Halls of game: Bingo centers are unheralded pillars of the Corpus Christi community
Bingo faithful, daubers in hand, turn out to gaming centers seeking fortune, kinship
Martin Perez takes a bottle of holy water out of his pocket and sprinkles it on the table at the C.C. Bingo Hall on Corpus Christi’s Westside.
He explains that other players envious of his good fortune in bingo may have thrown salt on his table to dampen his luck.
“They do it on days that I don’t come. They know where I sit. Before I sit down, I throw holy water and that kills everything, if you have faith,” he says.
Before bingo Perez rubs his hands with oils purchased at a Catholic candle shop. He positions a little ivory elephant amongst the bingo computers fanned out across his table.
Wearing a turquoise shirt with his hair slicked back and a big religious medallion dangling from his neck, Perez explains that elephants and other figurines bring good luck.
“I carry two or three turtles in each pocket,” the 63-year-old Alice man says, removing three turtles, an elephant and a rabbit’s foot from one pocket.
With or without the help, Perez says he has always been lucky. When he was a boy, his grandmother used to take him to play bingo because he was her personal good luck charm.
But it can’t hurt to bring a large lucky troll doll dressed in a Dallas Cowboys uniform, as Perez sometimes does.
Bingo players give even the most notoriously superstitious sportsmen — baseball players — a run for their money.
But Perez has added another element to his pregame ritual — a mask. Like every other corner of society, the bingo world — and it is a world of its own — has been rocked by something that even holy water can’t kill: COVID-19.
The pandemic was the second gut punch in a double whammy that sharply drove down attendance at the city’s half-dozen bingo halls. First came eight-liner game rooms, which like COVID-19 seemed to multiply and spread through the city with viral intensity. The loss of bingo business, in turn, dealt a blow to charities that rely on the bingo halls for crucial income.
Since 1981, charity in Texas has been spelled B-I-N-G-O. Although most gambling is illegal in Texas, the state allows bingo as a revenue source for 501c(3) nonprofits from food banks to the YMCA. For some, bingo is their lifeblood.
Last year charities received $29.7 million in distributions from charitable bingo, the Texas Lottery Commission reported. Bingo pumped $216.4 million in direct spending into the state’s economy in 2017, according to a report by the industry group Texas Charity Advocates.
And if you take a closer look, you see that the bingo halls are an important vertebra in the spine of the community, supporting it in ways that go far beyond their charitable mission.
The spirit of giving permeates everything the bingo halls do. They provide scholarships, hold bike giveaways, distribute food baskets, and take food to sick people.
At El Mercado bingo on the Southside, a boxing ring is set up in the back of the hall. A local boxing club needed a place to meet, so manager Stan Manuel gave them one. Free of charge.
Manuel ensures that the hall is meeting the myriad requirements of the Lottery Commission, which regulates charitable bingo.
Bingos typically give each nonprofit the proceeds from a particular session during the week. Before the charity gets its cut, however, prize payouts and the cost of rent, labor, insurance, bingo computers and other materials are taken out, along with a 5% tax on all winnings.
Five years ago, the charities licensed for bingo at El Mercado whose bingo sessions fell on booming weekend nights were doing well, while others were struggling. Like a group of office workers who pool their money to buy lottery tickets, the charities agreed to equally share both the risk and the reward.
They formed a trust unit in which they would split the expenses and revenues of the bingo operation.
Among the charities in El Mercado’s trust unit, which Manuel manages, are two Kiwanis clubs, Fighting to Rid Gangs, Christ the King Church and School, Ayers Civic Center and the Corpus Christi Youth Football League.
Another Southside hall, Weber Bingo, counts among its charities the Jewish Community Council of Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi Chamber Music Society, YWCA, Art Center of Corpus Christi and for more than three decades, the National Little League in Corpus Christi.
In a normal year, about a quarter of the Little League’s revenue comes from charitable bingo, and the rest from other sources such as player registrations and marketing. Bingo money has helped to pay for umpires, uniforms, baseballs, catcher’s mitts, scoreboard repairs, a lawnmower, electricity and water bills — even an occasional registration fee for a child who otherwise couldn’t afford to play.
Arthur Haas, who serves on the league’s board of directors, credits board members in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s for the bingo partnership. “Their foresight laid the foundation … they said ‘Let’s do this, it’ll be great for the league,’ and boy has it, for 30-plus years. Hundreds of young men and young women have benefited from their idea all those years back.”
