LAS VEGAS — Mary Gilligan taps her frail fingers against the table, waiting, hoping this bingo game is hers.
"I-18," the voice calls out.
Then a dreadful sound from across the room: "BINGO!"
"Son of a gun," Gilligan, 79, says after the agony of yet another losing game. But she will stay here for hours longer--visiting with her bingo player friends, sipping free drinks, maybe winning a game.
"I used to win quite often," she says wistfully.
Each day, the blur of silver hair fills the bingo hall at Arizona Charlie's, a popular locals' casino on the city's west side, and many others across the valley. Some 2,500 people, mostly senior citizens, play bingo here every day.
"It's more like a social club for them," says bingo manager Mary Sandlin. "They get to know each other.
"I'm sure it has its downside. I'd like to see them doing other things."
Bingo is one of the lowest grossing casino games--only $2.6 million last year compared to $2.5 billion on quarter slot machines. But casinos offer bingo because they hope gamblers wander up to the other games as well. Some casinos, like Arizona Charlie's, even have complimentary shuttle buses that pick up players at their retirement homes.
Gilligan is like most bingo players: a senior citizen who comes here for the camaraderie.
"I've been playing here since they opened in 1988," she says.
With oxygen tank in tow, she arrives each day to claim her seat. She's playing 36 bingo cards this day and, so far, isn't having much luck.
It's eerily silent for a casino; the only sounds are the announcer's voice, the squeak of felt-tipped markers laying claim to their numbered prey, that all-too-familiar winning shriek that makes Gilligan cringe.
"They just forget that I play here," she says, defeated with each call.
Across the table, Elroy Neitzel, 78, a snowbird from Friendship, Wis., rests his cane on the table. He's playing the $10 "rainbow" pack, a group of 12 cards in different colors.
"Today is three," Neitzel says, explaining how many sessions he will endure. "Usually it's two."
Next to him, a quiet woman barely notices the conversation. She's all business, quickly dabbing the numbers as they are called. "I'm his wife," she declares, looking up, then quickly returns to her game.
"We started playing bingo because we were losing too much money playing slot machines," Neitzel says.
Player Micki Enciso, 76, bursts into the conversation and holds up a sheet of paper. "I bring jokes and we laugh!" she declares. "If we don't win, we laugh a lot."
Gilligan begins to fidget again, tapping her fingers, twisting in her chair as she listens to the rhythm of the numbers.
"You see who's calling?" she asks her friends. "Julie. She never calls my numbers."
The voice: "G-53."
"Oh, Julie, I'm going to smack you," Gilligan says.
Enciso chimes in: "I could dance on the table."
There are no takers, just serious bingo players.