Cheap thrills - Free bar bingo a popular pastime

Randomly generated numbers, the slippery hand of fate, a few drinks and the pursuit of prizes have combined to make free bingo a popular part of the week for a crowd that fills the small bar in Greenwood's China Jade restaurant every Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours.

The China Jade, at North 86th Street and Greenwood Avenue North, isn't the only North End drinking establishment that features the game. There are several, including the Baranof just up the street on Greenwood Avenue, where bingo is played Saturday mornings from 8 to 10.

If the prize is right...

Vic-ee Olson has run the show at the China Jade for around three years, rolling the cage of bingo balls, calling the numbers and checking the cards to make sure players really do have a bingo. The last is important because sometimes they don't, she often notes.

Olson said she got the idea from a friend who runs another bar where bingo drew a crowd, and she thought the game would draw a crowd at the China Jade: "So I volunteered and just stuck with it."

Part of her duties involves buying the prizes for the games, and that can take up her entire day off, said Olson, who also works full time at a QFC grocery store: "Sometimes I fall into good deals."

Depending on the game and whether there are multiple winners for one game, the prizes range from the cheap and funky to the expensive and coveted.

The winners get to choose their prizes from selections laid out on tables. At the high end are such spoils as a Lava Lamp, a radio-controlled toy boat and a toaster with extra-wide slots.

At the low end and sometimes contained in sealed grab bags are such things as 10-packs of Butterfinger candy bars, Mexican chewing gum, a new dictionary, nail polish, small tool sets, solar-powered calculators, drinking glasses and even umbrellas.

"Everybody likes the umbrellas, and the men like the tools," Olson said.

The winning combination

Getting just a straight bingo is rarely enough to win the games. Instead, Olson chooses from 25 different games that have different winning patterns that are shown on large cards she made up and hangs from a nearby wall.

"I try to play at least 15 [games every Sunday]," Olson said.

Some are simple, such as getting picture frames, where all the numbers on the outside of the bingo cards are marked with ink daubers.

Others are more complicated, such as getting a large M for men players and a large W for women players in an ongoing bingo battle of the sexes.

"That's got to be the favorite game here," said a smiling Olson, who keeps a running tally. It shows that men currently edge out women 79 to 72 in the number of winning games.

Olson tries to keep it fair. She let women playing last Sunday have three cards instead of the usual two because there were more men in the bar that night.

Brenda, a regular player who didn't want her last name used, won the latest men-vs.-women game, claiming she used her "women's vibes to get the last number."

She also won a second game that night.

"Now I've got to get three," Brenda said.

More than pure luck

Multiple winners are not that unusual for the bingo games at the China Jade.

Mary Ann Johnson, another one of the regu-lar players, won twice last Sunday.

It's just luck, she said: "But some people are just lucky in general, too."

Chris Jowell, another regular, counts himself among the lucky-in-general crowd. "I always walk out of here with at least two prizes," he said. "It's a competitive thing here; we all try to win."

Sitting next to Jowell at the bar, T.J. Johnson, no relation to Mary Ann, suggested that Jowell somehow cheats to win so often.

But it was a different story later, when Johnson won a game.

"It's pure skill; I've studied this game for years," he explained, with tongue firmly planted in cheek. "I've honed my skills to an incredible high level. I won four games one night!"

As she planned, Brenda won a third game last Sunday. It was a big-prize, blackout game in which all the numbers on a bingo card are marked off.

But Brenda didn't get the big prize because someone else got a blackout bingo at the same time by playing four cards, instead of the usual two, Olson said. So Brenda and the other player each ended up with lesser prizes.

"It bothers me that they cheat," said Olson, who just let it go last Sunday.

But she noted it wasn't the first time the multiple-bingo-card trick has been used to win at the China Jade. "We're supposed to be here for fun," she fumed.

A little too much fun

And while they have a legitimate reason to yell if they win, sometimes players get a little too rowdy, according to Dave Tow, the bartender who works the bingo shift.

"There were a couple of people who had to be excommunicated from bingo," he said.

But the bingo games are definitely a draw. "It fills the house from 5 to 7 [p.m.]," Tow said.

And cheating and rowdy customers aside, Olson gets a kick out of running the bingo games each week. "I enjoy it," she said.

Olson's not alone. "Most people have fun," she said as she packed up afterward.

Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@ or 461-1309.

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