Most Wednesday nights, Virginia Walters can be found at the plastic folding table to the far left of the stage at Bandera Late Night Bingo off of Loop 410 and Bandera Road on the Northwest Side of San Antonio.
She arrives by 10:30 p.m. for the first game of the night, which begins at 10:50 p.m., allowing just enough time to set up the bingo computers and the paper cards. She brings daubers from home “because when you come to play, you want to walk in prepared.”
“I have been playing here for years and have learned that I have the most fun when I can relax because I walk in with everything that I need,” Walters said, noting this often includes a mini bottle of wine, as the bingo hall is BYOB.
“They sell food here, but sometimes I even bring in my own,” she said with a sneaky smile as she opened a large pocket of her purse to reveal the bologna sandwich she brought from home.
Bandera Late Night Bingo is one of 14 local charity bingo halls managed by the Golden Bingo Family, which operates 20 halls across Texas, including locations in Austin and Corpus Christi. The company started in San Antonio in 2010 with a mission to give back to the community and has since donated more than $10 million to area schools and organizations such as St. Gerard Catholic High School and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4816.
“People don’t usually think they are giving to charity when they play bingo, but when we let them know, they always think it’s really cool,” said hall manager Eric Plata. “But, for sure, people come for the fun. We have a lot of regulars, people with thousands of visits, and people who spend their whole day playing bingo.”
On a given weeknight, dozens of players trickle in and out of the hall for games at 10:50 p.m. and 12:05 a.m. On weekends, it could be closer to 100 because there are more sessions, with the last one starting at 2:15 a.m., Plata said. The busiest days of the month are the first and the 15th, “when everyone gets their check.”
It costs $4 per round for those who want to play paper bingo, and $6 to play on the handheld bingo computers. When playing on paper, people can choose various sheet sizes that can include up to 24 games. Electronic bingo comes with 66 games, and the computer automatically marks off the numbers for you as they are called. A sidebar notification informs players how close they are to getting a bingo in all 66 games, adjusting until a bingo is called.
Plata said there is more money to be made playing electronically because you get more than double the games for just $2 more, increasing the chances of winning a jackpot. Each bingo session has four games, and each game has a different coverage pattern – finding the letter “L,” the number seven, or full card coverage – and pays out either $250 or $750 per game, with simpler patterns winning the lesser amount.
Players also can purchase pull tabs – or instant bingo – which cost from $1 to $10, and pay out up to $100 upon winning. Employees in red shirts walk up and down the long pathways between tables, calling out “horse race” and “golden ticket,” the names of the pull tab games, which open to reveal three numbers. The cash is exchanged quickly, and employees shuffle out of the way just as quickly before numbers are called for the pull tab games that take place in between regular sessions.
“We make most of our money here selling pull tabs,” said assistant manager Anthony Rodriguez. “And, because we have so many regulars, we usually know about how many we might sell.”
Rodriguez, 24, jokingly includes himself when talking about regulars. He started working at the Bandera Late Night Bingo when he turned 18, after years of regularly attending bingo with his mother.
“I am comfortable here. I know the system. I came with my mom all the time, and it can be really fun,” he said. “As soon as I turned 18 and could apply, I applied and I have been here ever since. I have never worked anywhere else.”
Rodriguez’s job includes supervising the cashiers, runners, and cash counters as they prepare for the day, in addition to calling the bingo numbers for each game, which he considers the most fun part.
“You get a little rush each time you do it,” he said.
Plata also enjoys calling numbers and has a noticeable change in tone and demeanor when he takes a seat at the front of the hall. His words begin taking a more fluid shape, quickly rolling into one another without pause, like a gentle-sounding auctioneer.
“It’s not something you really practice, but it’s something you kind of grow into,” Plata said.
Plata also was introduced to bingo by his mother, accompanying her to games throughout his childhood. He has been working at the Bandera hall for eight years.
“Even though you’re doing the same thing every day, it’s always fun to see people get excited and win money. Some people come in with money to burn, trying to win, but a lot of people come in with nothing and are so [grateful] to win, and tell us that they can finally pay rent or bills this month,” Plata said. “And we build relationships with these people because a lot of them we see every day.”
Player Matthew Gomez considers himself a bingo regular, but for him, that means coming twice a month. “I come on days when I did my budget good and I can afford to take a chance,” he said.
On a recent night, Gomez sat at a long table alone, with more than 30 electronic bingo screens in front of him, each automatically updating as the numbers are called at the front of the room. Players can purchase as many cards or devices as they want per game, and people often take over several feet of space lining up rows of bingo computers.
“There is nothing more fun than spending a couple bucks to make a couple hundred. It doesn’t always work out that way, but when you do get to call your bingo, you smile. And you smile when you see people call theirs.”