Twice-Weekly Games At Hartford Pub Draw Young Players
By MAGDALENE PEREZ, Courant Staff Writer
January 07, 2008
Bingo. The word calls to mind glitzy casinos and folks with snowy-white hairdos gathered in a church basement.
At the Half Door in Hartford, it's a different scene. Every Monday and Thursday nights, patrons in their early 20s and 30s flock to this Irish pub to drink, socialize and mark those bingo cards.
It's not all about winning. There's no cover charge, and the biggest prize for stringing five numbers in a row is two free drinks.
Instead, it's the carefree atmosphere that keeps the clientele coming back for more. Regulars know the bartenders by first name and laugh at the bingo-caller's bad jokes. Groups of friends huddle over the numbered slips of paper in booths with worn, wooden tabletops. And when somebody yells "Bingo!" the ones who haven't won toss their cards in the air in a flurry of good-hearted catcalls and "boos."
"It's just our twist on it," said bingo caller and DJ Tony Carreras. "It's not as high-stakes, and it's a lot more fun."
On a recent Thursday night, things started to warm up about 9, as patrons reported to the bar for their first beers of the night.
"People come right when it starts," said bartender and manager Spiro Koulouris, between fielding a half-dozen orders. "It's a destination."
Jim O'Connell, 24, drove straight from work in Middletown to play, and he and a friend were wearing dress slacks to prove it. In Middletown, his usual bingo experience was of the church-basement variety, and on this night, he was excited to see a younger crowd.
"I love bar bingo," said O'Connell. "It's just a good time to drink and be with friends."
After some technical difficulties with the sound, Carreras, wearing a Shins T-shirt and jeans, started laying down the numbers.
"N39 ... G52 ... B14"
As on any other night, Carreras mixed it up with one-liners only a drunk person would think are funny. A typical joke: "B21 — And if you're not, there's the door." On this evening, he dedicated the No. 16 to Britney Spears' younger, recently impregnated, sister.
It wasn't long before a shout of "Bingo!" went up from the bar.
Peter Weiss, 36, came forward with his winning card — a diagonal streak in green — and traded it in for two Irish whiskeys.
"It's the first time I've won," said Weiss, looking satisfied. As a newcomer to the area, he and his wife started coming to play casual games of bingo as a way to enjoy the evenings.
"It's fun," Weiss said. "It's got a really neighborhood feel."
Not everyone is so casual about it. Sarah Mitchell, 28, is easily the Half Door's most fanatical bingo devotee. An editor at ESPN by day, Mitchell becomes a bingo machine every Thursday night. She brings her own ink stampers — one for each hand — and plays as many as 16 cards at once. She knows all her winning numbers — so far, she has won three times — and plans to change her license plate to B4 after her first lucky ball.
"I've hung up all my winning bingo cards at work," said Mitchell. "I tell people: You can look, but don't touch. The grease from their fingers will ruin the paper."
To win, she recommends playing as many cards as possible and getting in a "runner's stance" when a bingo nears.
Others are more haphazard. Jeff Oken, 36, likes to reuse his bingo cards, stamping first in red, then green and, finally, purple. With so many numbers marked in different colors, it can be confusing.
“I’m a conservationist,” Oken said. “If I’m lucky, I get to purple, but that’s always dangerous.”
It may not be the most surefire method, but Oken is an old hand at then. He and his brother Mike, 34, remember playing bingo here 10 years ago, when the bar had a different name and owner.
Thomas “Tommy” Altmann introduced bingo at this Sisson Avenue address back when the bar was a much-beloved hangout known as the Cool Moose. Altmann, who died in 2005, founded Hot Tomato’s, Churrascaria Braza, Roobar and Pig’s Eye Pub in Hartford and other popular bars and restaurants.
“He definitely was the personality of it all,” said Koulouris. “We were reminiscing and said, “We really should do something to bring the Cool Moose back.’ That’s when we started bar bingo.”
Bingo debuted at the Half Door as a way to enliven slow Monday nights a few months ago, and since then it has attracted more and more followers. When managers added bingo a second night, they noticed a steady uptick in patrons.
On this particular Thursday night in December, the peak hit at about 11:30, when more than 80 people were packed into the bar: “This is the craziest it’s been,” Carreras said.
Around midnight, it was time to call “final bingo,” a special round in which the player must take an “X” down the center of the card to win. No matter how many times Carreras explains this, there’s always someone who mistakenly calls bingo with no “X.”
This night was no different, and the unlucky “winner” was sent packing.
Soon it was last call, but few were happy to go home. Least of all Mitchell, who can hardly make it through a week without her bingo fix.
“Last week, they didn’t have it because of a snowstorm,” she said. “That’s a baloney excuse. I get the shakes when I don’t play.”
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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