Thousands of bingo-crazed Texans call Choctaw Bingo in Durant, Oklahoma, the land of opportunity. Because the property is owned by the Choctaw Nation, the bingo games are not subject to most state laws. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, packed buses from Del Rio, San Antonio, Lubbock, Abilene, Houston, Dallas, Tyler, Longview, Palestine, and other Texas cities, as well as Arkansas and Louisiana, lumber into the parking lot of the 28,000-square-foot warehouse-size building on the Choctaw Nation’s land. For many of these pilgrims, the manic madness of high-stakes Choc-taw Bingo satisfies their real lust to be in Las Vegas; for others, it offers such intense diversion that, southern Oklahoma or central Nevada, it’s all the same to them.
Curious about this lemminglike migration from the Lone Star State to Sooner territory, I opt for the short-distance excursion and meet the chartered bus at the Holiday Inn in north Fort Worth at noon. Despite the nasty rain, a group of twenty women—who look to be mostly in their middle years and to have spent a good part of their lives eating—and one portly man have already clustered under the canopy, puffing cigarettes and chattering about how much they will win. Lometa Morris, a private nurse from Fort Worth, claims she is “just glad to be getting away from the daily grind”—and at $8 for a round-trip ticket, the price is a bargain. Lometa, however, has a stash of cash—$250—that she clutches in her hand as we board the bus for the two-hour drive. She has been playing for fifteen years and once won $870. “That got me hooked,” she admits happily.
Talk about instant gratification. Joe Foster, a fresh-faced recent graduate from Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, starts selling bingo cards the minute the bus rolls onto the highway. By the time we arrive in Durant at two, we’ve played more bingo than I’ve ever played in my life. Lometa has won $18, I’ve just figured out that there are twelve more hours of the same, and I am a captive audience.
My compatriots are gleeful that ours is the first bus to arrive at this cavernous hall in the middle of nowhere—we can locate our tables, purchase game packets ($27–$179), order lunch ($4), and get our personal spaces at the long rows of tables set up just right. To the superstitious, this means unloading a chaotic trove of lucky charms and lining them up on the table. Elaine Mitchell, a wispy matron from Fort Worth, peers through enormous glasses at the charms she has dumped out of a small red bag: a compass, a yellow plastic clover, green dice, a key, a turquoise amulet with a crab on it, and a cross. On August 3, 1990, Elaine won $41,000 here. She spent some of the money on herself and her family and the rest on bingo. “I’m addicted and should probably just check in to a clinic,” she muses. But her friend Lometa jabs her and reminds her, “You’d miss out on too much bingo.”
Elaine’s charm collection pales in comparison to the one Mrs. J. R. Simpson (“Just call me Big Mama—everybody does”) unbosoms herself of. Out of the Dallasite’s vast undergarment cascade a small bottle of good luck bingo oil, a crystal, a coin purse, and a purple-tressed troll doll. From a sack hooked into her slacks come three shamrocks, a little log, a lodestone, a purple rabbit’s foot, and an orange rabbit’s foot. While Big Mama talks nonstop, she fiercely marks the free spaces on six bingo cards with Dab-O-Ink. Big Mama also has big hair, and when she scratches her head with a pencil her whole hairdo moves. As impressive as her charms are, for understatement I preferred Planoan Joyce Walton’s old withered potato—she has won $3,000 since December with the shriveled tuber.
As the four o’clock starting time nears, the 1,600 players who have filled the 150 tables are getting antsy. Management has seen to everything: Inexpensive dinners are whisked to patrons by tireless waiters; huge plastic garbage sacks are tied to every chair so patrons can easily toss their trash. There is no reason for anybody to get up for anything—and for the next six hours, practically nobody does. Even on the off chance that you have to use the rest room, hand-held electronic bingo computers can make the trip with you. “Winners have bingoed from the bathrooms,” assistant manager Darla Emerson tells me.
The caller is low-key, sedately announcing numbers just before they appear on the overhead monitors scattered around the room. With the intensity of worker bees, players attend to their cards (up to 24 at a time). The hall is quiet as a tomb. I’m kind of surprised that I don’t hear the sound of 1,600 smokers dragging on cigarettes, because smoking is definitely the thing to do. Down the table from me is a defiant soul with an allergy mask on, and near the front entrance is a woman with an oxygen tank. But it’s hopeless. By six o’clock I calculate that I have passively smoked 24,000 cigarettes—and I begin to wonder how quickly black lung can develop.
After three hours of play, the caller announces a ten-minute break. “We tried to have longer intermissions,” explains publicist Allen Wallach, “but nobody wanted them.” It is so intense that even when a woman faints and the announ-cer calls for a doctor over the P.A. system, no one looks up.
Tonight there are some big winners: A man wins a Camaro RS, another gentleman wins $7,000, and Frances Lewis of Arlington wins $30,000. The crowd goes wild, and so does Frances, who can’t stop shaking. I ask Frances, who is sporting a World Series of Poker windbreaker, what she’s going to do with her winnings: “Go to Las Vegas,” she manages to stammer. I am so jaded and worn out by the time Mega-Bingo—a nationwide satellite bingo hookup—is flashed over the monitors that when a player in Tulsa wins $100,000, the only comment I can manage is, “Hey. That’s not bad.”
At ten-thirty the games shut down, and half of us pile into buses and half drive off in cars. But to a bingophile, the longer the bus ride, the better, because the games continue! I’ve decided there must be a bingo gene, because people much older than I—and in much worse shape—were indefatigable. Or maybe, like Elaine Mitchell, they are just devout believers in the beneficial aspects of the game: “Bingo is good for you—the only drawback is the more you win, the more you want.”