How British is Bingo? You’ll be surprised!

The game of Bingo is as British as fish and chips, red post boxes and afternoon tea, or so you might think. In reality, the game travelled half the world before becoming Britain’s most popular classic numbers game – the modern online version of course now circling the globe again!

By: Andrew Burnett

We’ll give British bingo first go at laying claim to it, though, with not only 3 million estimated players, but also 350+ halls devoted to the numbers game, and legal and regulated online Bingo serving those who prefer to play from the comfort of their homes and mobile devices.

However, the classic game was actually an import to British shores, and had been around for centuries before London decided to promote the game in movie theatres suffering from the advent and rapid spread of the television set!

The Italians are thought to be the inventors of the game back in the early 16th Century, originally known as Il Gioco del Lotto d’Italia, the earliest Italian lottery.

Nowadays, Italy is still one of Europe’s biggest Bingo players, and their Tombola version is a very popular Christmas family game, with the numbers having their own nicknames, just as Bingo does.

It was France that took up the gauntlet next, adding their own Gallic flourish to what was called Le Lotto – the random numbers between 1 and 90 spread across three rows and nine columns, just as today’s classic version.

It wasn’t too long before what we know as Bingo today made its way into Germany, where it also became an educational tool for children, and the game’s Romance roots even saw it head further east to Romania.

With a language based on ‘vulgar Latin’ and sharing features WITH Italian and French, it’s perhaps no surprise that the game also reached the old Ottoman empire lands.

What will shock most is that Romania ranks top 3 for the popularity of Bingo! With Bingo halls, TV shows, and latterly online versions of the game proliferating in Romania, taking it as high as second spot in player numbers.

Of course, very little stopped at Europe’s borders when the USA emerged as a modern nation, and so Bingo headed across the Atlantic, just as the French game of Poque did, eventually becoming modern-day poker!

Bingo in the US started out as the similarly-named Beano, one story telling the tale of American toymaker Edwin Lowe discovering it at a carnival in the state of Georgia.

The name came from players placing a bean on top of the number on their card if it was called out, and when a line was filled they would shout ‘beano!’ Legend has it that one excited player mistakenly cried out ‘Bingo!’ and thus was born the modern popular game.

A decade or more later, during World War II, serviceman passed the time by playing a variant called ‘Housey, Housey’, and some of the names given to specific numbers date from this time.

The number 30, for example, became known as ‘Dirty Gertie’ from the somewhat bawdy soldier song, ‘Dirty Gertie from Bizerte’, a favourite of Allied troops in North Africa.

The Americans would turn Bingo into their own, creating a 75-number version of the game, but as you might expect with such a massive country, multiple versions of the game appeared.

Before online gaming became a thing, people needed somewhere to play – and still do of course – and Bingo became a huge part of the Native American casinos from the late 1980s onward, with Foxwoods Resort alone boasting a 3600-seat Bingo hall!

Coming back to ‘Housey, Housey’, that’s close to the Australian version of the game – ‘Housie’ (and not forgetting the New Zealand cousin ‘SuperHousie’ bonus game!) Despite being a British import in general, the Aussies decided to go with the US numbering, which has only 75 balls.

Perversely again, the letters of BINGO spell out the five columns used, the game’s Australian name coming from the shout of ‘housie’ when a player completes their card first or fastest.

Another land across the Pacific, this time Japan of all places, has recently found itself as a Bingo paradise, with their version Bingo5 – played as a lottery game with prizes of millions of Yen.

As expected, the rules are somewhat different, with players choosing 8 numbers on a 3x3 grid, where each number can be from 1 to 5, hence the game’s Japanese name.

Meanwhile, all the way back in Britain and more than half a century ago, the Bingo name stuck when the war ended and the once-popular dancing, cinema and theatre halls needed new attractions to compete with television.

Bingo halls flourished and soon numbered in their hundreds, and would later offer famous entertainers their first job, as bingo callers, with Take That singer Gary Barlow among them!

Barlow even held a Bingo game for his 10th wedding anniversary with friends and family, although thankfully Russell Crowe didn’t follow suit during his celebrations.

The Aussie actor star of Gladiator was another former Bingo caller, but was sacked for turning the air blue by calling out inappropriate rhyming slang for the numbers – none of which we can reprint here!

Speaking of ‘Blue’, singer from the boyband of that name Simon Webbe also called the numbers, and to round off the showbiz Bingo connection, Westlife’s Kian Egan and Eastenders actor Shane Richie also played the caller role before becoming famous.

As you can see, the history of Bingo is as wide, varied and interesting as any other of the world’s classic games, and we’ll finish off with a story that shows it can also be as lucrative as its ‘colleagues.’

Late last year, in the north of England, Anita Campbell landed two wins totalling more than £1.1million ($1.4million).

The struggling mother-of-two used to frequent a Bingo hall with her mother, but after her mum passed away, she started playing online Bingo.

One week after opening her account, Anita landed a £597,000 jackpot, and ten days later another worth £552,000. She told the press: “It took nearly a week to get over the shock of winning the first time and then I won again. Even now I’m scared to look at my bank balance.”


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