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When playing bingo, don’t forget ‘lucky Elvis’

In the trenches with the die-hard daubers at Palace Station

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Nancy Marchand McCabe, seen here playing bingo at Palace Station, finds she gets good luck from her elephant charms and pictures of loved ones.
Photo: Bill Hughes

The Crazy H goes down, and a thousand people hold their breath. Number after number is called, the hypnotic whir of the money counter reminding the crowd what’s at stake. On I-18, a single voice pops the tension. Gasps and groans break over the crowd as an agent verifies her card. She has the Coverall, and the $10,000 prize that comes with it. She leaps up, arms stretched to the heavens, and yells again: “Bingo!”

The Details

Palace Station bingo
Regular games daily on the odd hours, 367-2411

This is Palace Station’s $100,000 all-paper game, a daylong battle of 1,002 players sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, eyes locked on their cards (with occasional breaks to order Bloody Mary refills, reach for snacks and check the football score on a muted TV). They bought in for $99 apiece, with chances to win single prizes from $500 to $25,000. But bingo faithful say it’s not about the money as much as the thrill of being lucky.

“I’ve seen people get so excited over a $50 win it’s unbelievable,” says Willie Williams, a bingo caller and bowling ace from California who’s here to play and guest-call one of the games. “When you win and your numbers are hitting and it’s all sheer luck, there’s a pretty good excitement there.”

Palace Station’s bingo and keno manager Bobby Dean has been soaking up gaming-related excitement for 40 years, 33 of them at this property. Bingo, he says, is so appealing because it’s easy to play and, no matter what, somebody wins.

“You could have full blackjack tables in the pit, and it’s possible that no player will win a hand. The bingo game always runs until someone yells bingo,” he says. “It’s a double-randomized game—random what cards you get to begin with and random what numbers are called. There’s no telling what will happen.”

Dean says the bingo crowd has evolved beyond the purple-haired church ladies, and the sea of faces proves him right. Near a bearded grandpa in red suspenders sits a gorgeous young woman in Yves Saint Laurent and stiletto boots. Many players have personal totems, their Japanese waving cats and troll dolls imbuing their tables with juju.

Virginia Arvizo has an arsenal of novelty ink daubers in a special bingo bag, including Popeye and “lucky Elvis.” Nancy Marchand McCabe always hits the hall with framed photos of her daughter, Trina, who succumbed to cancer at 16. McCabe’s 83-year-old mother, Lois, has terminal cancer, so they drove from California to see the lights on the Strip and play the game they’ve been playing together since they lost Trina almost 20 years ago. Lois loves bingo; she even played onboard the last voyage of the Queen Mary. But getting her to the marathon game in Vegas took some coaxing.

“We’re two Leos who live in the same house. So I finally said, ‘Shut up; pack your bag; you’re going,’” McCabe says.

Lois laughs and admits she’s glad she did. She’s been “on” three times today, meaning she was one number from winning. Across from her daughter, surrounded by her own little charms, she daubs with an elephant bracelet dangling from her wrist. You can tell she’ll still be smiling if she doesn’t mark that final square. Maybe it’s the peace in knowing that no matter what she does, it’s up to cosmic forces and those little white balls.

“Either you’re gonna win,” Williams says, “or you’ll be the bridesmaid.”

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