Bingo games struggling to hang on in Va.

Bingo games struggling to hang on in Va.
Catherine Aguon, a retired Merchant Marine who has been playing bingo since she was 14, says she likes the game because even if she loses, she knows the money is supporting charities. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Two hours into a Sunday afternoon session at Pop’s Bingo World, the hall is less than a quarter full and the charity running the game is on track to lose more than $1,500 after all the jackpots are paid out.

Everyone in the room knows bingo — once Virginia’s only legalized form of gambling and a lifeline for nonprofits like VFW Posts and volunteer fire departments around the state — can’t go on much longer like this.

“It’s just not a popular game anymore,” says Charles Lessin, who runs Pop’s and chairs the state’s Charitable Gaming Board, which regulates bingo games across the state. “I wish I could think of other examples. Pac-Man, maybe. Pac-Man’s not popular now because the other games that compete with it are so much better it’s absurd. Well, that’s bingo.”

And there are suddenly a lot of games competing with bingo. Over the past two years, thousands of unregulated “skill games” that look and function like slot machines have found their way into gas stations and convenience stores around the state.

The state lottery is beefing up its offerings, venturing into smartphone games that can be played instantly in bars, restaurants and other venues.

And, for Pop’s, at least, the biggest hit of all came when Colonial Downs — newly empowered by the General Assembly to bring thousands of its own slot-style games with jackpots that can climb into the hundreds of thousands of dollars — opened Rosie’s Gaming Emporium a mile up the road and plastered the region with billboards. It eventually plans to open six locations around the state.

The developments have left bingo, with its $100 jackpots, florescent lights, ban on advertising and glacial pace of play, squarely at the bottom of the rapidly expanding world of gambling in Virginia.

The Virginia Mercury is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.