Friday, May 20, 2005

Dobbers with Dabbers

It is Friday, and I’m having withdrawal symptoms because I normally call into our local newsagent on the way home (or sometimes on the way out)to pick up the Morley Observer. Instead, the new improved combined Morley Observer & Advertiser was launched on Wednesday. It is much thicker with plenty to read, although some content was features and padding that may well not be there in the future so time will tell. In the town (& at ASDA) it was being sold with a free “goodie bag” which contained a micro-can of Virgin Cola, an Obtiser pen, a balloon and a copy of a new magazine called “Full House!” which is a bella type magazine and not connected to bingo.

Speaking of Bingo, Karen and I found ourselves at a loose end one recent Saturday evening and after ruling out any of the shows & films on offer, decided to visit the Leeds Gala club for an evening of low impact pastime gambling. I have occasionally gone to Bingo over the years, the main driver being to see inside some of the preserved Theatres and Cinemas that keep the buildings watertight and well maintained, if somewhat overlit.

Leeds Gala is not an old building, it is a vast modern shed with all of the comforts that old buildings lack, namely air conditioning, easy access, plenty of parking, wide aisles and a layout to suit the purpose.

Bingo as a pastime (and a business) is a bit of an oddball, it is at the lower end of a gambling continuum that encompasses fruit machines, the National Lottery, betting shops, horse racing, casinos, internet gambling and illegal activities. It is regarded as a working class activity and particularly associated with grannies. Most people who have never been to a Gala or Mecca Club don’t appreciate that it is worlds apart from the seedy seaside arcade image. Here is a whirlwind tour of a typical evening at a club.

On arrival, you present your membership card, or get signed in as a guest of someone. Bingo is a regulated industry and you can’t just turn up on spec, you have to join a club first and allow 24 hours to elapse. (Nanny presumes that this cooling off period will deter the casual gambler off the slippery slope). Your card is needed should you have a big win during the evening, the club have to prove that you are Pukka. Kids aren’t allowed, not even to watch as it might corrupt young minds. (This is the same as pubs where it is a heinous crime for a child to witness alcohol being served, although watching it being consumed is OK).

Assuming you are a member, the next stage is to purchase your bingo tickets. They come in a rather complex arrangement of combinations, some included for a fixed price, others optional extras. A club typically has two sessions daily, an afternoon one and an evening one. Each Bingo session is preceded by an early one and followed by a late one, although they are smaller in scale than the main event. In the lobby you will also notice prizes on display in cabinets, posters for forthcoming events and various official notices about the rules and prize payouts. There will normally be a payphone or a taxi hotline, if you win a big prize, the club will treat you to the ride home (for security as well as PR).

From the lobby to the main hall, you pass through the arcade. This is a noisy place full of slot machines, many of which can pay out in the £10s and £100s. There are no roll a penny machines, pinballs or novelty electric chairs that you get in seaside amusements, although there are soft toy grab machines, generally integrated with regular fruit machines. Most machines have chairs (or bum rests) provided and there will be a lot of people feeding the slots. The emphasis is not on amusement here, it is on gambling.

Leaving the noise of the arcade, you enter the main auditorium. There are tables of four arranged in a large crescent with the stage at the point of command. The waves of seating are tiered in height so that everyone has a good view of the stage, side-on. Towards the rear, there are standing tables in clusters (referred to as mushrooms), a snack bar area and a regular bar which is partitioned off somewhat with glazed screens. There is a large display screen behind the stage, a smaller display on the back wall and numerous monitors around the walls. The hall is brightly lit, colourful and tasteful if you think custom carpets, vivid colours and neon are cool.

Two things strike you immediately. Firstly the smell of cigarettes, even sitting in the no-smoking section, you will stink of fags when you get home. The other striking thing is the drone of the PA system- there is always someone calling numbers. Between sessions (& in the interval) a kind of Bingo-lite is played, called Parti bingo. Every table has a bingo board ( inlaid and a nearby slot to activate it. Prizes may be cash or goods and the pace is furious. Each board is a four by four grid colour coded vertically, numbers are called by colour as well, from 1-80 (Red Blue, White and Yellow, Red is on the left & you get the top left square free). A game may be played for a line (across, down or diagonal), four corners, or a full house (every number on the board).

