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Tim O'Reiley

Riviera officially opens bingo room

15 August 2011

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Although he admitted to being "kind of a dork," Sam Allen fits the profile that bingo advocates say is rejuvenating the game -- the one that caught the attention of the new management at the Riviera Hotel and Casino.

At 29, he was easily four decades younger than the average player who bought into the Riviera's inaugural bingo game Friday morning. If his lack of gray hair wasn't enough to give him away, he still stood out by wearing a T-shirt, baggy shorts that revealed a designer tattoo on one leg. Then there was the trendy gray checkered fedora.

He and his wife, Jessica, took up bingo in their hometown of Denver, where they often take in a few games for date night. This time, they were just looking to kill some time while their room was being readied.

"It's a good time, it's not too expensive and there's a good chance of winning," he said.

Although local retirees dominated the crowd of about 200 when the first number was called at 11 a.m., the hope of snagging customers such as Allen helped persuade the Riviera to open the first bingo room on the Strip since the New Frontier shut down four years ago.

Perhaps as important, Riviera CEO Andy Choy sees the 300-seat bingo room as a way to bring a distinctive image to the property after years of financial struggles, including a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing that concluded on April 1 with new ownership.

"The Strip as gone to the integrated resort model," Choy said, referring to the strategy of creating rooms, bars, spas, shows, pools and shopping as separate profit centers under one roof. "People have forgotten that this town is built on gaming. Gaming is a dirty word. So we're going to be the best damn casino there is."

Further, he wants to target the middle-income audience embodied by bingo.

"A big part of our strategy is to cater to the player who might not want to spend $400 on a bottle of vodka or wait in line three hours for it," he said.

Bingo room manager Bobby Taylor, an industry veteran, said the crowd gets younger in the evening.

For many, bingo is a social experience. Mary Gilbert, 66, pointed out or waved to nearly a dozen people she knew from other bingo locales. She also brought Ed Kettle, 85, a friend visiting from Durango, Colo.

"It's nice to see all these people," she said, wearing her custom-made "I love bingo but bingo don't love me" shirt.

Several others, such as Clyde Dinkins, 76, said they came out of loyalty to Taylor. Dinkins said he has followed Taylor to five different casinos, most recently a decade-long stint at the Plaza.

"In bingo, the manager can build a very strong following," said Kevin Savage, 41, who took up the habit when he moved to Las Vegas 16 years ago.

For others, bingo has become part of the rhythm of life. Jeanette and Art Gearhart picked the Riviera game to kick off their 26th wedding anniversary celebration. As a part of her ritual, she arranged a good-luck shrine at her seat, including small Buddhas, four-leaf clovers, family pictures and an All-American bingo troll doll.

"It really works," said Art, who is retired from the U.S. Navy.

John and Barbara McClurg brought a sample of the more than 200 daubers they have collected from bingo games across the country.

"We don't like computers," said Barbara. "And I have a dauber fetish."

At the Riviera, the ink daubers were all for show. Computer terminals or hand held devices, such as those at the Riviera, are credited with helping draw younger people to the game. Even seniors like the new technology because it's easier to keep track of their cards.

For Savage, a bartender who works the graveyard shift at the Inn Zone, bingo is just a quiet way to spend the off hours even if he is decades younger than many in the room.

"There's nobody screaming or yelling in your ear," he said. "And in our economy, its cheaper to play and I think give you a better chance of winning than other casino games."