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May 19, 1991|M.E.A. McNeil

Fun and profit were what the vice principal of one San Gabriel Valley high school had in mind last spring when he planned a weekly bingo night. Bingo is a hot fund-raiser in Southern California--most schools in the area run their own parlors. He envisioned parents gathered in the gym for some lighthearted gambling for a good cause.

What he got instead were players who arrived hours early, arguing over "lucky" parking places, then "lucky" chairs. Many brought dolls and charms, which they arranged around their cards. These are people, mostly retirees, who take bingo, with its $200 to $300 jackpots, seriously. Some attend six games a week at area schools, spending as much as $100 a night (cards cost $1). They don't speak, except to complain when the number-calling lags beyondevery 11 seconds--at another school, slow callers are booed. The smoky atmosphere is also clouded with mistrust. A "bingo" is checked and rechecked by skeptical players--cheaters can lift numbers off cards with tape and transfer them to other cards to create winners. Parent volunteers have learned to read the hand signals that indicate if a player wants her payoff in money or more cards. But, unlike the old Catholic school bingo nights, the parents don't play. They are too busy keeping the peace. This particular school is making about $5,000 a week. But it's tough bucks.

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