The usual prize at bingo is cash, from $50 or $100 for a simple bingo at a small hall all the way up to $1 million or more in special high-stakes games on Native American reservations or in casinos. But the prize can also be a car, a trip, or even novelty prizes (in New York, one restaurant gives away margaritas to the lucky winners).
The size of the typical jackpot is based on how much money is coming in. Most halls are required to payout at least 50 to 60 percent of the money they take in. Likewise, the total money they can give out per game or session is often limited by state or local rules. In Georgia, for instance, halls can’t give out more than $1,100 on a single night, though many states are more generous than that. Louisiana, for example, allows $4,500 per session.
A progressive jackpot is a prize that keeps growing from game to game until somebody wins it. The house kicks off a progressive game by "seeding the pot" with an attractive amount of money — say $500 — instead of simply setting the jackpot as a percentage of card sales. To win the progressive, a player must have an extraordinary win, such as a blackout (covering every space on a bingo card) in only 49 balls. If no one wins, the house chips in extra money to sweeten the pot even more. The jackpot may get bumped up by $100 per game over a number of sessions or weeks.
Sometimes a progressive jackpot gets so big that the bingo hall by law has to cap it, and the prize stays at the same level until somebody wins. In some states, such as Michigan, there is no limit to how much money a player can win in progressive bingo.
The popularity of big prizes has allowed bingo to expand into more lucrative games. The most exciting new phenomenon in the bingo world is the spread of high-stakes games. There are literally dozens of halls scrambling to set up games that promise to pay $50,000, $100,000, or even $1 million to some lucky winner. The jackpots are so high that some hall owners take out insurance policies so they won’t go broke!
Some of the super-jackpots are set up to be "step games," where the game pays different amounts depending on how quickly the winner gets a blackout. For example, a blackout in 49 numbers might pay $50,000, while a blackout in only 45 numbers would earn $100,000. Because it’s very hard to get a blackout in so few calls, it may be weeks or even months before anybody wins it.
The super-jackpots are usually winnable during certain sessions. For example, the Thunderbird Entertainment Center in Norman, Oklahoma, has a $100,000 payout game offered six sessions a week — five nights and one afternoon. In order to win this or other super-jackpots, players usually have to get a special pattern within a certain number of calls, and then they may have to play another game of chance, like spinning a wheel or picking an envelope off a prize board.
As you can imagine, the odds of winning are pretty slim, so it may be weeks, months, or years before somebody gets that top prize. Then again, somebody could win it on the first game of the first session on the first day it’s offered.
Players who hit a big bingo in a super-jackpot don’t just walk away with a fat check. First, the bingo balls are collected and sent to an independent testing lab to make sure there has been no tampering, and the insurance company reviews a security videotape. The check is usually cut about 48 hours after the win. If the jackpot is less than $100,000, it may be paid out in a single lump sum, but larger jackpots are usually paid out in the form of yearly payments.
Satellite bingo is another way bingo halls can offer larger jackpots. This is a linked bingo game played simultaneously at bingo halls in a certain area. An outside company links the bingo halls by satellite (hence the name of the game!). The prizes in satellite bingo games are often much larger than what individual halls could offer. Satellite bingo is only found in certain states, such as Washington, where the top prize in evening games is $50,000.
If you are interested in going home with some of those sweet winnings, it’s important that you understand the basics of the game. In the next section we’ll look at the game equipment and how it’s used.