The origins of Bingo

Bingo is one of the most popular games in the world today. In the UK an estimated 3.8 million people are thought to play bingo with some degree of regularity and in the USA recent figures show that somewhere in the region of $90 million is spent playing bingo every single week. The game is also popular in quite a number of non-English speaking countries. Although traditionally played in bingo halls the game is also now hugely popular in an online format which has produced a huge variety of variations on traditional rules.

But what are the origins of the game? In its modern format bingo can be traced back to early twentieth century America. A travelling toy salesman from New York, one Edwin S. Lowe, found himself observing a game at a carnival in Atlanta, Georgia, in which the participants were so enthusiastically engrossed that legend has it the organisers had to eject them in order to close the carnival towards 3 am. The game which was being played was called ‘beano’, and was a variation on a game that had been played in Europe since the Sixteenth Century. Beano was played by a dealer picking out numbered disks from a box and marking their cards with beans when the number called was present on their cards. When all the numbers on a particular card had been called the owner of the card was the game’s winner and would shout ‘beano’.

Lowe learned that the game was becoming popular at town fairs and carnivals in the southern states and saw huge potential in it. He reputedly hired the services of a Columbia University maths professor and set about refining the game, creating clear mathematical rules to govern the odds and increasing the number of number combinations on the cards used.

Lowe set about popularising the game around the USA and it became popular for its simple rules, excitement and small stakes gambling nature. By the 1940s it was a popular social game around the US, often played at home and a favourite as a fund raiser for churches and other community organisations.

The name ‘bingo’ reputedly came into existence when during an early game organised by Lowe in New York one of the participants mistakenly shouted ‘bingo’ rather than ‘beano’ to announce a win. Lowe decided that this was a better name for his game, promptly discarded ‘beano’ in favour of ‘bingo’, and the rest is history.