Close up of bingo cards

Bingo: All You Need to Know

Bingo is an immensely popular game of chance that you can just as easily find in a community centre as a casino as a retirement home. It is especially popular in the English-speaking world (though the US and the UK versions differ by the amount of numbers in play), but its origins actually stretch all the way back to 16th century Italy, before it spread first to France and then finally England in the 18th century. 

Bingo is, in many ways, a riff on lottery games, notably the ancient Chinese game of Keno, as it is also based on numbers being picked at random with the hope of matching those numbers to your personal ticket, but the genius of bingo, and why it has persevered across countries and across centuries, is that that instead of just picking a small selection of numbers and the only way you win is by happening to have those exact numbers on your ticket, the creators of bingo instead changed it that the numbers continue being drawn until one of the ticket holders are able to mark off a full line (vertical or horizontal) of numbers on their particular ticket.

This shifted the high stakes, low-chance play of lottery games towards something with smaller payouts and higher odds, but most importantly an immediacy and sociability that make it an ideal activity for groups of people to enjoy together in friendly competition. 

These are the basics but there are tons of interesting facts and quirks to bingo that are worth knowing. Here are the most notable of these.


Fact 1: No one knows where it got its name from. 

Despite the fact that the history of the game has been well-traced over the centuries, where it got its name from is surprisingly a mystery. Its earliest uses seems to be somewhere in England in the 1920s but it’s not clear whether “bingo!” was based on the English slang term that is called out after the completion of a search or if that slang term came into use as a result of the game. Either way, the current British form of the game was finalized by the first half of the twentieth century and its popularity was solidified after the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 was passed into British law on 1 January 1961.


Bingo cards and balls


Fact 2: US vs UK versions 

There are actually two forms of bingo around these days, the US version and the UK version – and though they have more in common than they don’t, there are some notable differences. Most simply, the British version uses 90 numbers, but the American version only uses 75, but it’s actually the other differences that make the gameplay so different. In truth, when most people think of bingo, unless they’re in the UK, they’re almost definitely thinking of the American version. Certainly, the one that appears in most casinos worldwide and certainly on online casinos are American. That’s because the British version, though more relaxed, lacks some of the US’ panache. 

The US version consists of a block of numbers, usually on a 5×5 grid though it can be larger, placed completely at random and players have to make a line of those 5 (or more) numbers, and they can do so horizontally, vertically, usually diagonally and sometimes even in various shapes like an S-shape, depending on the game. The UK version, on the other hand, consists of a 9×3 grid, meaning 27 spaces, and the way they’re filled out is that each column has three numbers, the first between 1 and 10, the second between 11 and 20, the third between 21 and 30, and so on until we have a full row that might look something like this: 2, 12, 25, 36, 48, 55, 61, 72, 89. The object is to match all 9 numbers in one of the three rows with what is called out. 

This means that the game is much longer as it can take quite a while for someone to match all those 9 numbers and there is no possibility of making matches any way other than horizontally. It’s much closer to a lotto ticket, therefore. Also, unlike the US version, British bingo is normally just played on one ticket at a time, whereas the US version can be played on anywhere between one and fifty (if not more) tickets.

As a result, the British version is a much more relaxed game and is nowhere near as competitive as the American version. The race to shout “Bingo!” before anyone else is much more of an American bingo thing as the fewer numbers, more tickets per person and greater ease of making a line of 5 numbers, means that it can get quite competitive, even quite heated. The UK version certainly has its place, but it’s American bingo where most of the excitement happens.


