So, ladies, what brand of courage inspires you to climb on buses back home and roar down the interstates, riding all night like Carol Boone, 40, a stocky Forestville, Md., secretary, unarmed save for Doritos, Dr Peppers and lucky rabbits' feet, hellbent to make her stand here in the rugged Smoky Mountains?

What brings you forth from as far as Alaska and Canada to hunker down on hard folding chairs with 3,000 fellow devotees for 16 grueling hours -- then the trip back? Why pay $250 just to get in the door of a converted bobby pin factory on an Indian reservation to endure this madness?

Here you are chain-smoking away tension beside strangers, turning daylight to purple haze at high noon every other Saturday -- when the action begins. Didn't you hear one player just got carted off in an ambulance? That's right, heart attack. So why? Why risk the few good years you've got left?

"Money," says one gray-haired grandmother, toting a war chest of potato salad, Mars bars and sodas to a table. "Big money."

High on a stage sits a cage of ping pong balls, hopping about like frenetic neutrons. A young man in white shirt and tie reaches in and plucks them out, displays their numbers on closed-circuit TV screens, then calls a number. It's quiet enough to hear a Frito drop. No one looks happy.

Suddenly, shouts and claps erupt from one corner of the cavernous hall. Elsewhere, Carol Boone sadly removes a gold horseshoe from beneath her bottom.

"Sat on it till it made my tail sore," she sighs. "All that carrying on means someone's got it."

She's right. Seconds later comes the shout: "BINGO!" And a groan goes up from the losers.

Enter the lair of Million Dollar Bingo, as played in a marathon session touted as dangling the world's fattest bingo jackpot. It's the Super Bowl of Bingoholics, played four times a year in the heart of North Carolina Indian country, and promising even bigger prize money July 4 weekend. One Saturday morning last month, 94 buses rumbled into the parking lot out back, four of them from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

Make no mistake: Some may have rolled off in wheelchairs, but they weren't little old ladies out for a church social. Brandishing red magic markers, they wore jeans and motto-blazoned T-shirts: "Keep Grandma Off the Streets, Send Her to Bingo," or "I'm a Bingo Nut." They meant business.

Contemplate America's Bingomaniacs, vanguard of an estimated 50 million who regularly play the game, wagering $3 billion to $5 billion a year coast to coast, say industry experts, from firehouse benefits that raise millions for charity to no-holds-barred Indian reservation bingo a la Cherokee. "I love bingo better than anything in the world," says Boone.

Even sex?

"Depends on who it's with," she says.

Food?

"I'd eat popsicles for lunch just to have enough money to play bingo," interrupts a friend. Others serve up tales of bingo addicts hocking the family jewels to buy bingo cards.

To court the proper spirits, Boone rearranges charms about her cards, marking numbers with a red dauber. "Bingo is nothing but four letters -- L-U-C-K -- and knowing how to holler," she says. "You don't holler loud enough, they don't hear you, they call another number and you lose.

"But the bottom line is, you got a bad heart, you shouldn't come here. You got a good heart, it'll give you a heart attack."

"BINGO!" comes a shout, midway through the 100-odd games that will be played before the night is out. And Norfolk housewife Claire Mathis moans that she was only one number away, so close. "But 'close,' " she says, "only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades."

"Should have gone to Atlantic City," says a frowning Boone.

Come sunrise on bingo Saturdays, buses loaded with players like Boone grind into the reservation past huckster chiefs in bright feathers whooping it up for tips, black bears in roadside cages, snake shows, and racks of tomahawks, bows, arrows and bullwhips for sale at the Honest Injun Trading Post. Then it's on to the hall.

Almost three years after people first began shouting "BINGO!" here, the impoverished Eastern Band of Cherokees is raking in the cash, boosting tribal revenue by a third, cutting unemployment in half and fueling the dreams of bingo entrepreneur Sherman Lichty, 55. He's president of the Newport News, Va., management company that runs the show. And he's got a five-year contract and a piece of the action.

"We wanted something that was different," he says. "That's why the big money. Cherokee is so remote, you've got to have something to bring them in."

