Loyal Players Hope to Win Big at Potrero Hill Bingo Parlor
“N-38!” the caller announced through a microphone in a booth where numbered balls were selected and then displayed on a half-dozen of television screens scattered around the Army Street Bingo Hall. The players bent over their automatic and paper of bingo boards, in search of the designated square. The two large rooms that make up the Hall were filled with rows of folding tables and chairs. Florescent lights hummed above a murmur from the die-hard, serious-faced players and the constant call of bingo numbers.
Not much has changed physically or operationally at 1740 Cesar Chavez Street, which has offered bingo since 1992 under the moniker of the former street name. Wedged between several taxicab headquarters and next to a small convenience store — where players grab snacks before and between games — the Hall is a nondescript tenant at the Potrero Business Center. It’s easy to miss on the industrial drive located between the City’s two freeways.
A typical night at the Hall draws upwards of 140 players, according to Pat Fong, the Friday night and Sunday manager. Fong started as a volunteer before securing a paid job managing the games for the better part of 23 years. She’s seen a loyal clients return week after week. “We get some newbies, but not much,” she noted. According to caller John Perez, bingo is considered a social activity; he sees “the same faces” each week. However, though clusters of mothers and their grown-up daughters could be spotted around the rooms, most of the middle-aged and older patrons kept their attention on their games, daubing paper sheets or punching numbers into a simple electronic device that looks like Milton Bradley’s latest way to play Battleship.
Seemingly simple, the game has some complexities. But, in the end, “It’s all luck.” said Fong. “Everyone is trying to win.” Twenty bucks buys a two-pack of games; for $35 the electronic device packed with multiple games is added to increase the odds of winning. Sessions extend between 6:45 p.m. and 10 p.m., during which 28 separate games are played. Each offers a $500 prize; if there are multiple winners, the prize is divided up accordingly.
Smaller prizes can be won through “warm-ups” or “specials.” These side games are like buying a Scratchers ticket while waiting for the lottery numbers to be announced. In a sort of quick bonus round, workers mill around offering “lightning games” — “Golden State” and “Bingo Monster” — that can be purchased for a dollar. One game, “Blazing Balls,” has three numbers on the back. If within a game those numbers are picked the player wins some quick change.
The bingo games cycle through different patterns that need to be blotted out to win, including “Inside Picture Frame,” “Small Crazy Kite,” and “Bingo and Biscuit.” There are 30 rules listed in small print on the board package. One Hall law states that “sleepers lose their right to claim a Bingo,” meaning that if someone doesn’t shout “Bingo” loud and clear on the last number called, they can’t claim the prize. Side bets aren’t allowed — such as on horseracing — and alcoholic beverages and illegal drugs are prohibited. This rule gives the place the vibe of an Alcoholics Anonymous social gathering, and may explain the large number of smokers that puff away outside the Hall between games.
Daubers are sold for one dollar a tube. Although seemingly meaningful, there’s nothing behind the different color choices of the blue, magenta, orange and other pigmented markers used to fill in called numbers on the bingo board. According to Fong, most players are superstitious about what colors they use; others buy an array and display them at their seat during the evening.
One San Francisco resident who declined to give her name said she’d been coming to the Hall consistently for 15 years. “I want to win,” she said. She initially got involved with bingo through her church. She considered a visit to the Hall a social event, but during the games she’s focused. There’s not much time for talking with neighbors, she explained. “You have to pay attention.”
Another woman from South San Francisco comes with her grown children most Friday nights, and has been visiting the Cesar Chavez Street venue since she was in her mid-20s. She said she has regular seats that everyone knows are hers. She recognizes the people around her because everyone sits in the same spot every week. She claimed Army Street is “better than any bingo hall on the peninsula.” It’s worth the extra miles north each week, she said.
A security guard stands by the front entrance, although safety concerns seem far from anyone’s mind. All of the workers carting around boxes with lightning games, change, and bingo supplies are volunteers. Each night a different organization volunteers at the center, which is overseen by Jerry Kika of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. On one Friday evening, individuals affiliated with the Nihonmachi Street Fair Inc. volunteered their time. The night before the San Francisco-based Samoan Community Development Center staffed the games, and the following day the Accion Latina group from the Mission District had run the hall. Each session’s earnings are split between the volunteer organization and the cost of running the center. The Nihonmachi Street Fair volunteers gave their time to raise money for their 40th annual cultural fair held last month in Japantown.
The Hall is open Thursday through Sunday with twice-daily weekend games midday and in the evening. More information: Army Street Bingo Hall, 1740 Cesar Chavez Street, 920.1730
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