The caller has his audience enthralled. "Under the I, 17," he croons. "Anyone getting close?"
"Nah," says one player.
"No more ‘I's, please, no more ‘I's," shouts another.
"Shit!" bellows a third.
No senior citizens' center, this, nor a kiddie birthday party. This is summertime Sunday night bingo on the Cumberland Strip at the Mellow Mushroom. Each player gets one 4-inch-by-4-inch disposable punch-out card. Most perch on ladder-backed tall chairs or snug in overcrowded booths in the urban-loft magenta and deep turquoises of the bar. One guy sits at a little round table alone, dourly studying his flimsy card, a can of lager before him, looking like a bearded version of Edgar Degas' The Absinthe Drinker for our times.
At an unscientific average age of 27, 6:1 men to women, about all they have in common with stereotypical grandmotherly bingo zealots are their plain, plastic flip-flops. And a will to win.
"Shit, no more Bs."
"Got it!" crows Adam Isabell from the bar—his Oakland A's cap backwards, wild hair poking out, sunburnt lips—like he's just mastered sign language or received his first paycheck.
But when caller Andy Keys slides in with "G-48," a whoop like a baseball team goes up... from another corner. Isabell groans and pouts: "Yes, I'm bitter when I don't win," he says. "I hate it." Turns out, like a handful of contestants, he's a walk-on from the Mellow Mushroom kitchen, off duty. Last week was his first time ever playing bingo. "It's a good game," he says, good spirits restored.
But not a hard game. Unlike a smattering of contests offered across town, like Texas Hold ‘Em, electronic real-time trivia, or QB1 electronic football, bingo takes no skill. Experience doesn't give you an edge; there is no talent required. Conditioned by years of other bar and video games, the players still try to gain an advantage. They trash talk. "I-18? Sure do. So close, so close," taunts a lanky guy in a bright green T-shirt.
They punch their cards in special ways—clear through, slightly mashed, flapping forward. Some leave the free space in dead center, under the N, intact; others ritually punch it in, too. They check each other's cards, side to side, quick glances. No matter. There is absolutely nothing you can do unless Keys calls your numbers.
Steve Foulk purses his lips below a skimpy red mustache and above a scruffy red beard, with a sharp, unhappy intake of air each time a wrong number is called. Foulk is a student, writing his thesis on switchgrass as a biofuel, and determined not to pay for cable. He's watching the Cubs on the bar television while he tries to win a little something. "You never know, you never know," he mutters, and smiles when the boom is lowered: "We have another bingo winner!" Keys calls jubilantly.
There are games, in states that allow them, where players set up shop for hours, whole nights, rapid-fire stamping with pre-inked plastic applicators, dozens of cards, jackpots in the tens of thousands.
Here, the maximum prize is $20, and it's provided by the restaurant, all legal-like.
("If you have to buy something, pay some money, risk something in order to win, then it's gambling," says John Gill of the district attorney general's office. "If you get in for free and someone else provides the prizes, that's like a door prize." Any big money, illegal games in Knoxville? "Not that we know of; if we did, we'd do something about it," says Gill.)
A quick tour of the dining room before the last rounds doesn't turn up any family-style bingo buffs, either, or blue hair, or Jersey accents. But there are two young women in shoulder-length hair and summer cottons, each with two flimsy bingo cards close to her cutlery, neither making eye contact with passers-by.
After the game, the tattletale topic is mentioned to "the other Andy," Andy Watkins, the loping but efficient bartender keeping the discount Yuengling lagers coming. "Nah, it's kind of OK," he says. "I don't think two cards really increases their odds of winning all that much."
Neither of the women wins, not the last two games, anyway. A tanned young woman in black gauchos and flip-flops claims the second-to-last prize, and a stocky young man with a tidy side part haircut, jeans, and plain T-shirt plods through the crowded bar (managing not to trip over his flip-flops) to get his card checked for the final win: $20 and a chance, according to the announcement at the start, along with nine other lucksters, at winning a four-day cruise. With free beer.
"That‘s kind of a dangerous mix," muses Foulk. He won the final game last Sunday, when the cruise contest hadn't begun yet. He's okay with that. He got a prize. It's just a game.
But you've got to wonder. If one of the two-card girls had come up to claim that last prize, and we knew... wouldn't we have to do something about it?