Melanie Sims – Associated Press

They slink off to smoke-filled rooms every week to engage in activities deemed illegal in Tennessee, Hawaii and Utah. Some of them spend a chunk of their rent money at the door.

Others go home a couple gr

and richer.

They are bingo players, and not all of them look like the blue-haired ladies of yore.

Bingo buff Tierney Relf of Indianapolis has ‘locs, as a matter of fact. And at 24, it’s likely the die-hard players with whom she shares space at the local Knights of Columbus hall have bingo caddies older than she.

Relf bought her first batch of bingo cards when she joined her aunts for a couple sessions a few years ago. Somewhere between winning a $100 here and $500 there, the otherwise typical 20-something got hooked on the old-school pastime.

” I have a big bag with all my bingo stuff in it. Four dabbers, some tape — I tape the cards down to the table. Sometimes I use glue to put them together. I have chips — magnetic chips that have little rings around ‘em and a magnetic thing to pick ‘em up,” she said, laughing.

Dabbers, daubers, dobbers or dotters are the sometimes fluorescent, every-color-of-the-rainbow foam-tip ink bottles that bingo players use to mark called numbers on their cards.

If you didn’t know that, then get to Googling: Bingo is quickly becoming the next old-is-cool-again hobby, right up there with knitting.

Disbelievers need only check out ABC’s latest primetime game show, “National Bingo Night” on Friday nights, which gives in-studio and at-home winners trips to New York City, and passes to the sets of “Ugly Betty” and “Desperate Housewives.”

Further evidence is found in online community Facebook groups like “Bingo Should Be Considered a Sport,” which includes the description: “Bingo is not just for the old and decrepit. It takes a good eye, a quick hand, and patience. And if chess and checkers can be considered a sport there is no reason why Bingo can’t.” The group has 201 members, and while people Relf’s age are more likely to talk about Hermès Birkin bags than bingo bags, they’re not alone in their infatuation with the game. It’s becoming increasingly, albeit quietly, apparent that bingo isn’t just grandma’s pastime anymore.

Tough number to hit

At about 23 years old, John Jeffcoat traveled across the country, to the U.K. and even through the waters of the Caribbean to film “Bingo the Documentary.” The film was released in 2004, but even before then, Jeffcoat said he could see the beginnings of a bingo trend brewing among a younger set.

” At the halls, I saw kids who were in high school. They might be on dates. The occasional daughter or son taking their mother. It was sporadic,” he said. “But I noticed more of the younger people in the bingo events — themed nights at bars and restaurants.”

Getting hard statistics and clear-cut demographics on the bingo crowd is difficult for the very same reason Jeffcoat found shooting his documentary tough: Unlike in the U.K., American bingo isn’t overseen by any particular governing body.

But if you search “bingo” in the “groups” category on Facebook, you’ll see University of Rhode Island student Sara Marzinzik’s group right there among the listings for 80-member group “Drunken Bingo Sunday Nights at Legends” and 35-member group “Drag Bingo Rocks My Socks.”

Marzinzik’s group’s tagline: “time to dob it like it’s hott,” a nod to rapper Snoop Dogg’s 2004 single “Drop It Like It’s Hot” — and just one indication of how young bingo’s newest breed is. The group, which is one of dozens, began as a way to organize her co-workers at a Portsmouth, N.H., water park to join her in playing bingo.

” I hadn’t met anyone who actually played, but I get a lot of people addicted,” she said.

The Facebook group, now just shy of 100 members, has grown since Marzinzik launched it, starting with about 20 co-workers. “I don’t know half the people in it,” she said.

An alternative thing-o

Jeffcoat, who captured everyone from cruise-ship vacationers to a welfare recipient playing the game, said bingo is just one of those fun, quirky things that hook people. In fact, his wife, who helped him make the documentary, insisted on playing every time they stopped for a shoot.

Kellee Patrick, 23, of Shiloh, Ill., just thinks spending less than $40 to get a drink, a plate of shrimp, coleslaw and fries — in addition to a shot at winning money — is a great substitute for the usual club-and-casino scene.

As an added bonus, she said, “It’s still like giving back, to a church’s profit. It’s not like you’re giving it to Donald Trump when you lose it at the boat.”

Jeffcoat said that bingo as an alternative is kind of why it’s caught on outside of the church-and-recreational-hall scene. There’s Gay Bingo in Seattle, where drag queens call the B21s and I19s to raise funds for the Lifelong AIDS Alliance. “Bingo the Documentary” even features bingo at a bar in New York City, where patrons play for drinks.

It’s still a gamble

If you don’t think that kind of bingo can breathe new life into an old diversion, then you probably underestimated what Stitch ‘n Bitch could do for knitting.

” National Bingo Night” creator Andrew Glassman hopes the retro feel of bingo will reel in the young-adult component of the age 6-to-96 demographic he’s targeting.

” I went to a bingo hall, which is not the sort of place you’d normally find me,” said Glassman, who’s actually one of the guys behind reality show “Average Joe.” “I noticed just a good-natured spirit to the competition.”

And while some young bingo players might say “good-natured” should not be mistaken for “warm and friendly” when describing the good-luck-troll-toting, reserved-seating, smoky-room world of bingo — they all agreed that playing is a whole lot of fun.

It’s uncertain whether or not “dobbing it like it’s hott” will replace pearl stitching as the next hip and happening thing you thought only your chain-smoking Great Aunt Hilda would enjoy.

But, as Marzinzik’s group name suggests: it’s true, “BINGO: not just for old people.”