GILLETTE — Jordan Engdahl walked the barroom floor with a big, clear tub of rubber ink stampers, dropping handfuls off at each table.
With a free card of bingo squares, and a tool to blotch them with ink, in front of each bar patron, Engdahl, a 27-year-old bartender and bingo caller, took the microphone and stationed behind the bar, beside the black cage of bingo balls.
“B-3,” Engdahl read to the medium-sized crowd of players that night.
At last, the Wednesday night ritual at Big Lost Meadery in Gillette had kicked off.
The letters and numbers continued until a sudden break in the action.
“We’ve got our first trivia question,” she announced.
Although the crowd of noticeably nontraditional — as in relatively younger — players came to drink beer, eat fried foods and play bingo, the Big Lost variation of the game is played with a modern twist.
Occasional trivia questions are sprinkled into the number calling. The person who answers correctly is awarded the right to call out and blacken a bingo square of their choice.
“You have to yell (the answer) really loud and obnoxiously, because if I don’t hear it over here and Bailey (Know) says it, Bailey gets to pick the number,” Engdahl said.
“There’s actually no real system to this.”
That alone sums up the disparate bingo styles of the senior citizens one thinks of as the stereotypical bingo crowd, and the younger generations in Gillette who have taken to the game for the same reason their elders do: to socialize and have fun, but really, because it’s “something to do.”
There’s no ageism in bingo, per se, but for most who have memories of or experiences playing the game, the demographic undoubtedly skews older.
Then why have younger people taken to the game lately?
“I think in part, it’s because they want to spite the old. Because when you beat the old people, it’s a lot of fun, actually,” Engdahl said, obviously kidding. “No. I think just because it’s something to do. But also, we try to make it fun.”
The introduction of trivia questions at random, with a noticeable bias toward Taylor Swift-related factoids, is one example of the modernization and alternative approach to the game.
At Big Lost, the first bingo card is free. After that, each one costs $1. Calling “bingo” nets the winner a free drink, with bigger prizes, such as a bottle of mead, reserved for the final round.
“Nobody really wants to turn down free alcohol, which is the prize, so that’s a pretty good motivator,” Engdahl said.
The games usually go for about an hour or two, but if the crowd is into it, Engdahl said she will keep it going later.
Tamara Keierleber, 36, and her husband, Jacob, 35, have become regulars at the Wednesday night game. They moved to Gillette from Montana in 2015 and began playing bingo at Big Lost a few years ago when the bar was still on Gillette Avenue, before moving a street over to its current location.
“It’s something to do in this small town,” Tamara said.
Their friend, Kevin Keegan, 34, was in town from Montana that night and joined them for a round of burgers and fries from the conjoined business, Ranch and Roost, and a few rounds of bingo.
“He came all the way here to play bingo,” Jacob said, jokingly.
Ann Hoelzel, 26, is another regular of sorts.
“I’m here most weeks,” she said.
A friend of Engdahl’s, Hoelzel played alone at the bar that night, without her preferred, small group of fellow regulars, including her husband and their two pit bulls and blue heeler.
“I guess it’s something to do,” she said. “Especially in the winter too, I don’t think there’s a lot that goes on in the winter so at least this is something.”
Jerrica Huber, the wrangler of the biggest group of bingo regulars at Big Lost — full of mostly physical therapy adjacent locals, or “exercise weirdos,” as Engdahl lovingly described them as — found the game as a newcomer to Gillette two years ago.
Since then, it’s been a place to socialize away from work and meet new people in Gillette.
“It’s how I met quite a few of my friends here,” she said. “It’s how I meet people outside of work.”
Located near downtown, frequenting the Wednesday night bingo makes for a good excuse to explore other local businesses. She said that as she meets more newcomers to Gillette, like the new physical therapy students who arrive at Rehab Solutions, where she works, it’s become a way of introducing them to the community and what it has to offer.
“It’s something to get to know Gillette a little bit and get to know something new,” Huber said. “It’s something interesting about Gillette that not a lot of other towns have.”
Big Lost is not the only bar to offer weekly bingo.