Cherokee partner Dan McCoy, 41, a tribal council member who cracks Indian jokes and favors Dior knit ties and fancy leather jackets, preaches the benefits: jobs, off-season tourists and maybe $200,000 a year for himself someday after the partners are paid off.

"Dan McCoy is going to make some money," he says, "but the tribe's going to get something out of it. I wish everyone could make a million . . . I'm not a greedy fella."

As for the tribe, it earns $150,000 a year, plus $2 a player, 1 percent of gross receipts and 6 percent of concession sales: $1.5 million so far from the game.

Smooth and silver-haired, Lichty declines to reveal his take. So figure it: 3,200 players who drop about $400 each this evening, less labor and $600,000 paid out in prizes (the odds of hitting the touted million are slim), and you get more than a half-million in profits for one night.

One motel manager gripes that some players are so rowdy and overweight, she's lost chairs and regular customers. But you don't hear many Indians complain.

"Now anyone who wants a job in season can find one," says Richard Bird, ex-budget officer for the 8,000-member tribe. Last summer, 3 million tourists trekked through the 58,000-acre reservation, but bingo is year round.

"It's saved us from Reagan budget cuts," he says, referring to some $1 billion in slashed federal Indian program funds. "We are proud people. We'd rather cash a check that's earned than use food stamps. Bingo is taking us in the right direction."

Indeed, big-bucks bingo has become American Indians' economic adventure of the '80s from Florida to California. Almost half of America's 167 reservations now boast games, with the 1,800-member Seminoles of Florida counting $4 million in revenues last year from a seven-day-a-week operation.

But only Cherokee boasts Million Dollar games. Every other weekend, a $400,000 session kicks off on the reservation, but four times a year the stakes soar -- $1 million in prizes offered.

Naturally, such high stakes have angered charitable games that can't compete, Bible Belt purists, members of Congress pushing laws to protect Indians from unscrupulous operators, and lawmen wary of mobsters muscling in. "I'm concerned with anything that draws that many people and that amount of money," says Charles Brewer, U.S. attorney in nearby Asheville.

But he's powerless to stop it, as Indians and white partners rush to cash in on federal court rulings that have declared reservation lands beyond the reach of state gambling laws. McCoy insists his associates are clean, checked out by the FBI. Even such high Reagan administration officials as Assistant Secretary of the Interior John Fritz leap to defend big-time bingo.

"I'm tired of hearing moralistic arguments every time the Indians find a way to make some money," he snaps.

It's not as popular as swimming, bicycling, camping, horse racing, major league baseball, bowling or boating, according to one government survey. But bingo players outnumber joggers, TV football fans and dog track devotees. It's like a religion, with high rollers, low rollers and holy rollers.

And their bible: the Bingo Bugle, a franchised monthly newspaper (one cranked up in D.C. in February) that serves up a rich diet of diet advice ("Why do you overeat? Are you bored? Lonely? Depressed?"), local game times, bingo horoscopes, pix of winners clutching checks, and sordid tales of bingo psychos like Carol Alexander, a curly-haired Wisconsin housewife. She was convicted in 1983 of murdering her husband for bingo money. She got life. Said one headline: "BINGO MADNESS."

"I've seen 'em sell their family jewels to play," says Claire Mathis. She once bought a Bingoholic's gold necklace for $50. The player, just evicted from her house, was struggling to find a cheap apartment. But she had to have her fix.

"You don't live but once and you can't take it with you," shrugs Alice Soklosky, 75, a Lorton, Va., widow who retired as Fort Belvoir Hospital's dietitian. So far this year, she's won $3,200.

But not everybody plays to win. One housewife pocketed the $2.6 million Colorado lottery in December, but still plays bingo for $200 jackpots at the Bingo Barn outside Denver three times a week.

"It gets me away from the house and the kids," says Patricia Mascerenas, 34, who just traded in a '76 Pacer for a new Dodge, bought a four-bedroom house (her first) and took the kids to Disneyland.

Otherwise, "bingo is the only thing I like to do," she says.

And while Norfolk widow Martha Forrest, gray-haired and feisty at 92, has never won at Cherokee -- "not 16 cents" -- she'll be back. After seven children, 17 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, she's a regular: 16 trips here so far. "I just like to get out," she says. "I like the excitement."