Fact 3: Rules of etiquette

With the above in mind, it’s no surprise that there kind of doesn’t need to be any specific etiquette rules with the British version beyond basic manners, but because of its much more intense, rowdy nature, it’s no more of surprise that there are a number of important etiquette rules to keep in mind. Basic politeness is still a must and getting genuinely aggressive against other players or the caller is absolutely unacceptable. But the part of the game where things can really get off the rails is when more than one person shouts bingo at a time, which is actually fairly common and is why the shouting of bingo is so much more important in the US version of bingo. That said, the rule of etiquette here is pretty simple: the caller’s word is law, so even if you think you called “Bingo!” before anyone else and the caller gives it to someone else, you have to respect their decision.


close up if bingo cards


Fact 4: The length of games 

Again, because of their nature, UK bingo games can last quite a while, whereas American bingo games tend to be pretty fast and furious. Obviously, it always depends on how quickly a line is made in either version and that can always vary greatly, but as a loose rule, a night of bingo will consist of many games using American bingo, but only a few with the British version. 

Because the US version is more popular worldwide, though, it is the version that you will most commonly find in casinos or bingo halls. The way it works in casinos, then, is that games of bingo are played one after another for hours on end and players can join for as long as they have the money to buy tickets. Games of US bingo are actually a bit longer, usually, when played at charity events or in retirement homes as someone might play with three or four tickets at once, but seldom much more than that,


Fact 5: Bingo halls are quickly dying out

It’s hard to think of any other games of chance that have places specifically dedicated to them (you don’t exactly find casinos with only roulette tables or only slots) but there was once a time when there were plenty of halls dedicated purely to the playing of bingo. These numbers have shrunken quite rapidly over the past decade for the same reason why so many communal spaces like cinemas and arcades have been struggling over the same time: people are spending more and more time online. 

The reasons for this are both complicated and sad, but it says something that while bingo halls are struggling, bingo in casinos is doing just fine. A casino offers the kind of variety that you can find online, but with the added benefit of making for a great night out. The idea of spending time with a set group of people, playing a single game for hours, simply no longer appeals to people as it once did. 

Obviously, in retirement homes, not much has changed in this regard. Bingo isn’t only for old people, despite what some believe, but it’s becoming increasingly the case that the traditional venues dedicated to bingo are skewing older and older. 


Bingo balls and cards


Fact 6: Online live bingo is the new face of bingo

Online bingo usually comes in the form of live games where people can join real games of bingo virtually from wherever they are, and these simulate the real thing pretty well. You obviously lose much of the social aspect, but it still plays mostly like traditional bingo games. There are, however, more automated online bingo games and these are usually played with dozens of bingo cards per game. Keeping track of so many tickets in a real game is obviously impossible, but in these bingo games, they are tracked by the computer. These kinds of bingo games can barely be considered bingo, therefore, as they rely on random number generators and the whole thing starts to become more like online slots than bingo.


Conclusion: Why play bingo  

The big question now, in a time of more gaming options than ever, almost all of which are much more immersive and in-depth than bingo, would you still play a game that is by now nearly half a millennium old? After all, you not only have a wealth of video games to choose from that provide huge immersive worlds to lose yourself in and are much better forms of escapism than a creaky old game like bingo. And if you want to make money off your gaming, there’s nothing that even live online bingo offers that is so much more exciting than, say, live online roulette, and the automated games might as well just be any other slots-like game, or even the lottery. 

The truth is that though live online bingo is perfectly fine, nothing beats the real experience of playing some games with a group of friends in the actual, real world. That such experiences have become increasingly rare for the very reason that bingo halls have been going extinct, only makes them more precious. It’s not the only gaming activity that can be enjoyed with real people, obviously, as everything from playing squash to trivia nights to monthly poker games also offer plenty in this arena.

But there is something about the simplicity of bingo that makes for such an enjoyable night out. Games can be fast and fun, but though in some arenas the more competitive nature of the game can take over, in most cases, it’s still relaxed enough a game to do some actual socializing in between rounds. And though it does require you to pay attention to the number being called out during the game itself, it’s never overly taxing on the brain, so it is a rare game that can be both very relaxing and very exciting at the same time. 

For these reasons alone, I suspect that there’s some life in this very old game yet and that people will be yelling “Bingo!” for many more decades to come. Even it will be more of a niche activity than it once was.

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