Mississippi Gaming Commission shuts down Oxford restaurant’s weekly bingo night
The folks at Tallahatchie Gourmet in Oxford got a big surprise a couple weeks ago when a visit from the Mississippi Gaming Commission shut down their weekly Bingo Night event.
The bingo night, which has been a mainstay for years at the New Albany location, involved a $2 buy-in, with the winner keeping all the entry fees. The restaurant did not make any money from the weekly game, aside from food and beverage sales. The average prize money was around $40.
Tallahatchie Gourmet Owner Angele Mueller says she wasn’t aware of a problem with bingo night, until a guest at the restaurant noticed a MGC vehicle sitting outside the restaurant, with a gaming official inside.
“One day we were playing and everyone was coming in saying, ‘What’s that gaming commission car doing in the parking lot?’” she said. “Somebody went out there and asked if they could help him, and he said they’d received a complaint that we were playing bingo, and that we can’t play.”
After speaking with the official, Mueller decided to play one last game before suspending the event indefinitely. After communicating with MCG’s Charitable Gaming Division, which focuses exclusively on bingo, Mueller says she was told the gaming commission received a complaint, and after investigating, their main issues were that they were calling the game bingo and using official bingo cards.
Each official bingo card has a corresponding serial number, and some frequent players have figured out a way to use the serial numbers to cheat at different bingo halls. For reference, the bingo halls closest to Oxford are located in Grenada, Nesbit and Tupelo, respectively. That means in order to obtain bingo cards and use them to cheat in an alternative location, one would have to travel at least 43 miles.
Director of Charitable Gaming Emmett “Sonny” Weathersby says bingo cards are heavily regulated, because serial numbers are what the state uses to track revenue.
“If the cards used are actual bingo cards, they could take them into a bingo hall and try to use them,” Weathersby said. “We use the serial numbers to track the amount of money the state makes from bingo. It earned $90 million in the last year alone.”
According to the gaming commission’s website, to be a licensed bingo hall, a business would need to be a “licensed charitable organization.” All 75 bingo halls, from Iuka to Biloxi, are licensed 501(c)(3) organizations who donate to charities such as children’s advocacy groups, animal shelters and more.
Because Tallahatchie Gourmet is a for-profit business, they cannot legally play bingo under any circumstances.
“We told them to do Trivial Pursuit or something like that,” Weathersby said. “Don’t call it bingo because we get calls from halls asking why they can’t they do it for free. Bingo is double-regulated because it falls under the gaming regulations and charitable organization regulations.”
After MCG shut down the bingo night at Tallahatchie Gourmet, Mueller says she got an idea. Because the gaming commission took issue with the fact they were playing bingo more than anything, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I figured we’d call the game “Hotty Toddy,” she said. “At the top of the card it says T-O-D-D-Y, and instead of numbers it’s things that have to do with Oxford.”
“Toddy,” the bingo-like game Mueller created, features names of popular Oxford haunts, like the Grove, Square Books and even Star Package store in place of numbers. They haven’t hosted a game night yet, but Mueller says trial games the staff has played have gone well.
However, the gaming commission has not given her a clear answer as to whether or not Mueller is allowed to host “Toddy” game nights in her restaurant.
“I asked the gaming commission guy, ‘Is this going to be a problem?’ and his reply was, ‘Ma’am, we only police bingo,’” she said.
Weathersby confirmed the biggest problem, aside from the fact they were technically gambling, was the fact they were calling the game “bingo.”
“They can call it Hotty Toddy or Trivial Pursuit or Jump Over the Moon or whatever they want to call it,” he said. “Just don’t call it bingo.”