"I am a bingo freak," said Catherine Ross yesterday, a 45-year-old day-care worker from Alexandria who won $500 playing the game Friday night. Two days later, it didn't seem to matter.

"Ahead?" she sputtered, her eyes bulging. "Hell, no! When do you ever get ahead in this damn bingo? Not spending $20 to $25 a night."

Ross sat among more than 1,000 other bingo fans, crammed against one of the scores of rectangular tables that stretch from wall to wall at Wayson's Bingo, a giant bingo parlor in Lothian, Md., that was celebrating its 20th anniversary yesterday.

Latecomers fumed by the door, because it was standing room only and you needed a seat to play. All eyes were fixed on the numbers, which appeared on television screens and two large scoreboards.Many of the eyes were close to tears -- perhaps because it was an emotional occasion, perhaps because bingo evokes deep feelings, perhaps because the room was full of cigarette smoke.

How big a bingo fan is Ross? Well, she has a 20-year-old son and "Bingo" is his name-o. The family's baby sitter suggested it as nickname in honor of mom.

Ross stopped to listen to some information from Willie Dornicak, who has been a bingo announcer for approximately 35 years.

"Willie's been called everything but a child of God," she huffed, explaining that players on a cold streak often wonder whether Willie knows something they don't about the way those little white balls with the numbers come up from the "blower."

Willie himself, well-tanned and getting hoarse by mid-afternoon, just laughed between announcing numbers and illuminating them on the two large scoreboards on the wall. "There are no stories," he said. "The same s--- goes on every night."

For Kenn Wynn, whose family co-owns Wayson's, the business has been going on almost as long as he can remember. Down from New Jersey for the anniversary, the 28-year-old heir to his father's business wore a green sport shirt with alligator. He looked more like a college student on vacation than the vice president of a family entertainment corporation that owns such properties as the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas.

"When I was 7 or 8 years old, I'd come here and my father would put me on his lap and I'd call a number," he recalled. Although he rarely gets to visit anymore, many of the 1,100-plus players yesterday knew Kenn by name and called out to him when they saw him.

"You have to look at bingo in the context of entertainment," he says, countering the familiar opinion that gambling's a sure way of getting nothing for something. "Gambling of all sorts is really a form of adult entertainment." Wayson's makes the entertainment easy for adults. Outside the hangar-like building, about 21 miles from downtown Washington, stood a small fleet of buses marked "wayson's Bingo." As they do regularly, the buses had transported players, free of charge, from around the metropolitan area to Wayson's. Inside, a small legion of young checkers and clerks patrol the tables, checking cards and money and making sure players receive what's coming to them.

On top of the various combinations of bingo games, prizes and prices, Wayson's occasionally runs special features like the "Shower of Money." In that one, a lucky patron encased in a glass capsule gets 20 seconds to grab at money propelled through the capsule by a fan pumping air from beneath its grated floor.

Around 4 p.m., pieces of the five-tier birthday cake began circulating. Because of the size of the crowd, a fair division would have given each patron about an ounce. Those without cake didn't seem to care.

Some regulars like Barbara Munn, a computer operator for the Navy in Suitland, Md., complained a bit about the crowd, but praised the atmosphere on ordinary days. She claimed to be ahead because she plays selectively.

"I am a firm believer in biorhythms and horoscopes," reported the 17-year veteran, answering questions readily without losing track of the game. "If I'm in a good cycle, I'm confident I'll win."

Kenn Wynn, though, believes like Grantland Rice that what matters is not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.

"What are the odds of bingo?" Wynn repeats the question asked him. "That's a question that can only be asked by someone who doesn't understand bingo."

It all depends on how many people show up, according to Wynn. He estimates that the most anyone gives up on a trip to Wayson's is about $35.

"And that's 'spend,' not 'lose,'" he quickly points out. CAPTION: Picture 1, Mable Ray, after winning $3.50; by Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, The action at Wayson's Bingo; by Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post