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BINGO!

Darlene Akers has one eye on the small sheet of paper in front of her, and one on the man calling out numbers.

She holds a squeeze-bottle of fluorescent green ink tipped with a round sponge, moving up and down the columns of numbers on the sheet before her with the practiced ease of a pro.

The game is bingo, which Akers has been playing since the 1960s. Tonight, she is playing 14 games simultaneously.

“Some people become tense, but it relaxes me,” Akers says, obliterating numerals with a dextrous descent of the sponge that leaves round blots of green.

“I’ve always liked numbers.”

She is one of 16 people hunched over bingo sheets in the American Legion Hall on Bucklin Hill Road, but there is little conversation as Post Commander Chris St. Romain calls out numbers every nine seconds:

N-40, four, zero; C-58, five, eight.

A good caller, St. Romain says, is not afraid of the mike and calls the numbers out loud.

The equipment he uses gives the game the precision of an assembly line.

Ping-pong balls, each printed with a letter and a number, are blown about in a plexiglass box until one is sucked through an exterior hole.

When an electronic timer beeps, St. Romain plucks a ball from the aperture, reads it off and places it before an ancient video camera that projects the number onto a small black-and-white screen on the wall.

He ends one game and announces the next; a volunteer “runner” goes to the tables to hand out cards.

Bingo is a game of rituals.

“I like to be sold last,” Akers says, handing a fistful of cash to the runner in exchange for a sheath of bingo cards, “but I like to be first in line to buy the papers to start off the packs.

“For certain games, I’ll switch the color of the stamp.”

Games are always played in the order listed on the “menu” players keep at their sides. There’s “regular” bingo that calls for a diagonal line of numbers; “Postage Stamp,” a game that is won by blotting out a block of four numbers in any of the four corners of the sheet; “Red X,” a game that gives the whole pot to the person who “bingos” on a designated number; “Big Blackout,” which calls for blacking out every number on the sheet.

Bingo players also believe in lucky charms and totems.

Akers has set up a small menagerie of trolls and elephants in a row to watch her play. They stand near a small wooden box with a hinged lid, opened to reveal the contents: six white bottles lining the bottom and red raffle tickets neatly paper-clipped to a side pocket; photographs of Akers’ cat, and her father; buttons bearing slogans like “I got lucky at Bingo.”

“I had the box specially made for me because I wanted to hold the big ones,” Akers said, indicating rows of refill bottles for her ink stampers.

Many of the other bingo players have round cloth bags ringed with pockets to hold the ink-stamp bottles. A deluxe floral model sports Mickey Mouse and Donald and Daisy Duck hung by the neck from the bag’s drawstring.

Suddenly it’s all over; Akers calls out “Bingo!” and waves her paper in the air.

Another player gets up and takes the card to verify the results.

The “runner” used to be a person specially appointed to the job, long-time bingoist Rena Clough says. But since the Suquamish Casino has cut into the veterans’ games, players must lend a hand.

“We used to get a whole building full,” Clough said. “Now we get 15-20 ‘repeaters.’”

Every other Wednesday, bingo opens at the American Legion Hall at 6:30 p.m. with “Early Birds.” The games continue at 7 with “regular” bingo.

Almost all of the players are seniors who have played together for years.

Twenty-seven year old Sara Clark is an exception – she’s there because her parents play, and her uncle is the caller.

The game takes in about $60 a night with proceeds supporting a variety of veterans’ programs, including the nursing home in Port Orchard, Children’s Orthopedic Hospital and Girls’ State leadership training conference.

Last year, outgoing bingo manager Chris Webster says, the group sent a record eight Bainbridge High School students to the Girls’ State leadership conference.

On top of those good works, bingo may be the best entertainment bargain around.

“Our packets are only $3,” Clough says, “so while it’s gambling, it’s innocuous.”

Payouts are a percentage of the packets sold. Some games pay out as little as 20 percent, while others return as much as 70 percent.

Although, as Clough notes, “some women do take their bingo real serious, just like a business,” most players come together more for the fun than the cash.

The group will gather for a New Year’s Eve party, featuring their favorite game.

The party will start, like every bingo night, with the telling of a story, a joke or anecdote culled from “Reader’s Digest.”

“We’ll eat New Year’s potluck at 6:30, play bingo, eat more at half-time, and play more bingo,” Clough says. “When midnight comes, we make noises and whoop and holler and hug everybody – and then we finish the game.”

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