BALTIMORE – In the 27 months since casinos opened in Maryland, bingo halls have been suffering, with slot machines taking a bite out of gamblers' wallets, and leaving less for bingo night.
Bingo World, a commercial bingo hall south of Baltimore, has seen between a 20 and 25 percent drop in business due to casinos, said general manager Randy Clemens.
“We have found that people who used to come maybe two or three days (a week) now only come one, and when they come, they don’t have as much money as they used to have,” said Clemens. "We're trying to give away more and more to just keep the clientele we have."
Al Meyer, who manages bingo three nights a week at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, said the same thing has been happening there – people who would come several nights a week have cut back.
“We’ve been affected to a degree. Not yet the degree I had feared,” said Meyer, who has worked in the bingo industry since 1968 when he got a part-time job working at a commercial bingo hall for Steve Wynn, who moved on to become a Las Vegas casino mogul.
Meyer estimated between a 15 and 18 percent drop in attendance because of casinos in the area. Meyer also said the economy may be a factor.
Bingo managers gave two main ways bingo differs from casino gambling – it is cheaper and more social.
Both Meyer and Bingo World manager Dale Willey said you can spend several hours gambling at a bingo hall with money that wouldn't last nearly as long in a casino.
Over time, people who come regularly become friends. Meyer said some bingo players have been coming to the Arbutus fire hall for decades.
As some players described it, bingo nights have become a "family" event.
That's the case for Becky Markley, who has been coming to bingo at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department for the past 12 years. Her daughter has been coming for the past four years, and her mother had been coming even longer before she passed away.
A photo of her mother watches over the 42 bingo cards spread out in front of the pair on a recent Thursday night.
Garfield McCubbin and his sister Kelly Hauser have been coming to bingo night at the fire hall for more than 25 years – since they were children – and continue to come often with their mother and other family members.
But the sense of community at bingo isn't limited to Arbutus. About seven miles away, at Club Hippo in Mount Vernon, they have been hosting a "Gay Bingo" night for 11 years, and customers list the community feeling as a big draw.
"A lot of people have made friends over time," said Anastacia Amor, a server in drag. When not in drag it's Lovell Woodland.
Sitting at the bar on a recent Wednesday, Mike Mannone and Tanya Crouse stamp out numbers as they're called. There are drinks and jokes, but most people are focused on the cards in front of them.
Mannone and Crouse have been attending regularly for about a year. Mannone isn't worried about the influence of casinos.
"It's such a niche community, so I can't ever really see it dying," Mannone said.
At Bingo World, Clemens said they have increased advertising and are trying to be more active in the community to boost business. Another help has been the video pull-tab machines, which look similar to slot machines, but are legally different.
Without the machines, which provide 50 percent of their income, Clemens said they would have gone out of business.
"By allowing us to go into the electronic world, it has helped us immensely," Clemens said.