Fitting that the kids’ Little League dreams start with bingo — like baseball, a child’s game that’s enjoyed by adults.
El Mercado is a cavernous room dotted with little islands — tables carefully spaced 6 feet apart. Most are occupied by only one masked player. On most tables a few black tablet-style bingo computers stand upright. Traditional paper bingo cards are spread out on many. On some tables, caps to the bingo daubers are turned up like little bowls, so, the players say, the luck won’t spill out. The night will feature games that even nonplayers would recognize from their childhood: straight line, diagonal, four corners and blackout.
But one of the most popular types of games in the state’s 331 bingo halls, the pull-tab, is played on a card that looks more like a scratch-off lottery ticket. Pull-tabs have perforated tabs that players pull up to reveal what’s underneath. In the wildly popular Derby game, a pull-tab revealing a horse gets you into the “race.” Each player with a horse gets a row of numbers and the winner is the first to hear all of his numbers called.
Some players follow the specials, playing at whatever hall offers the best deal of the day: Half-price computers. Megapacks. $10 computers. Monday Madness.
But many have “their hall.” The daily bingo is as much a part of their lives as breakfast in the morning.
One of those people is Margie Soliz. On a Friday night the 79-year-old, seated at her usual table at El Mercado, scans her collection of daubers, choosing a bright purple one. Five tablet computers, 18 paper cards and a stack of pull-tabs are arrayed in front of her.
If you ever want to talk to Soliz, you can find her at this table seven days a week. She has been coming to this hall for 14 years. A 2018 study by Texas Charity Advocates found that about 20% of bingo players play at least once a week.
“I’m a people person. I like to be surrounded by people, and even if it’s a stranger sitting next to me, we get to be friends before the night is over,” she says.
Soliz glides her dauber over the 18 cards effortlessly, carrying on a conversation while blotting out numbers as they’re called over the loudspeaker.
“29.” Blot. Blot. Blot.
Like many bingo players, she likes paper cards because they give her something to do. The latest generation of computers hold 66 cards apiece, marking them as numbers are called and signaling when a player’s on the cusp of a win. All that’s left for the player to do is yell “bingo!”
Soliz still remembers the winning card that got her hooked when she was 12 years old in Kingsville.
“It was 13, 25 and 67. I remember those three numbers. And that day I wanted to go dancing and my mother wanted to go play bingo,” she says, laughing.
While Soliz discusses her passion for bingo, an employee walks the aisles, hawking pull-tabs.
“I got nine Derbies!” the employee hollers, stopping to talk to the woman sitting next to Soliz.
“I’m spending all my money in here,” the woman says.
The employee smiles. “It’s an investment. It’s charity,” she says, and they share a laugh.
At the end of the night Soliz hasn’t shouted “bingo.” But she doesn’t walk away empty-handed.
Like many players, Soliz and a few friends at the bingo hall tip each other every time they win. Sometimes it’s $5. Sometimes it’s $20. It’s all part of the fun.
Many tip the bingo hall staff as well — especially the caller. The caller looks a little like a deejay, ensconced in his booth, with a microphone and computer monitors on either side of the hole where balls crisply pop up from the blower and lock into place in front of a camera. The camera displays the number on the ball and it flashes on big lighted panels throughout the building, and is delivered to hundreds of bingo computers simultaneously.
They all love me at the beginning but only about 5% love me at the end – the 5% who won. It’s a ‘what have you done for me lately’ business.
Callers aren’t as exuberant as deejays, but the subtle differences in their styles inspire loyalty among players. Callers are on the receiving end of an outpouring of goodwill when someone’s basking in the adrenaline rush of a win. But they embody the concept of blaming the messenger when someone’s luck runs cold.
“They all love me at the beginning but only about 5% love me at the end — the 5% who won. It’s a ‘what have you done for me lately’ business,’” says Albino Garcia, El Mercado’s affable long-time caller.
There’s no doubt the payouts draw people to the halls, especially around the holidays, when thoughts turn to Christmas money. The state sets limits of a $750 payout per game and $2,500 per session.
But talk to the players and it becomes clear: bingo nourishes the community in other, less obvious ways.
For many of these bingo diehards, the game is the antidote to whatever problems life serves up.
For some, it’s a place to go when life slows down, the kids have left the nest and there are idle hours that work once filled. Many are older and may not have much family at home.
“These guys are family,” Stan Manuel says. “We try to do what we can for them, look out for them.”
Manuel’s wife, Gina, along with his daughter and mother-in-law are among the 18 employees at El Mercado, adding to the family atmosphere.
