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Bingo is big business for coastal groups

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GAUTIER, Miss. (AP) — Competition is strong among the 12 casinos in South Mississippi and also among the 31 charitable groups that operate bingo games in American Legion posts and church halls across the Gulf Coast.

Bingo players spent $93 million throughout Mississippi in fiscal year 2013, and $14.7 million of that went to support projects of the organizations that run the games.

Sonny Weathersby, director of the Charitable Gaming Division of the Mississippi Gaming Commission, said people call all the time asking how they can open a bingo hall.

"You can't do that," he said.

Bingo operators in Mississippi have to be a registered nonprofit with the secretary of state's office and the Internal Revenue Service.

Bingo and casinos aren't considered competition for each other, Weathersby said.

"Most of the people that play bingo have been playing it all their lives," he said. "Bingo players aren't slot players."

On a recent afternoon at the American Legion Post 1992 off Old Spanish Trail in Gautier, the early bird games were underway. The same people generally sit in the same seats, said Gary Coon, the bingo chairman who calls the numbers as they pop out of the machine. Players mark their cards with orange or blue or yellow dots.

Depending on the size of the crowd, the American Legion can earn $800 on a Sunday with 50 players, said Coon, unless the jackpot pays out that day.

The higher the jackpot, the more people are in the game.

"When the numbers are up there won't be a chair in the house," Coon said.

To win the $675 jackpot a player must get all the numbers on a card in 53 calls or less. If nobody wins, the next week the jackpot goes to $700 in 54 calls.

The American Legion in Gautier has lounge bingo Tuesday nights and a pull tab machine in the bar to increase revenues.

Pascagoula's American Legion is one of the biggest games in South Mississippi, Weathersby said, taking in over $1 million last year and earning a profit of $273,000. In Waveland, the American Legion made a profit of $78,000 on winnings of $500,000 before expenses and prizes.

Even with these numbers, Weathersby said "Bingo's tough right now. Halls are struggling. It's just the economy more than anything."

Regulations allow the operators to use up to 60 percent for winnings and expenses but 40 percent must be used for charity. The Gaming Commission's Compliance Division audits the nonprofits once or twice a year and agents check on the games monthly or weekly.

The Gautier American Legion uses the money to send students to Boys and Girls State, to help veterans down on their luck and others who need help, such as tornado victims.

Supporting charities is one of the reasons Joann Mathis, 78, of Vancleave, said she's enjoyed playing bingo for 35 years.

She plays three times a week, always sits in the same place and considers 13 her lucky number.

"I was born on Friday the 13th," she said.

Bingo and the halls where the game is played aren't as big on the coast as they are in north of Jackson, Weathersby said.

"There were 40 or 50 halls down there at one time," he said. "Hurricane Katrina got them."

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Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com

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