BALTIMORE — In the 27 months since casinos opened in Maryland, bingo halls have been suffering, with slot machines taking a bite out of gamblers' wallets and leaving less for bingo nights.
Bingo World, a commercial bingo hall south of Baltimore, has seen a drop in business of 20 percent to 25 percent because of casinos, general manager Randy Clemens said.
"We have found that people who used to come maybe two or three days [a week] now only come one, and when they come, they don't have as much money as they used to have," Mr. Clemens said. "We're trying to give away more and more to just keep the clientele we have."
Al Meyer, who manages bingo three nights a week at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, said the same thing has been happening there — people who used to come several nights a week have cut back.
"We've been affected to a degree. Not yet the degree I had feared," said Mr. Meyer, who has worked in the bingo industry since 1968 when he got a part-time job working at a commercial bingo hall for Steve Wynn, who moved on to become a Las Vegas casino mogul.
Mr. Meyer estimated a drop in attendance of 15 percent or more because of casinos in the area. He admitted the economy may be a factor as well.
Bingo managers tout two ways bingo differs from casino gambling — it is cheaper and more social.
Both Mr. Meyer and Bingo World manager Dale Willey said a person can spend several hours gambling at a bingo hall with money that wouldn't last nearly as long in a casino.
Over time, people who come regularly become friends. Some bingo players have been coming to the Arbutus fire hall for decades, Mr. Meyer said.
As some players described it, bingo nights have become a "family" event.
That's the case for Becky Markley, who has been coming to bingo at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department for 12 years. Her daughter has been coming for the past four years, and her mother had been coming even longer before she died.
A photo of her mother watches over the 42 bingo cards spread out in front of the pair on a recent Thursday night.
Garfield McCubbin and his sister Kelly Hauser have been coming to bingo night at the fire hall for more than 25 years — since they were children — and continue to come, often with their mother and other family members.
But the sense of community at bingo isn't limited to Arbutus. About seven miles away, at Club Hippo in Mount Vernon, they have been hosting a "Gay Bingo" night for 11 years, and customers list the community feeling as a big draw.
"A lot of people have made friends over time," said Anastacia Amor, a server dressed in drag. When not in drag, the name is Lovell Woodland.
Sitting at the bar on a recent Wednesday, Mike Mannone and Tanya Crouse stamp out numbers as they're called. There are drinks and jokes, but most people are focused on the cards in front of them.
Mr. Mannone and Ms. Crouse have been attending regularly for about a year. Mr. Mannone isn't worried about the influence of casinos.
"It's such a niche community, so I can't ever really see it dying," Mr. Mannone said.
At Bingo World, Mr. Clemens said they have increased advertising and are trying to be more active in the community to boost business. Another help has been the video pull-tab machines, which look similar to slot machines, but are legally different.
Without the machines, which provide 50 percent of the business' income, Mr. Clemens said they would have gone out of business.
"By allowing us to go into the electronic world, it has helped us immensely," he said.