The grumbling around bingo tables in churches and clubs started in June as word spread of a new state law that prohibited people under the age of 18 from playing bingo.
"It's not like you're taking them to a casino," said Sue Koepnick, who started playing bingo at age 10. "Why can't they play a little bingo?"
Like many of today's bingo enthusiasts, Koepnick, 47, played the game as a child in a church hall similar to the one she sat in one recent Tuesday night in Sloan. She was surrounded by an array of game cards she glued together as part of her pre-game ritual. Koepnick spent $35 to play a night of bingo at St. Andrew's Parish Hall.
Her disdain for the new rule was mirrored by many bingo enthusiasts throughout the area.
The new law, included in the state budget passed by state lawmakers, took effect July 9. The law was updated to bring the minimum age of bingo in line with other forms of legal gambling, like lottery and horse racing, said Lee Park of the New York State Gaming Commission.
“By definition, bingo is a form of gambling," said Park, a spokesman for the gaming commission.
Park went on to say that minors under age 18 are still permitted to go to bingo events, but will not be permitted to play.
Many nonprofit organizations which sponsor bingo nights fear parents and grandparents who once shared a family night out around the bingo table will now stay home. Churches, fraternal lodges and veterans posts that run bingo are already concerned for their survival because of increased competition from casino gaming.
Here's what bingo operators in Western New York say about the law:
- At 14 Holy Helpers Parish in West Seneca, bingo co-captain Paul Podsiadlo asked two people entering last Thursday's game for proof of age. "I wasn't sure if they were 18," he explained. "I don't see how (the law) is helping Western New York bingo. With no kids going, you'll kill off bingo."
- Stefan Mychajliw, 43, county comptroller and bingo caller at Infant of Prague Church in Cheektowaga, recalled bingo night as a staple of his childhood. "Families view it as entertainment, as a night out, like going to the movies. I think there are a lot worse things that kids can do than go to bingo with their parents."
- Otto Johnson works bingo at Knights of Columbus #2243 on South Park Avenue in Lackawanna. "We really don't get many kids in here, but you do get some. They're not causing any problems, and now we may lose them and their parents."
Not all members of the bingo scene were opposed to the new law, however.
At Lancaster Elks Lodge #1478, Victor T. Rizzi said he believed that most people who attend Saturday afternoon bingo don't want the distraction that children bring to the tables. "We figured we would not permit kids in the hall, period," Rizzi said. "If we let kids in, they'd have to buy an admission board, but the mother can't play it either."
Gambling awareness advocates also support the new law.
"A bingo hall is not a healthy environment for children to be in," said Jim Maney, executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling. "Everything is about raising awareness of problem gambling. Wow, by playing bingo kids were gambling, and New York State should say it's OK?"
Park, of the gaming commission, noted that another provision in the law allows persons 16 years of age or older to work at licensed bingo halls staffing food concessions and doing janitorial work, provided they are not involved in gaming activities.
The new bingo provisions were jammed deep into one of the state budget bills passed on April 9 and signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo the next day. Those familiar with the legislation believe the new bingo laws were a trade-off between the state and bingo operators, who historically have a difficult time finding volunteers to work bingo.
Polish Falcons in Depew was forced to shut down its bingo program because it could not find people to work the games, said John Crinzi, head bingo inspector in Depew and the Town of Lancaster.
"For some organizations staffing has always been a problem," said Crinzi.
Gateway to gambling?
Kayte Conroy, a licensed mental health counselor, treats clients who are problem gamblers.
"I'll probably never in my lifetime see a minor addicted to gambling because of playing bingo," she admitted. "However, I have seen a number of adult clients with gambling problems – it could be casinos, scratch-offs, sports – and they started gambling with bingo."
Some adults develop a bingo problem, Conroy said.
"They go play bingo with the intent to win enough to pay their electric bill so the company doesn't shut off the power," Conroy said. "Chances are they are also playing more than once a week. They want to stop but they can't. If they do not go, they believe they may miss a win."
Research has shown the potential for "the big win" is a factor in developing a potential gambling problem, said Conroy. Environment is also a factor, when parents don't discuss the potential problems of playing bingo for money with their children.
But experts say most youths who have gambling problems are involved in online gambling, not bingo. Between 4 and 8 percent of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 have a very serious online gambling problem, according to the National Institutes of Health. Online gambling draws youth with games including blackjack, roulette, poker and slots that are virtually identical to gambling at real life casinos.
The National Council on Problem Gambling increases awareness of problem gambling by serving as a clearing house of information. It provided these statistics:
- Approximately 2 to 3 percent of Americans are problem gamblers. That's around 6 million adults and a half-million teens.
- Minors risk developing a gambling problem at a rate two to three times higher than an adult.
- Approximately 6 percent of college students in America have a gambling problem.
- About 40 percent of people with a gambling problem started gambling before the age of 17.
Pay without play
Deacon David E. Clabeaux of St. Andrew's Church in Sloan was initially happy when he heard earlier in the year that the state was updating its bingo laws.
"Cuomo's original proposed changes removed some unnecessary paperwork involved in setting up and running bingo," said Clabeaux. "It allowed advertising of bingo outside of the organization and on the Internet. Those would be welcome changes. By the time the law was passed, it included the provision banning those under 18 years of age from playing bingo."
Clabeaux, like the heads of many area parishes, decided to keep the doors of St. Andrew Parish hall open to young people on bingo nights.
St. Andrew's sponsors two bingo nights each week, drawing from 100 to 200 players each night, said Clabeaux. If attendance falls below 100, the church barely breaks even, Clabeaux said, but when more than 100 people attend, the church starts making money.
"Bingo is a big part of our income, from $25,000 to $50,000 annually," said Clabeaux. "It helps pay operating expenses."
Now, people who bring their children to bingo must buy an admission board for their child that the organizers mark or tear in half. The board can't be played by anyone.
State Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer serves on the Senate Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee. Declining bingo revenue, he said, was a motivating factor in the new legislation he helped pass.
"Over the years with the increase in sports gaming, racinos and casinos, local interests like veteran posts, religious organizations and volunteer fire companies have seen their bingo revenues decrease," said Ranzenhofer.
As for children developing a gambling problem from playing bingo, Ranzenhofer does not buy it.
"I don’t think there's anything wrong with children going to bingo with their parents," he said. "I certainly don’t think they will become problem gamblers."
Despite that, he said he supported the law because "on balance the legislation had a lot of provisions in terms of reducing restrictions on hours, advertising that were beneficial to bingo operators," Ranzenhofer said.
Patricia Noga, who works in the office at St. Andrew's, said the new law is already hurting the church's bingo operation.
"This is the state, and it is not doing us a favor," Noga said. "We are a family-oriented parish. We've got a mother who brings her three kids, but we haven't seen her since the new law took effect. We have people who bring their child in a nip-nap, but we don't charge them because they don't occupy a seat."
Crinzi, the bingo inspector in his 80s, has a historical perspective on the bingo age issue.
"When they banned smoking in Erie County bingo halls, everyone was up in arms, and now no one gives it a second thought," said Crinzi. "This new rule will follow the same path. In three months everything will settle down."