’s a nice outlet and sometimes you get real lucky,” said Burris, a 71-year-old Fort Worth woman who has played at the BingoPlex on Crowley Road since its doors opened more than 20 years ago. “Sometimes you don’t, but you take the good with the bad.”
She’s among the thousands across the state who head to charitable bingo halls — one of the few legal ways to gamble in this state — to take a chance at winning money. In a state where conservative lawmakers firmly resist casinos and any other expansion of gambling, bingo has endured for more than 35 years.
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Through the years, though, crowds have gotten smaller and older as many gamers choose to instead take their dollars to casinos in nearby states or the Texas Lottery — and some seek out illegal eight-liner rooms that have sprung up across the state.
Still, the bingo industry, which has pumped more than $1 billion into charities during the past three decades, flexed its muscle in Austin this year, convincing the conservative, GOP-led Legislature that generally opposes gambling to approve bills cutting fees and allowing bingo halls to sell charitable raffle tickets.
“There are no efforts to get rid of bingo,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who is among the lawmakers who have fought electronic gaming machines at horse tracks in Texas. “The genie is out of the bottle. It’s already here.
“Either people think it’s fruitless to go after it or the lobby is so influential that it’s not worth fighting.”
Money, money, money
State lawmakers approved allowing state-regulated bingo in 1981 to raise money for Texas charities — and Texans followed suit.
Payouts for a single win mostly range from $50 to $750.
And charities such as Boys and Girls Clubs, Meals on Wheels, food banks and those serving senior citizens and veterans are among the charities that benefit from money raised through bingo, according to the most recent annual report from the Charitable Bingo Operations Division of the Lottery Commission.
In 2016, bingo sales in Texas topped $761 million and more than $579 million was paid to players.
Last year, bingo sales in Texas topped $761 million, with more than $579 million paid to players, $30 million given to charities, and $19.1 million sent to the state’s general revenue fund. An additional $13.9 million was sent to cities and counties that share in the prize fees collected, the report shows.
Other expenses include rent payments, salaries, security, advertising, bingo equipment and bingo goods such as bingo paper and pull tabs.
More people showed up at bingo halls to play last year than the year before, 15.2 million statewide compared with 14.8 million, but turnout is still lower than it has been since at least 2007, when nearly 18 million Texans were playing.
“Bingo is an acceptable form of gambling in Texas because it is more associated with church socials and Grandma playing for fun than with hard core gamblers standing around the craps table,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“Charitable gambling is more about raising funds for charity than about giving Texas an opportunity to gamble, so organizations sponsoring the events get a pass on the hard line the state has taken against gambling.”
‘Very important to us’
Susan Grier, one of the managers at the BingoPlex, works there on behalf of the Shoshone Council and the Improved Order of Red Men fraternal organization, whose rituals are modeled after those used by American Indians.
Charities such as hers at the BingoPlex divide up the profit after winnings are paid out and expenses — such as salaries and rent for the building they lease — are paid. Winners pay taxes to the state on their jackpot prizes.
“Every penny not paid out in operating expenses goes to the charities,” Grier said.
And every penny counts, several with the charities say.
The Texas Girls Choir, for instance, receives $600 every month from the Monte Carlo Bingo Unit Trust, one of several bingo groups based at the BingoPlex. That money, which adds up to more than $7,000 a year, helps fund scholarships for those who couldn’t otherwise afford to participate in the choir.
To show their appreciation, choir members recently signed a picture of themselves and framed it to give to the bingo hall.
It’s very important to us.
Jaime Mommens, director of business development at the Texas Girls Choir, said of the funding the group receives from bingo
“It’s very important to us,” said Jaime Mommens, director of business development at the Girls Choir. “It’s a lot of money.”
The Greater Fort Worth Area Civic Leaders Association — a local civic group known for supporting the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth — receives about $1,000 a month from the Monte Carlo Bingo Unit Trust.
That money helps fund many things, including events such as a Thank You BBQ at the base to show appreciation for the military, said Lyle Oelfke, chair of the organization.
“It’s money we put to good use,” said Oelfke, who said he even plays at the BingoPlex himself on Sunday nights. “Bingo is important to us.”
The bingo industry clearly has drawn a winning card in Texas among statewide and local officials.
At the same time the Legislature was slashing funding for the state lottery this year, it passed measures geared to lessen the burden of license fees for bingo conductors, allow charitable raffle tickets to be awarded as a bingo prize and eliminate charities’ license bingo fees.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed those measures into law.
Locally, the bingo industry this year found scattered successes, particularly in carving some bingo halls out of smoking ordinances in cities such as Arlington. Bingo halls in cities such as Austin, Copperas Cove, Fort Worth and Palestine are among those also exempted from smoking ordinances.
“Some of the best players in bingo halls are compulsive smokers,” said Stephen Fenoglio, an Austin attorney who represents many bingo charities. “With new ordinances, you’d have the effect of chasing off your best players. They bring money to the charities that conduct bingo.”
Many religious groups say they don’t have a problem with bingo as it exists now.
“There was a constitutional amendment that passed allowing it,” said Rob Kohler, a consultant with the Austin-based Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “We’re not trying to put bingo out of business.”
But they do oppose, with bingo as with any other industry, any attempts to expand the footprint of the game in Texas. They have fought various proposals in recent years, including one to let bingo halls use electronic devices similar to slot machines — called “video confirmation” — that opponents feared would expand gambling.
“Many religious groups that actively oppose casino gambling because they either view it as sinful behavior and/or believe it fuels a wide range of social ills ... support charitable bingo because the proceeds of bingo go to support worthy causes,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.
Burris admits she has a bit of an addiction to gambling. But she said bingo is more than just gaming.
It’s “more of a social outlet,” she said. “You get to make some close friends when you see each other as much as we do. And you see each other a lot when you play five days a week.”
And that has become even more important to her lately, as it has provided a place she can go and have fun while undergoing medical treatments for lung cancer that dominate her time and sap her energy.
This is a Godsend to me. ... (Chemo is) not going to keep me from going to bingo, I’ll tell you.
Sandy Burris, a 71-year-old Fort Worth woman and devout bingo player
“This is a godsend to me,” Burris said. “[Chemo is] not going to keep me from going to bingo, I’ll tell you.”
Sarah Conine, a 39-year-old Granbury woman, also said bingo helps with her medical condition — schizophrenia.
She plays at the BingoPlex not only hoping to win money, but also to improve her mental sharpness and hand-eye coordination.
She likes using electronic machines that monitor and record the balls and show when she has a bingo. It’s an inexpensive way to have fun, “and you have a chance of winning some decent money,” she said.
Part of the draw, she said, is that proceeds go to charities.
“Instead of it going into someone’s pocket, I’m donating to charities most of the time,” Conine said. “The money is going to people in need.
“If I win that’s great,” she said. “If not, it’s helping others.”