"Bingo nuts," says John Tuschmidt, the beefy founder of the International Bingo Operators Association, which advocates players' rights, "don't take offense at being called 'bingo nuts.' It's a badge of honor."

Bingo nuts spend all their free time playing bingo, and around Washington, D.C., that's day and night. Somewhere, there is always a game, from Wayson's Corner, Md., to the Kentfield, Md. firehouse. Local laws govern jackpot size, and bingophiles abound, including Maryland's Linda Leonard, 33, a department store secretary who wants her brother, welterweight Sugar Ray, to open a bingo parlor.

"It's a fever," says Helen Carter, an Arlington secretary.

And a frequent excuse to escape the old man. "Thank God he ain't here," says a Cincinnati grandmother here in North Carolina. And those who come hunting men are in for a rude shock. Everyone's too busy ogling numbers to care about figures.

"Don't want to fool with 'em," says one woman. "I'd rather play bingo."

"This is my vacation," cackles Peggy Hileman, 31, a housewife who let her husband tend their three kids back in Ford City, Pa. "I deserve a break."

Ritual and superstition are rampant. Bette Robinson, for instance, wears an Indian-style pink dress, with tassel fringe. Married to an ironworker, she runs "Dixie Lee Bingo" back home in Augusta, S.C., and before every bingo pilgrimage, also visits her local astrologer.

For Effie ("just call me 'Granny' ") Jones, 74, a retired Asheville cook, elephants do the trick. She's won $12,000 playing Cherokee, she says, hauling elephants by the dozen in a garbage bag: ceramic elephants, stuffed elephants, brass elephants. No, she's not a Republican. "I just believe in elephants," she says.

Others say onions work miracles and set them out. "I won $8,000 on an onion once," says an Asheville school bus driver. "Smell keeps the evil spirits away."

But it's got to be more than luck and angels. Doesn't anyone care about odds?

"Odds?" shrugs promoter Lichty when asked to quote the odds of winning amid 3,200 others. "I'd say it's even money. You either win or you lose. Who knows? I couldn't quote you the odds. If you're lucky, you win. Everyone's got an equal chance."

"That's ridiculous," says industry watchdog Tuschmidt.

Such experts say big-time bingo rarely crowns single jackpot winners. Look at the odds: Mathematically, 32,760 combinations are possible before bingo cards repeat themselves. But most paper cards used in reservation bingo come in decks that repeat every 3,000, 6,000 or 9,000 cards. By varying deck size, operators can raise or lower the odds of multiple winners.

Lichty uses a 9,000-card deck. At 9,001, the cards start repeating. Say 3,000 players buy more than three cards each for a game -- and many play a dozen or more -- duplicates and multiple winners splitting jackpots are inevitable. "Operators create duplicates so more people will go home and say, 'I won,' " says Tuschmidt.

At Cherokee, the $200,000 jackpot gets sliced up among multiple winners. To win it all, you have to cover your 24-number card in 48 balls or fewer. It's never happened here.

Odds, please.

"Something like 14 million to 1," says Tuschmidt, consulting a probablity book. Bingo on the 49th ball cuts the pot in half. Bingo in 50 or more halves it yet again. So when does it happen? Usually between 55 to 60 balls, when the odds drop considerably.

Recently, six players bellied up to the barred cage to divide a $50,000 jackpot. Among them was James Potts, 36, a Greensboro, N.C., machine operator. It was familiar turf. He was married on the caller's stand here two years back. His wife's name is Velma, a blond hairdresser of 43 who once worked in Las Vegas. They met at the Touch A' Country bar back home, stepped out one night to play bingo, won $685, fell in love and decided on a wedding in Cherokee. It was Potts' fourth, her third. They wore Indian costumes.

A tribal judge, courtesy of Cherokee Bingo, pronounced them man and wife. James kissed the bride, the hall swooned and Velma shouted, "Let's play bingo!" Wedding cake was gratis and they played free. As if more proof were needed that this was a match made in bingo heaven, the bride split a $5,000 jackpot six ways that night. They come back often. Tonight, James flashes a necklace of beads and miniature longhorns. Velma clutches a gray ceramic elephant.

