If you arrive less than an hour before SPJST Lodge 88 bingo night starts, good luck finding a parking space. The Czech fraternal organization has been hosting the event since 1965, and most Thursdays, a capacity crowd of more than 700 floods the Heights-area compound as it transforms from a sleepy community center into a boisterous celebration overflowing with a hip, all-ages crowd. And after years of hearing the buzz, we’re here to party.

The game is big business around here. With the odd exception, you must travel to another state to play blackjack, but the Texas Lottery Commission permits charitable bingo; more than $11 billion in prize money has been doled out since the state started regulating it and issuing licenses to groups like SPJST in the ’80s. Which means, as we buy our $10, 12-game board, $2 pastel dauber for inking our squares, $3 Hopadillo, and $3.50 Frito pie, we realize that we could potentially walk out of this place with some serious cash in our pocket. Or maybe not—it’s a game of luck, after all.

Image: Amy Kinkead

The lodge itself describes the event as “not your granny’s bingo,” though there do appear to be at least a few grandmothers amid the otherwise youthful crowd. Announcements reveal Isamel and Janie are here tonight marking 53 years of blissful matrimony, while just a few folding tables over, a bundle of balloons signals a woo girl celebrating her 21st birthday with  two BYOB handles of Tito’s vodka. We set up shop alongside what appears to be an extremely established book-club-slash-girls-night composed of thirty-somethings so versed in the bingo arts that each can daub multiple boards without pausing discussion of the week’s read. These sages even lend our group a pink dauber; they carry a half dozen or so spares.

Yet many in the room are solely focused on the high-stakes competition—worth at least $125 per round and up to $600 for the final blackout game. The first number is pulled just after 7:15, and it takes only about a dozen calls before the hall starts booing and hissing as someone steps forward to claim victory. Tensions rise and fall depending on the size of the pot and level of inebriation. “I do not appreciate that!” one player hollers, waving her dauber with indignity at the latest winner. We learn she was just one square away from making off with the $400 herself.

Game after game, we sigh as our boards once again prove duds. But the cheap beers are enough to distract us, and it’s strangely thrilling dabbing a bingo pad beneath a crystal chandelier in an erstwhile polka hall. By the time the twelfth and final round starts winding down, we’re at peace knowing we probably won’t be going home with any cash. Hey, next week might be our turn to get lucky, and if not, there’s always the one after that. 

Bingo in the Heights is held most Thursdays at SPJST Lodge 88

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