Rise and Fall of the Bingo-Bots

New legislation has the potential to change the entire face of the game.

Gone are the days when bingo required nothing but a card, a pencil, and a cup of watery coffee. The new face of bingo looks a lot like the new face of everything these days: computerized. Machines have upped the ante for players, giving them more options to win and to spend. They’ve also boosted bingo profits to a whole new level of bling. But the bingo-tech revolution is going to come to a screeching halt this January, when a new piece of bingo-bot-banning legislation will go into effect.

Two main kinds of electronics have recently been introduced into the bingo supply chain. First are the bingo laptops, also called e-bingo aids or “handsets,” that allow gamers to play as many cards as they please (depending on the parlor’s rules) with just a few punches into a portable keyboard. Real competitors will snatch-up as many of the machines as the hall will allow when they play, maximizing their odds of winning. Some even forego paper altogether, knowing well that error-prone humans are no match for bingo machines that have tracking and alerting mechanisms so that players never miss a potential bingo.

Walk into any parlor in the Bay Area and you’ll find most players manning a bingo handset or seven. But lower-stakes games like those at senior centers and churches keep to bot-less bingo games, which may be slower and more painful (three hours of daubing bingo cards can cause quite an arm cramp), but also have their own Luddite charm. Plus, some people prefer less competition with robots, more with each other.

The other kind of bingo machines, which are causing a big stir in California these days, are called “stand-alone” bingo machines. These bots look and act suspiciously like slot machines. And the Attorney General thinks so too. In Aug 2007, the Attorney General’s Division of Gambling Control issued a law enforcement advisory on electronic bingo stating that most games not using paper cards are running illegal games. But they didn’t follow-up on enforcement, so many nonprofits continued operating the machines. It wasn’t until early May of this year that the state’s department of justice began a major crackdown in Sacramento, handing 30-day cease-and-desist orders to seven bingo parlors in the area and one in Southern California.

With pressure coming down from tribal representatives at Indian casinos who say that they’re the only ones in the state authorized to run slot machines, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill that will outlaw stand-alone machines altogether. Instead, the law will allow for charities to run what’s called “remote-caller” bingo, which involves multiple players connected via the Internet.

“The remote-caller bingo issue is a red-herring,” said Ravi Mehta, representative for the organization California Charity Bingo Association and former lobbyist for the e-bingo manufacturers, Video Gaming Technologies. “What’s key in this bill is that it allows for use of the Internet.”

Mehta, along with gambling law expert I Nelson Rose, say that the new law could pave the way to legalized gambling over the Internet. “The bill was rushed through without having normal protections,” said Rose in a recent phone interview. “I read the bill and see that it has the potential to be the greatest expansion of gambling in history.”

Although small California charity organizations and e-bingo supply manufacturers lobbied hard to squash the new law, the $140 million-dollars that California sees from tribal gaming every year was apparently more convincing for decision-makers.

Nonprofits operating the illegal machines in the East Bay will undoubtedly suffer from the ban since it will eliminate arguably the most lucrative aspect of the bingo business. For instance, the nonprofit group Community Charities, which operates games at the Durant Square Bingo hall in Oakland, sees more than $150,000 per month in revenue from the illegal machines. Come January, they will be forced to find some way to compensate for that loss.

Cities all over California, including Oakland, are in the process of amending their ordinances to include rules about electronic bingo that coincide with the new state law.

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