As for odds of bingo payback, they rank ahead of lotteries, but trail slot machines, blackjack, craps, roulette and other casino games, say experts. Out of every dollar bet, slots return from 87 cents to 97 cents, craps even higher, and you're one up because you're one player against the house. Not so in bingo, where the pot is limited and standard industry payback is 80 cents on the dollar or less. Tuschmidt says it's closer to 50 to 60 cents.

Nor can players boost their odds much by playing a few extra cards, not with thousands in circulation. "You're better off playing three cards, but Indian reservation bingos make you buy 'Supersaver' packs," says Tuschmidt, who advises against buying extras as a hedge. "It's the worst ripoff in the world."

And don't dream that you've got some system to beat the balls. There isn't one. "It's a totally random process," says Roger Snowdon, a bingo book author. "Who gets the prize is in the hands of the gods."

So, if it's such a lousy bet, why doesn't Loretta Marshall, 59, a Fairfax housewife, mosey on down to Atlantic City instead? A friend won $1,000 at slots there, but never made it to her car, that's why. Thieves cut her pocketbook strap and made off with the loot.

"There were cops standing there, but they didn't help," she says. "Here you could tell everyone you'd just won $1 million and no one would bother you."

No one likes to talk about it, but the only way to boost your odds is to cheat.

Some con artists soak marker ink off used paper cards at home, then play them again. Others paste on cutout numbers as they are called. One bingo bandit shouted "Bingo!" on Cherokee's debut night, then dashed up to cash in, a lone winner. Lichty smelled a rat. Since every card has a serial number, he was able to cross-check hers against a master deck. They didn't match. "You altered your paper," he said.

"No, that's the way I bought it."

He summoned police.

"Kick her out," he ordered, sparking boos until he held up the phony card. And the game went on.

"If she'd been smart, she'd have waited for multiple winners and blended in," says Lichty. "We try to give people an honest, respectable game they can count on."

But perhaps the most daring bingo bandits were the husband-wife team that bilked thousands from bingo halls across the Pacific Northwest. From inside the hall, she played the cards, whispering numbers into a two-way radio. He fed them into a portable computer in a van outside. Programmed with every card in a common deck used nationwide, it immediately signaled a bingo, along with the card's serial number. He grabbed the winner from his spare deck, available at any supply house, and radioed his wife.

"Bingo!" she shouted, and in her excitement, spilled her cards all over the floor. And daughter raced to the ladies' room, plucked the duplicate through the window, and ran back.

Back at the table, mother feigned happy hysteria, crawling on the floor amid her cards. Daughter dropped the winner in the mess. Mother snatched it up and raced down front to claim her jackpot. Only after veterans caught on to repeat performances at other halls were they busted.

Rumors also abound of some operators goosing the odds that certain numbers won't pop up -- and others will -- by inscribing numbers on balls with nail polish, or injecting sand or water to weigh them down.

Or callers, sitting high above the crowd, might palm balls ejected from the blower, to help shills in the crowd. A St. Louis hall barely escaped a near riot one night when a shill called bingo in a cover-all game after a mere 36 numbers.

Closed-circuit TV sets, scattered about the hall, monitor balls as they pop up at Cherokee and other big games. But purists like Tuschmidt question even their integrity, unless the camera captures the ejected ball immediately -- not after the caller moves it into camera view by hand.

"Fair," says Tuschmidt, "is what the operator decides. Let's face it, bingo is big business."

Edwin S. Lowe, 76, put bingo on the map, a traveling toy salesman from New York who stumbled on a south Georgia carnival in 1929. It was dark when he parked his Nash Ajax, and stretched his legs with a walk about the midway.

Every booth was dark, except one packed with patrons standing in line to cover crude numbered cards with beans: Beano. Cards cost a nickel. Kewpie dolls were the prize. But he couldn't get a seat. He waited.

At last, the game broke up and the operator confessed to snatching the idea from a German circus. But all he could come up with were 12 cards and 12 possible combinations. Maybe Lowe could help.

