From Bingo Halls to Bingo Sites – The History of Bingo

Bingo is everywhere, and it feels like it always has been. We love the big pay-outs, we love the excitement, but more than anything we love the social occasion. While the age-old imagery of bingo halls up and down the country filled with happy gamers may have given way to the virtual bingo rooms, the global love of the game certainly hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s continued to go from strength to strength. 

But how has this game, revered for its ability to bring the community together, gone from strength to strength and successfully move from the bingo hall to the bingo site and where did it all begin?

Embassy Bingo Hall, Wallasey – Image source: Wikimedia

An Italian story

You wouldn’t be alone in thinking that bingo’s beginnings were formed in the halls of either the UK or the United States. While these are two of the biggest bingo playing nations, and while this is true to a certain extent, its origins are rather different and much older than you may expect.

To go back to what can be considered as the first iteration of bingo, we need to go back almost five hundred years into the heart of Italy with the game known as ‘Lo Giuoco del Lotto d’Italia’, or the Italian National Lottery as we would refer to it. Dating back to the year 1530, it was a weekly affair that still is played across the country to this day every Saturday night.

Its original gameplay was, in fact, quite similar to what we would refer to today as bingo. Players had cards with aligned rows upon which they matched their numbers with the drawn numbers from the pot.

It took almost two hundred years for this game to make the short trip over the Alps into France when, in the late 1770s, a similar game was introduced to the French population called ‘Le Lotto’. Almost exclusively reserved for the wealthy and aristocracy, they decided to shake things up a bit. Moving away from the cards of the Italian version, the French introduced the traditional three rows and nine verticals that we see in the 90-ball game today. This was complemented by chips numbered from one to 90 with each player being dealt a card before the caller would draw a chip from a bag and announce the number.

It was another few decade until it made its way over to Germany and the UK. In Germany, however, it used as a mathematical learning game for children and eventually became what we would refer to today as Tombola.

But, how does the national lotto of Italy, a game reserved for the French upper echelons, and a learning game for the children of Germany turn into the modern game that we see today?

BEANO!

The modern word of bingo can be attributed to a US-based Polish toy salesman by the name of Edwin Lowe way back in 1929. Lowe witnessed a version of the game being played at a carnival in Atlanta, Georgia by the name of ‘Beano’. As the story goes, players used hard, uncooked beans to mark the called numbers on their cards which gave birth to the name ‘Beano’. He loved every second of it before rushing home and introducing it to his friends and family in New York.

On hosting one of his beano nights with his friends, one friend apparently shouted the word “bingo” by accident in all the excitement.

Being a salesman through and through, he quite liked the ring to the word “bingo” and thought it would likely give the game more appeal. After marketing the game appropriately, Lowe sold his first set of 12 cards for a dollar and two bucks for the set of 24. He soon realised, however, that players were winning too freely and so the winning jackpots were smaller and, therefore, not enough to tempt players to join on mass. To make it truly appealing, he needed fewer winners, more squares on the card, and better jackpots.

In order to do so, he hired a math professor from the University of Columbia by the name of Carl Leffler. Leffler managed to increase the number of combinations and by 1039 has created 6,000 different bingo cards ready for use.

It didn’t take long for this new, updated and challenging version of the game to spread through the States and become popular amongst many communities, especially with the Church community who played as part of their social events for fundraising.

On British soil

While it wasn’t named so until the 1930s thanks to the Americans, the game that we refer to now as bingo originally came over to the UK in the 1800s. Its exact origins are not clearly known, and it is unclear as to why the British version utilises the 90-ball version of the game rather than the 75-ball American version. It was in the UK that the word association and number slang that we know and love today was born.

The game was played regularly during the Second World War when it was used as a time for distraction and entertainment for both the troops in the field and the civilians back at home to boost morale.

But it was after the war that bingo really boomed in the UK, especially in the new go-to holiday camp destinations across the country. A game of bingo truly became a staple for British holidaymakers and travellers alike and a game used to unwind and have fun with friends and family alike.

Taking it back from their holidays and into their day-to-day lives, the 1960s saw the rise of bingo halls up and down the country. With the UK Government passing the Betting and Gambling Act in 1960, the game took to a whole new level.

This version of the game continues to this day with converted cinemas, theatres and halls, coupled with purpose-built bingo halls, being the venue for millions and millions of punters over the past six decades playing the game they love.

It wasn’t until the rise of internet that the way we enjoyed the game of bingo changed.

Moving online

At the onset of the new millennia, technology was booming, and the internet was really starting to take off. By the mid-2000s online was starting to become the go-to destination for most of our daily lives.

The first online bingo site can be traced back to 1996 with an American site called Bingo Zone which, amazingly, still exists today. Unsurprisingly, back in 1996 the original version of the site was incredibly basic, but it paved the way for the online variation of the game that we know and love today.

This, for the very first time, gave people the chance to play bingo and win big jackpots all from the comfort of their own home. But, for such a social game where the very word originated at a New York party, why was this the start of the decline for bingo halls up and down the country?

In 2007, the UK Government introduced a smoking ban across the country making it illegal to smoke inside public premises. With studies suggesting that two-thirds of all bingo players were smokers this had a detrimental affect on the footfall to the bingo halls and many were suggesting that this would be the bitter end for the once beloved bingo hall.

However, just like the astute businesses they are, modern casino groups took advantage of this downturn and used the physical bingo halls as a way to diversify their online offerings, as well as revenue opportunities and customer base. Although operating on a much smaller operation, and with much fewer still standing than in the heydays of the 1960s, the bingo halls today act as a place to socialise and play. Crucially, however, for their casino operators, they act as another form of marketing to get people playing both online and offline.

Conclusion

The game of bingo goes back much further than you may immediately think and has been enjoyed by millions and millions of people worldwide in the circa 500 years it has existed across all of its various forms.

Today, this latest form is online bingo, which is going from strength to strength. As more of our lives turn to digital, this is only going to strengthen online bingo’s allure. However, even with the shift in the way we live our lives, going to an actual bingo hall and playing the game with a greater focus on the social aspect will likely never entirely disappear. At the end of the day, it was always intended to be a game played with others. The very word bingo was created at a party after all!

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Sarah Price - Editor

Sarah Price is a well know expert in the field of Online Bingo. She began her career with an MSc in Computing and IT from Cardiff University before working within the industry with names like Foxy and 888Ladies.