Other Gillette bars Grinners and Legends also host a weekly game. But the biggest game in town, with the most seasoned regulars, is played in a more exclusive, non-liquor establishment.
Deb McEntee prepared her calling station and surveyed the groups of players dispersed among tables in the Campbell County Senior Center dining room.
“Where is everybody today?” she asked into her microphone.
The 27 seniors with reusable bingo cards before them comprised about half of the usual turnout for the facility’s Thursday afternoon bingo tradition, which remains one of the most popular senior activities in town.
“Unfortunately, today this is only about half of them,” said Ann Rossi, executive director of the Senior Center.
“We’ve been doing bingo since longer than I’ve been around,” she added. “It’s definitely an activity that they enjoy.”
Donna Cunningham, 76, and her husband Gary, 75, each had four bingo cards in front of them, as they do most Thursday afternoons.
“It’s just a social thing. You get to be with friends, play a game,” Donna said. “It’s not for the big prizes, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
At the Senior Center, each player is allowed up to four cards per round and all cards are free.
As expected, the pre-game atmosphere in the Senior Center dining room differs from the buzz that prefaces bingo at Big Lost.
There’s no fourth-beer fervor that comes with the number calling and “bingo” shouting of an evening bar crowd, but the matches in the Senior Center do not lack intensity.
Bingo has no real strategy. Besides paying attention and gaining an advantage by playing more cards than the next player, the game is entirely random with no other discernible edge. However, if it were a game of skill, the focus and experience of the seniors would give them the likely upper hand over their millennial and Generation Z counterparts.
There’s no free beer on the line, but the table of mystery prize bags stirs real competition in the Senior Center.
Once the game starts, the stillness intensifies and the pace picks up. Numbers are called, boards are perused and squares blackened, with a steady tempo that requires a surprising degree of attentiveness.
“You’ve got to keep up,” Donna said. “Especially when you have four cards.”
Mike O’Donnell, who has bowled 300 in a Senior Center game of Xbox bowling, has played bingo at the Senior Center for about three years. But he has about 25 years of bingo experience overall.
“I’ve been playing bingo for a long time. But in here, three years,” he said.
The 65-year-old played at the Knights of Columbus hall when it was in Gillette and has taken to the game consistently since he was about 40.
At the Senior Center, each player can only win twice before the final bingo round, to spread the prizes around. Once a player hits a traditional five-square bingo, the caller selects a new formation using the same board, such as an “L” shape, or notching all of the boxes on the perimeter of the card in a “large frame,” making a square of squares.
“Bingo!” Donna said.
Her prize bag came with a bag with gourmet popcorn, crackers, chicken spread and nuts. It had a decorative item as well. The prizes, which are all donated, have improved in recent months, she said.
Not long after Donna claimed a bingo, O’Donnell, sitting at the same table and proving his skill beyond Xbox bowling, hit a bingo too, with a formation of squares shaped in the number “4.”
“Look at that beautiful four,” McEntee said, checking the validity of his score against her abacus-like ledger. “Mike is one of our frequent flier winners.”
“He’s lucky,” Donna added.
O’Donnell shrugged modestly and sifted through his prize bag, which yielded cookies and shaving cream.
“Are they trying to hint here?” the mustached man said.
McEntee, who when not calling bingo on Thursdays is teaching preschool or galavanting to exotic locales, like India or Denver, was introduced to Senior Center bingo a few years ago through her father.
At the time, she helped him play. Eventually, other players gave him a hand and McEntee began calling the games. Since then, the habit has stuck.
“After he passed away, I just kept on coming,” she said.
For a variety of reasons, the people who have taken to the old and simple game of bingo remain drawn to it.
As different as the player pool is for bar bingo and senior center bingo, the appeal is more similar than unfamiliar. Some combination of the social aspect, the friendly competition and the dopamine hit of hearing a number then seeing it on their board keeps players of all ages coming back.
There’s just something about the distinct rhythm of the static air then the soft reading of the letter and numbers on a bingo ball through a microphone.
It’s timeless and it’s en vogue. It’s old-fashioned and it’s modern.
The main reason is more simple than all of that: “It’s something to do.”