He took the idea back to New York, invited friends over and began pulling numbers from a cigar box. Winners were supposed to say, "Beano." But one got so excited, she began to stutter, "BBBBBBBBBBB-BINGO!"

"From that moment," reflects the retired toy mogul who sold his company to Milton Bradley in 1973 for $26 million, "I said, 'This game will be called 'Bingo.' "

He worked it up to 24 cards, then a Catholic priest implored him to come up with more combos -- the church was plagued with too many duplicate winners at charity games. Lowe deputized a Columbia University mathematician. He nearly went "insane" conjuring numbers, Lowe recalls, but cranked up 6,000 combinations. The game took off, as did imitators. Lowe hired and fired more than 40 lawyers to protect the trademark.

But bingo, ruled a judge, was generic: it had become too popular to protect. So Lowe gave up and licensed it for $1 to all comers. As it was, he had 220 presses cranking out bingo cards round the clock. The market was insatiable. "Every mother bought a bingo game as soon as her child could read numbers," he says. Las Vegas copied it with Keno, a form of bingo, and every year, 17,000 people play at once in at the outdoor bingo charity bonanza in Toronto for Variety Clubs International.

Is it a game for suckers? "Let's face it, we're doo-doo heads for playing," says one woman who professes to have won not a penny in 25 trips. "I know damn well I'm crazy." That's how Yvonne Peterson, 35, a bingo card hawker, feels too.

"I came to work here to find a rich gambler to run away with," she confides, "and all I see out there are little old ladies in polyesters."

Yet, that's not to say these little old ladies are, well, so comatose they don't know how to have fun. "Hey, I wanna show ya something," yells one grandmother, flashing a pornographic rubber monkey. Her table cracks up.

Do you have to be some kind of idiot to chase that bingo jackpot in the sky against such odds? "Only if you want to call my mother and grandmother 'idiots,' " says Roger Snowdon. "It's just as good a bet as horse racing, where you find plenty of supposedly 'sophisticated' people. Of course, if you like the smell of horse manure, I suppose it's a great place to go."

"Why do I keep coming back?" wonders Chip Shannell, 50, a Marietta, Ga., security guard. He's a regular loser who spends $400 a month to play. "Best thing in the world for your nerves. You got bad nerves, it'll calm you right down from that rush, rush, rush."

From the wings, a Dayton, Ohio, trucker keeps a sharp eye on his wife. Vials of heart pills are spread about her cards. She's on the mend from a massive attack four months back. Her doctor begged her not to come.

"But she said, 'If I'm going to die, I'm going to die happy,' " sighs Robert Weaver, 44, shaking his head. "So he just loaded her up with medication, and I drove her on down. I dropped her off at 9 a.m. I bring her food and try to check on her every two hours. Me and the daughter been sightseeing."

He shrugged, a tall, burly man with a crew cut, his daughter and dog, Kokomo, asleep back at the Indian Chief Motel. Janice, his wife, never looked up. "Bingoitis is worse than cancer," he says. "There's no cure for it."

At last, it's 2 a.m. Sunday, time for the Big Game, a cover-all. A hush falls over the hall, as knuckles whiten about felt-tip pens. All you can hear are giant blowers sucking cigarette smoke, the pop-pop-pop of ping pong balls, the caller droning on. No one takes bingo in 48 numbers and the $200,000 jackpot drops to $100,000, then $50,000. Suddenly, bingos echo and six players race down front. Checks are scribbled out.

The crowd grabs coolers and quilts and pillows and dashes for the parking lot. Buses crank up, fumes choking the crisp night air. Some grin, others grumble. "I love it here," says Darlene Gripp, 31, an accountant from Severna Park, Md., climbing aboard.

"Don't ask," huffs Mary Johnson, a D.C. coordinator who struck out.

"I'm mad, disgusted, hot as hell," says intrepid Carol Boone. "Done lost all my money, $500, and got a long road back."

Way in the back, another loser, a D.C. security guard, smiles through the darkness, taking it all in stride. "If bingo doesn't get it, the horses get it," he says. "If horses don't get it, poker gets it. If poker doesn't get it, the ladies always get it."

They'll be back.