The prize on offer is influenced by the number of players as there are strict rules on the payout level, tempered by the urge to make a profit. All the while, the caller is calling the numbers (zoned to the playing areas) then cajoling others to join in over the speakers throughout the auditorium between games. If you win, you have to press the “CLAIM” button, the caller can tell the winners but cannot say who they are and if you don’t claim at the right time you are too late…

Now that it is 7:30, the main caller is introduced, who will invite the duty manager to say a few words. You are invited to check your tickets for misprinting and told what order they are going to be played in.

Each game of Bingo is essentially the same, although they are jazzed up somewhat by different prizes, whether it is just for a line and full house or whether it is for one, two or three lines (a treble chance). Most of the time, the biggest prize is for the full house, although there are bells and whistles such as bonuses for getting a full house within a certain number of calls. Special games are referred to as Flyers and there are also Link Games, played simultaneously or in parallel with other clubs.

When you look at a typical book of tickets, it has a cover and a number of individual games (2, 3, 4 or even six). Each game has six tickets (separated horizontally) and it is possible to buy less than six tickets on occasions. Each game has all 90 numbers visible, arranged in groups of ten columns. Each individual bingo ticket has three rows (making 18 rows in all) and the numbers are set out randomly but carefully so that the 90 numbers are arranged in a unique pattern on each ticket. There will be no two same tickets with the same pattern on sale (although I don’t know how many combinations there actually are so that might not strictly apply on National games).

For those readers with a numerical bent, there is a quirk in the layout that deserves mention. Someone has consciously decided that each column will be tens based, eg. 1-9, 10-19, 20-29 etc. rather than 1-10, 11-20, 21-30. This means that there are only nine numbers in the first column and eleven in the last column (80-90).

When it comes to playing the game, it is pretty straight-forward. The caller announces the number and the player marks it off. The preferred method is the dabber, a sort of chunky over-moist felt-tip that leaves a prominent coloured splodge without concealing the number the way a Biro would. Pro Bingo don’t do silly calls like “two fat ladies- eighty eight”, instead it is pronounced clearly to a defined pattern, e.g. six and one, sixty one. (On the link games, it is slower and more thorough, sixty one, six and one, sixty one. As each number is called (in fact, a second or two before), the number is also shown on the screens and the Parti-Bingo display on the tables. On the large screen, all of the numbers called so far are shown as well as the call count and prize pot.

Sooner or later, someone will claim, generally with a simple “Here” and a book wave, although when tension mounts for a big prize, occasionally you hear a “Yesssssss!”. Each call is immediately followed by a short babble of noise, as everyone turns to their neighbour and comments on how close or far away they were.

Checking is very easy, each ticket has a pattern number (as well as serial numbers) so the pattern number is called out by a floor checker and the computer confirms it.

Is Bingo fun? Yes, to an extent. The trouble is that it is a strange mixture of dullness punctured by occasional excitement when you get close. I find that my mind sometimes wanders during the dull bits as I am not concentrating hard enough to find the numbers.

What sort of people go? Well it is very much a working class hobby, or the “sub-prime market” as the finance industry euphemistically calls it. All sorts of people go, although there are more women than men and more old than young, more shell suits than power suits. The big Bingo barns have big prizes and draw on a bigger and more diverse crowd than the small scale private clubs found in Towns up and down the country where pensioners stretch out their evening.. You don’t see Bentleys & Jags in the Car park but you do see 4x4s and a few BMWs & Mercs, the latter two probably self-made self-employed. The punters aren’t scratters, but some of them are dobbers as per the Dave Spikey definition.

Is it a Social Club? Not really. The beer is reasonably priced and the bar surroundings relaxing but banter is discouraged when the sessions are on. The people are friendly and helpful to newbies but will not tolerate noisy people or false callers. The food is OK but burgers, chips & gravy dominate. Is it entertaining? Some callers are definite personalities and can make it fun between the games. It is very polished with jingles & links (Gala use “Night to remember” as their signature tune) but it is all about playing Bingo & getting the money handed over as fast as possible, both in and out.

Is it addictive? Hard to say. There is the lure of going home with hundreds of pounds (and the vague possibility of thousands) but regular Bingo players get to know the odds and that for every big winner there are lots of small losers. Most of the time, the numbers come up in standard deviation distribution across the tickets but every now and again, Lady Luck smiles on you. All gamblers are superstitious and will have lucky dabbers, favourite seats and so on. There are helpful posters in the toilets advising on how to contact Gambling helplines if you have a problem. At least it isn’t wrecking your body, even if it dulls the mind…

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