“If Mrs. Soliz isn’t there I may call her and say ‘Are you OK? I haven’t seen you in a few days,’” Gina Manuel says.
She likens El Mercado to a coffee shop where regulars get together every day.
It’s why over at C.C. Bingo, people start showing up hours before the game begins. They chat, buy dinner from the concession and set up their tables.
It’s like a comfort food. After the hurricane, people came to play bingo and get back to normal. You help people and you don’t even know it sometimes.
It’s where they go to put aside their worries about jobs, family, COVID-19 or elections, and focus only on the numbers.
It’s a safe harbor where people go after a life-altering blow. The death of a loved one. A hurricane.
“It’s like a comfort food,” says Mike Pena, who manages C.C. Bingo. “After the hurricane, people came to play bingo and get back to normal. You help people and you don’t even know it sometimes.”
Pena grew up in bingo halls, and some of the customers he now serves at C.C. Bingo knew him as a child.
His father, Adalberto “Beto” Pena, was one of the pioneers of charitable bingo in Corpus Christi. Operating his business, Pena’s Meat Market, during the day in the 1970s, the former Knights of Columbus leader spent evenings managing bingo games in the basement of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.
In 1981, the state Legislature authorized charitable bingo on a county-by-county basis. Beto Pena and others set about gathering signatures and got it on the ballot to have it legalized in Nueces County.
In 1998 he bought the Arcadia Shopping Center on Ayers, including Bingo Paradise, and renamed it C.C. Bingo.
There were still relatively few commercial bingo operations in Corpus Christi at the time — the first had opened in Annaville in the 1980s — but business was strong.
C.C. Bingo would pack in 400 players on a weeknight, 900 for a weekend session, in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Bad luck streak
But then a series of challenges began popping up as fast as the white numbered balls in the bingo blower, drawing customers away from the halls.
Competition from the state lottery. Cheap flights to Las Vegas. The oil bust. Internet gambling.
Their luck took an even worse turn when eight-liner game rooms began to proliferate within the city limits. Many game rooms operate on the edges of the law, offering gift cards or other forms of payout in lieu of cash. But others ignore the law altogether, paying out cash. Unregulated and open 24 hours, they’re an alluring option for people with a thirst for games of chance — the same people who frequent bingo halls.
Sometimes using machines owned by out-of-state interests, they leech money from the local economy, says Will Martin, co-director of industry group Conservative Texans for Charitable Bingo. At one point there were 80 illegal game rooms in Victoria County alone, and some were pulling in $30,000 a week, he says.
That’s money that wasn’t going to other forms of entertainment, such as movie theaters, restaurants and bingo. And it’s money that wasn’t going to local charities, including Martin’s own, an American Legion chapter in Victoria, where he’s commander.
Martin has made it his mission to rid the state of illegal game rooms. Working with Victoria County, his interest group took advantage of a bill passed by the Legislature in 2018 that gave counties the ability to regulate game rooms.
The ordinance they came up with increases penalties for game room violations to $10,000 per day per machine and requires game room operators to obtain a permit. It allows for local enforcement instead of relying on federal or state authorities to go through the slower process of building a case.
Victoria County sent a letter to game room owners weeks before the ordinance was to go into effect Jan. 1 of last year. The game rooms in Victoria County disappeared as quickly as they had sprung up.
“When the game room operators look at that ordinance they know it’s time to go, because of where it hits them, in the pocketbook,” Martin says.
As proof of the ordinance’s success, Martin points to his own organization, the American Legion.
In the first quarter of 2019, its distribution from charitable bingo was $5,612. In the first quarter of 2020, but including only 19 days in March, before the pandemic shut down the American Legion, its distribution was more than $32,000.
Martin is shopping the ordinance around the state as a blueprint for other counties to adopt. He has met with Nueces County officials to discuss it, but no action has been taken.
And then, just as the game rooms were siphoning off their income, COVID-19 reared its head to throw even more salt on bingo halls’ fortunes.
Daytime bingo halls, such as El Mercado’s other hall on Ayers Street, the Valencia — which still has not reopened — were hit especially hard.
Busloads of nursing home residents that arrived daily suddenly stopped coming. The hall was attracting a paltry 18-20 people as the pandemic took hold.
“You can’t keep your doors open like that,” Stan Manuel says.
As the case numbers continued to tick up, all the elephants, turtles and frogs in the world couldn’t bring enough luck to stave off the inevitable. In March, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bingo halls closed as part of the state’s plan to curb the spread of COVID-19.
