Maryland’s commercial bingo halls are big loser in casino gambling expansion

Mark Gail/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Waysons Bingo on Thursday, November 08, 2012 in Lothian, Md. Bingo halls in Anne Arundel County have seen a drop in revenue with the opening of Maryland Live ! last June.

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Wayson’s Bingo was always filled with players, buzz and cigarette smoke when Miss Doris first started showing up in the 1980s. Back then, if you arrived at the 750-seat hall in southern Anne Arundel County even a little late, you probably weren’t getting into the game.

Enter the cultural time warp that is Wayson’s today, and you’ll still find Miss Doris in her regular seat by the pillar, with her walker parked nearby and 27 ink-dotted cards spread across the table. “As long as they keep picking me up and playing the bingo,” said Doris Noris, 83, “I’ll keep coming.”

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A map of Maryland casino locations.
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A map of Maryland casino locations.

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But the excitement and crowds at the half-century-old hall about 20 miles from downtown Washington have evaporated as bingo loses players to death and competition — particularly Maryland’s slots parlors. And the most crushing blow could be yet to come, with a new casino likely to land in 2016 at National Harbor, about 30 minutes from Wayson’s, in the geographic heart of the old joint’s aging clientele.

“We’d like to think we can survive,” said D. Boone Wayson, whose father opened the bingo hall in 1959, in a building that had been used as a bowling alley and a ballroom. “We’d like to believe there are enough bingo customers who just want bingo. But bingo is a declining business.”

Commercial bingo once did a booming business in Anne Arundel County, where thousands of players from all over the area packed into a half-dozen halls on any given night to gamble and gab.

Now, there are just three bingo venues in the county: Delta Bingo in Laurel, Bingo World just outside Baltimore and Wayson’s, where billionaire casino magnate Steve Wynn got his start as a gambling operator in the 1960s.

In 2011, the three halls generated $8.68 million in tax revenue, according to the Maryland Comptroller’s Office. But the state’s high-tech slots casinos are pulling away customers and cash: Since the $500 million Maryland Live casino opened in June at Arundel Mills, year-over-year bingo business in Anne Arundel is down by about 25 percent, the comptroller’s office estimates.

And more competition is coming for the bingos, which had already lost business to lottery games, casinos in nearby states and Internet gaming.

Caesars Entertainment is building a new casino in Baltimore. And this month, Maryland voters approved a dramatic expansion of gambling that will allow a casino to be built near Wayson’s, in Prince George’s County.

The passage of Question 7 also means table games and live dealers at Maryland’s casinos. But it’s the slots that worry the Wayson family most.

“Obviously, more machines and more places for people to play them will have a negative effect on our business,” Boone Wayson said. “You don’t just lose people; you lose the depth of their spend. You might see them three times a month instead of four, and they might spend 20 percent less when we do see them because they’ve gone to Maryland Live.”

Aging fans

Bingo, a modified form of an old Italian gambling game, was introduced in America in the 1920s and rose to popularity during the Great Depression, according to David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. As church groups and fraternal organizations began hosting low-stakes bingo games for charity, bingo became known as the most permissible form of gambling in America.

Seasonal bingo halls started to open around Southern Maryland’s beach towns decades ago, and by the 1950s, Anne Arundel was licensing them inland, too. It was one of the few areas to allow commercial bingo outside of Nevada and some Native American reservations.

After Wayson’s opened along Route 4 in Lothian, it became a popular stop for drivers going to and from the Chesapeake Bay — and a destination for women looking to pass a few hours with several hundred of their closest “Bingo!”-shouting friends.

It was as much a social club as a gambling hall. “If they ever closed this place down, 20,000 women would be homeless,” Wayson’s bingo caller Willie Dornicak told The Washington Post for a 1966 story.

The business was run by the Waysons and Michael Wynn, a national bingo promoter who had controlling interest in the hall. When he died in 1963, his 21-year-old son took over the operation.

Steve Wynn would conquer the gambling world, building the Mirage, Bellagio and a namesake Las Vegas resort. But he was a bingo guy first, and several decades ago, Wynn described Wayson’s as “by far the largest bingo operation on Earth,” according to biographer John L. Smith.

Bingo’s appeal faded as more states legalized lotteries and authorized commercial or tribal Indian casinos. Even charitable bingo has declined in popularity, said Schwartz, the gaming historian; many fraternal organizations now host charitable poker tournaments instead.

“There are some people who still like bingo,” Schwartz said. “Especially older people.”

That’s another problem for the business: Bingo’s core demographic is dying off.

Minda Niestrath, who gets paid to shuttle bingo players to Wayson’s from Waldorf, Clinton and Suitland in a 15-capacity van four nights each week, says she has lost at least a half-dozen of her players to the big bingo hall in the sky.

And there are fewer and fewer younger players picking up bingo, Boone Wayson said. “How do we repopulate?” Wayson asked. “The lifestyle, the game, is more for older people. Younger people who are used to the Internet like the speed and ever-changing nature of [slot] machines.”

Wayson’s and the other halls now have a limited number of electronic bingo machines, which look and play almost exactly like electronic slot machines. But a few dozen machines at Wayson’s can’t compete with 4,750 slots at Maryland Live — to say nothing of the difference in entertainment and dining options.

Maryland Live has a concert venue and multiple restaurants. Wayson’s has a row of vending machines selling Hot Pockets, Fritos, sodas and 25-cent cups of coffee.

Casino competition

On the first night of bingo after Maryland voters approved the gaming-expansion referendum, Tim Wayson surveyed the hall, which was more than half-empty.

“I’ve been here my whole life; I grew up in here,” he said. He’s 24, not nearly old enough to remember when bingo did boffo business. But he knows things are getting worse — and the arrival of a new MGM casino at National Harbor could be a killer.

“I don’t want to be too negative, because this is our business,” he said. “But it definitely could hurt bingo a lot. It’s a scary thing. I was hoping it wouldn’t get passed. Nothing good can come out of it for us.”

Nearby, Miss Doris was dabbing away at her bingo cards. Her hand was covered with bright pink ink. To her, the chatter about a new casino was just noise.

“I won’t go,” she said.

She started playing at Wayson’s years before Tim Wayson was born, when chartered buses shuttled players to the busy hall from all over the area. “Oh my, it was always so, so packed,” said Miss Doris, who lives in the District near the Convention Center. “I made a lot of friends in here.”

The numbers-caller announced G-54.

“BINGO!” a woman sitting nearby shouted. Miss Doris groaned. It had been a long time since she’d won, and the last $1,000 payout of the night was now in the books.

“Well,” she shrugged as she stuffed her snacks, medication, eyeglasses and hand lotion into a bag, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Miss Doris still comes almost every night they run bingo at Wayson’s — Thursday through Sunday — and she’s always in the same place. Squatting is one of the few traditions that has survived.

“We own this table,” said Angie Wooden, who always sits next to Miss Doris. Wooden has been coming to Wayson’s since she was 17. She’s 54 now and is the assistant to the director of a labor union in Washington. Stressful job, she said. “Bingo relaxes me.”

She plays at Wayson’s almost every night — “as long as I have money.”

But come 2016, when the new casino in Prince George’s is scheduled to open, she probably won’t be back much. “Oh,” she said, “I’ll be at the Harbor.”

 
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