Crowds started streaming up the escalator to the Event Center at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa at 1:30 p.m. Monday.

“You can see a sea of people going up there,” Borgata spokeswoman Liza Costandino said, smiling.

Borgata’s Event Center, usually a venue for concert headliners, was being used on this particular afternoon for another purpose — bingo.

The old-fashioned game, usually associated with churches and firehouses, has been amped up by the casino industry, drawing big crowds that play for lucrative prizes.

Bingo has shown incredible staying power in Atlantic City. It has remained a staple for years, despite the array of more contemporary entertainment and gambling attractions offered at the resort-style casino hotels.

“When you come to a casino, everyone hopes to win some money. But with bingo, you don’t have to put up any money to win. That’s why people come to play this game,” Borgata bingo aficionado Denise Cairo, of Galloway Township, explained of the game’s popularity.

With $5,000 in total prize money up for grabs, the Event Center was crowded with about 1,100 bingo fans on Monday afternoon. As bingo host Lori Kelley called out the numbers, the players kept track by filling in their playing cards using pink magic markers.

During one unusually long game, someone prematurely screamed, “Bingo!” The crowd groaned and let out a good-natured boo.

“There’s no booing in bingo,” Kelley joked.

Kelley stood in front of a gigantic, electronic bingo tote board. She drew numbers from a lottery-style hopper that spit out ping pong balls marked with numbers. The next number Kelley called out resulted in a legitimate winner. The crowd erupted in cheers and applause, but the players quickly turned their attention to their score cards as the next game began.

“This is my first time playing here. Everyone’s telling me that I should have beginner’s luck,” gushed Marie Mihalos, of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Sitting at the same table as Mihalos were husband and wife John and Jennie Casiello, of Nutley, Essex County. The Casiellos described themselves as diehard bingo players.

“It’s another reason for coming to the casino. It gives you a chance to win,” Jennie Casiello said.

Casinos don’t charge their customers to play bingo. Unlike the slot machines and table games, bingo doesn’t generate any direct revenue for the casinos. Instead, bingo is a marketing tool to get customers in the door. But once the games are over, the casinos count on bingo players to hit the slots or gambling tables or to spend their money at the restaurants, bars and retail shops.

“It’s all spinoff business,” said Tom Pohlman, general manager of Golden Nugget Atlantic City. “We more than benefit in other parts of the casino.”

Golden Nugget runs major bingo events in Atlantic City, offering up to $20,000 in total prize money, according to the casino’s website. Pohlman noted that Golden Nugget recently increased its bingo schedule from two Mondays each month to three. It also has added Friday night bingo.

Between 800 and 1,200 bingo players pack Golden Nugget’s Grand Cayman Ballroom, Pohlman said. Bingo, he explained, allows the customers to stretch out their playing time and is a fun-filled diversion from the slot machines.

“It takes an hour or an hour and a half to play bingo. Sometimes, they can put $100 in a slot machine and play for just 15 minutes,” Pohlman said.

Joe Lupo, senior vice president of operations at Borgata, said bingo is especially popular among older customers who frequent the casino during weekday afternoons. In that sense, Bingo allows Borgata to cater to a niche audience, he added.

“It’s loyalty-building with this demographic group,” Lupo said. “Obviously, it drives thousands of people into the building to partake in both the gaming and nongaming attractions.”

Most bingo games are reserved for customers who hold casino loyalty cards. Resorts has been sponsoring invitation-only bingo about twice monthly for the past year, but will open the games to the public in December, starting today, spokeswoman Courtney Birmingham said. Resorts customers will simply have to earn two points on their Star Card to be eligible for the public games.

Michael Pollock, a casino analyst and managing director of Linwood-based Spectrum Gaming Group, said bingo is hugely popular at casinos across the country, especially at those owned by Indian tribes.

“It becomes very much a social experience,” Pollock said.

The social aspect of bingo is one thing that attracts Joanne and Sal Bassi, a married couple from Manchester Township, Ocean County. They are usually joined by four or five friends for monthly bingo games at Borgata.

On Monday, the Bassis played bingo both in the morning and afternoon. Joanne Bassi said she scored a $500 prize during a morning game, the first time she had ever won.

“Some people have lucky charms spread out on the table. But my husband is my lucky charm,” she said, noting that the Bassis are newlyweds.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258