More Than Just A Game

Several hundred area residents gather at the South Pasadena High School gym last week for the popular weekly “Tiger Bingo.” Photo by Henk Friezer

PEOPLE know their place at Tiger Bingo, named for the Saturday-evening bingo games at the South Pasadena High School gymnasium.

Boy, do they know their place.

Kim Pamphiles of South Pasadena has been coming to Tiger Bingo for the past 16 years, and her spot is four tables from the front and the second seat from the end of the table.

Sal Duarte and his wife Natalie sit at a table under a basket.

Talk about a bunch of people who know where they want to be.

At least until next week.

That’s when the weekly Saturday-night bingo shifts to the middle school gym while the high-school gym gets a facelift.

These same people are going to be hustling to find a seat that is somewhere near the location of their last favorite seats.

People have been lining up early for years so they can be ready when the doors open at 3:30 and claim their seats in time for the  games, which begin at 5:30 p.m. and continue until 9:30.

Participants will definitely take advantage of the doors opening a half hour early next Saturday.

The high school is the luckiest since bingo games began there more than 30 years ago. The high school annually nets about $200,000 in profit, which supports every athletic team and extracurricular activity. That includes uniforms, training equipment, transportation and supplies. 

The middle school is going to benefit from a permanent sound system that will stay in its gym after the game switches back to the high school.

Organizers say that there aren’t usually arguments when someone tries to sit in someone else’s lucky seat. Since the middle-school gym has a similar configuration, there are hopes that arguments remain few.

And it’s not just seats that are lucky. BYOB means “bring your own bobblehead,’’ or stuffed animal or little lucky trinket.

Longtime caller James Jontz calls out numbers. Photo by Henk Friezer

Al DelVecchio of La Verne sat surrounded last Saturday by 12-16 toy plush animals, from polar bears to tigers, along with an assortment of toy trolls. He stores the stuff in the back of his car during the week. I wonder if they work on getting through rush hour traffic.

Pamphiles has been coming for 16 years, and she’s so serious about organizing her space that she’s invented and patented a slanted bingo holder that has slots for colored markers.

If they guard their seats, most players are free with their friendships.

“For a lot of folks, this is a social thing that takes up their whole day,’’ said David Zeigler,  president of Tiger Bingo. “They talk to their friends, eat dinner and play bingo.”

Zeigler estimated that the average age of the players is between 60 and 70, but he’s noticing a younger crowd coming, too.

Some people come just to be around people and to remember the people they used to play bingo with.

“I called my mother my lucky charm,” said Linda Flores, who has been coming every week for 28 years. Her mom used to come with her before she died. Now, Linda makes do with a few small trinkets. “Everybody has something,’’ she said.

Good-luck charms join bingo cards on many players’ tables. Photo by Henk Friezer

Flores has cut back on bingo in the past few years. She used to take photos for a publication called the Bingo Bugle, and she recalls playing in as many as 35 places from the San Gabriel Valley to Orange County. She no longer takes pictures, and she has cut down on her bingo ports of call.

“It’s good therapy for a lot of older people to get out of the house, win some money and to be with friends,’’ she said.

People pass the time before bingo celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and each other. Food prices are very reasonable, and available throughout the night.

More than 150 people turn out most weeks, and the call of the bingo master is what you hear most when the games are going on.

There is not a time to chatter when you are playing both paper and electronic forms.

Everyone I talked to had a story of the night they won more than $1,000. Many of them padded their winnings by hitting a game where they could win over $1,100. There are also other smaller games that offer additional opportunities to go home an even bigger winner. I talked to one man who won $6,000 in one month.

There are also the occasional humiliations. Duarte once called “bingo’’ only to feel like he wanted to crawl under the table when he didn’t have the correct numbers.

It’s a good thing that I didn’t hang around one group for too long, because no one yelled “bingo’’ while I was talking to them.

I guess I’m no one one’s lucky charm.

If I ever show up to play, I hope no one will remember. Otherwise, it could be a long night by myself — hoping that I’m not sitting in someone else’s lucky seat.

Now, that would be really unlucky.

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