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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Bingo games support Annandale Volunteer Fire Department

“O-64, N-39, B-6.” Random numbers like those, echoing through the Annandale Fire Station on a recent evening, can add up to millions of dollars. Bingo games run by the station’s volunteer firefighters raised enough money to buy a couple of ambulances over the years, and much more, while giving players the chance to win big money.

The night we visited, the luckiest player, who wishes to remain anonymous, took home $2,300. About 80 to 100 people usually come to regular bingo games and as many as 200 for special events, says Gary Waller, of the Annandale Volunteer Fire Department (AVFD). 

Donna Bridgett of Arlington, who’s been playing bingo at the Annandale Fire Station for years, once won $10,000 in one evening about seven years ago. She sometimes plays as many as 70 games at a time using a combination of paper bingo sheets, called “faces,” and electronic bingo machines.

A happy player gets a bingo.
Her friend, Charlie Crivello, also from Arlington, says the atmosphere at the Annandale fire station is “relaxing and friendly, not rowdy like other places,” such as the bingo games run by the Annandale Boys and Girls Club.

“You meet a lot of nice people here,” says bingo regular Jean Kincheloe, who’s lived in Annandale since 1957 and worked at the Annandale Giant for 30 years. Her biggest win was $2,100 in one session.

People play multiple games at a time on paper sheets and electronic bingo machines.
Once the game starts, it’s pretty quiet, as the players hunch over multiple faces, filling in the boxes with special wide markers. Some bring along lucky charms, such as little stuffed animals.

The quiet is interrupted by a shout of “bingo.” When Brenda Tucker of Fairfax City won a game, she was handed $100 cash on the spot. Tucker has been playing for 10 years and has gotten to know many of the other regulars. “It’s like a little family,” she says. And there’s always the chance of hitting the jackpot, like the time she won $8,000 at the Vienna fire station.

It costs a minimum of $25 to play the entire evening at the Annandale fire station and $7 just for the early bird games, which start at 6:45 p.m., Waller says. The regular session starts at 7:45. You can also increase your odds of winning by using electronic machines with multiple faces that automatically fill in the boxes for you.  

Waller says many players spend $200 an evening, with some spending as much as $500. “If you spend that much, you usually win that much,” he says. You can also buy small cardboard “pull tabs,” like lottery tickets, with a chance to win instant cash if you get a winning number. You have to be 14 to play, but a cursory look around the room indicates most players are on the far side of 50.

While most gambling isn’t allowed in Virginia, an exception is made for charities. When the AVFD started bingo games in the 1980s, “it was regulated by the county, not the state, and there were very few restrictions,” Waller says. Now that the state is regulating bingo, there are more rules, along with regular inspections and audits.

There have been cases of fraud associated with bingo in other areas of Virginia, Waller says, but he knows of only one incident in Northern Virginia—someone connected with a Fraternal Order of Police game went to jail in 2003.  

For Annandale, the bingo games are a win win: Local residents enjoy a fun, sometimes profitable, evening, while the money raised has allowed the AVFD to purchase several emergency vehicles and other equipment.

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