They remained closed for 2½ months.
“I was going crazy with no bingo,” says Gloria Gonzalez, a lively woman sporting a multicolored mask, a bright red Ray Texans shirt and glittery blue nails, as she waits for the first game to begin at C.C. Bingo.
The insurance industry retiree had been a fixture at the hall for more than 20 years before the shutdown. Gonzalez stayed home and played loteria and dice with family, but it wasn’t the same.
Set up at her usual table with computers and paper cards, Gonzalez has emptied her bingo bag — many players have one of these, often creatively decorated, to carry their game-night essentials — onto the table in front of her.
“Look at this, I’m going to win tonight,” she says, displaying two Buddhas, a jade elephant and a frog sitting on four shiny pennies.
Before the pandemic, sessions at the night halls would routinely attract more than 100 players. A typical session now draws 55-60.
But the bingo halls are slowly starting to fill up again, because regulars like Gonzalez have decided they’re not willing to abandon this important part of their lives.
The halls’ meticulous attention to cleanliness has helped. They’ve gone out of their way to reassure customers, redoubling their efforts to clean and sanitize and making social distancing a priority.
A numbers game
Industry groups have pushed the Legislature to take measures to boost the amount charities receive from bingo, such as waiving the $3,000 licensing fee each nonprofit once had to pay.
They’ve had some success in getting the state to add new pull-tab games and raffles to attract a younger crowd. Scan the crowd at most night bingo halls now and you’ll see a healthy number of players in their 30s. Research conducted by Texas Charity Advocates in 2018 found that more than half of players are age 45 or older, but millennials (18-34) make up roughly 30%. About three out of five players are women, the study showed.
Amanda Garcia, 31, caught the bingo bug about a year ago and now regularly plays at C.C. Bingo and Saratoga Bingo. As C.C. Bingo fills up on a Saturday afternoon, Garcia gets situated at her table with her 7-year-old daughter, Raeanna, who, it seems, has caught the bug, too.
It only took one win: Garcia let Raeanna choose between two windows on a pull-tab, and won $500.
Garcia and her boyfriend, Raymond Esparza, are hoping for a repeat of their success earlier in the week. Garcia won $1,100 on Monday, and Esparza followed it up with $2,200 on Tuesday.
“We just kept hitting the horses, computer, horses, computer. It’s crazy. Everybody was excited,” Garcia says.
Like Garcia, Stephanie Rodriguez, 36, hopes to make some memories playing bingo with family. It’s Rodriguez’s first trip to C.C. Bingo in 20 years.
“I remember when I was 16, I came with my aunt and I won $750,” she says. “I bought all my school clothes myself and gave something to my mom.”
Now she has driven her daughters Allysen and Kaila Medrano, 14 and 15, across town to play at the site of that thrilling win 20 years earlier. She kids them that she’ll take a cut of any winnings.
“I told them if y’all win, it’s 75-25, and they looked at me like I was crazy,” she says, the teenagers, adorned in glittery clothes, smiling beside her.
With enthusiasm like that, it’s easy to believe bingo has a bright future, despite the recent setbacks.
Mike Pena won’t venture a guess as to how much longer bingo halls can persevere. But he has been around the game long enough to know that he wants to keep doing it as long as he can.
Pena tries to find the right words to describe what it is that makes operating a bingo hall so rewarding. He hits upon an idea that’s in keeping with his hall’s tradition — one that started with his father raising funds in a church basement and continues with the hall’s support of Catholic charities such as the Dominican Sisters of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Columbian Ladies of South Texas.
Pena sees God working every day at the bingo hall.
“When we give out prizes,” he says, “the people who need it, they win.”Bingo faithful, daubers in hand, turn out to gaming centers seeking fortune, kinship
Address: 4954 Crosstown Expressway, Corpus Christi, TX 78415
Phone: (361) 853 – 3340
Monday – Friday
Doors open at 9:30 AM
Session 1: 11:30 AM
Session 2: 1:00 PM
Three sessions on Thursdays!
Session 3: 2:00 PM
5 games per session, except on Fridays when we play 4 games per session ($750 schedule)
Doors open at 9:30 AM
Session 1: 11:30 AM
Session 2: 12:45 PM
Session 3: 2:00 PM
4 games per session ($750 schedule)
Doors Open at 9:30 AM
Session 1: 11:30 AM
Session 2: 1:00 PM