When we think of bingo, we normally consider it to be a game played by old ladies in church basements. It doesn’t come anywhere close to being the sort of chancy activity that people who visit gambling cities such as Las Vegas will go out of their way to engage in.

At least one casino boss is trying to change that. Jonathan Jossell, CEO of the Plaza Hotel and Casino in downtown Vegas, not only holds high stakes bingo tournaments on a regular basis, but he even built a special ballroom – complete with computer terminals and cell-phone charging stations, large enough to accommodate 280 gamblers – designated as the Plaza’s Bingo Hall, dedicated exclusively to the playing of this game. 

And what a game it is: In the Plaza’s Bingo Hall, an event known as Super Bingo offers $160,000 in prize money. Players who fill in all 25 numbers on their cards, competing in the Super Coverall, win $50,000. It pays well because the odds of someone hitting the coverall are long – with 54 numbers called and 600 cards being played, the likelihood of making it is 3.21 percent. But longshots are the draw of Las Vegas, and people play Super Bingo with the dream of cashing in on the usually elusive outcome.

Bingo at The Plaza

While The Plaza is a great spot downtown – with a cool steakhouse, known as Oscar’s, done in collaboration with former Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman; a cocktail lounge with live music called the Sand Dollar and all the games you will find in any Sin City casino – big-time bingo serves as a point of differentiation. 

“We have the only bingo game in downtown Vegas, and there is no bingo on the Vegas Strip,” Jossell tells me (for what it’s worth, there are other off-Strip, locals-oriented casinos that feature bingo, but the Plaza seems to be pushing it harder than most). “It’s a great amenity. We sometimes have 800 people here playing Bingo.”

For the uninitiated, Bingo is a simple game that is not unlike keno. With both endeavors, numbers, chosen at random, are called out or posted electronically. You win money by having those numbers on your card.

The big difference is that in keno, players choose the numbers they want. In bingo, the numbers are chosen for you and placed on a square of paper. As the numbers are called, you mark them off with an ink-filled dauber. To increase the likelihood of hitting your numbers, you can play multiple cards in bingo and keno.

What happens when a player makes five bingo numbers in a row? They shout out, “Bingo!” Then the round ends, and they get paid off.

Big-Time Bingo

At the Plaza, the crowd of players redefines what you might think is typical for a game like bingo. People come from places as far-flung as Hawaii and Canada to play the Plaza’s big tournaments and Jossell maintains that his games are not the exclusive domain of oldsters.

“In recent years,” he told Forbes, “the game has been attracting a variety of new players, including many millennials. So, the Plaza put a renewed emphasis on it.”

To make sure that the bingo faithful get the point, Jossell hired the best caller in the game. He keeps the bar open with cocktails flowing for those who are in action (plus free doughnuts and coffee for the early arrivals).

Jossell even brought on a so-called bingo ambassador, in the personage of Reyz Ungos. He functions as a sort of host for the players, making sure everyone is comfortable, greeting regulars by name, helping those who are unsure of what to do. As far as the last point goes, though, one would be hard-pressed to not know what to do in a bingo game.

Bing Las Vegas

Bingo Odds

One thing that ardent players may not be aware of is the fact that bingo is actually a pretty fair gamble. The odds are better than much of what will be found on the live casino floor. The house edge is thin and there is money to be won. So much so, in fact, that bingo can be a loss leader for casinos. But Jossell has good reason for keeping the game going and putting money into it.

He doesn’t necessarily run bingo games back-to-back. In fact, there is often a couple hours of downtime between games. That allows time for customers to eat in the Plaza’s restaurants (Hash House A Go Go is a favorite) and gamble in the casino. Luring people in to play bingo and benefiting from them blowing money on slot machines is a pretty good deal for Jossell

If there is an advantage play here, it is to stick with bingo and to not dig into pockets for spins of slot machines or sessions of three card poker

Bingo History

When bingo first appeared, nobody was taking it all that seriously, strategizing for edges. It was invented in Germany and known as beano. Numbers were pulled from cigar boxes. Whoever managed to have five numbers in a row, of course, shouted out “Beano!”

Prizes were as modest at the game itself. Rather than receiving cash, winners left with kewpie dolls. 

Beano came to America in the late 1920s, was renamed Bingo and became a staple of churches and synagogues. Growing up in New Jersey, I worked the bingo game in the synagogue that my family belonged to. Paid in tips, I was a teenage waiter, bringing coffee, donuts and Kosher hot dogs to players. I’m not sure who won what there, but I do remember leaving with pockets full of quarters. 

That’s how it was until the 1970s, when Indian reservations began putting on higher stakes bingo games. Steve Wynn’s father made money running bingo halls and exposed the future casino magnate to the possibilities of earning big bucks by promoting gambling. Vegas got the bingo-bug long after the arrival of Wynn. 

Right now, Jossell and his crew at the Plaza are enjoying their bingo moment and hoping that it will keep growing and keep attracting new players.

“Everyone thought it was a dying breed, but we are revitalizing it,” Jossell tells me. “Everything that is old eventually becomes cool again.”

Michael Kaplan is a journalist based in New York City. He has written extensively on gambling for publications such as Wired, Playboy, Cigar Aficionado, New York Post and New York Times. He is the author of four books including Aces and Kings: Inside Stories and Million-Dollar Strategies from Poker’s Greatest Players.

He’s been known to do a bit of gambling when the timing seems right.