Arguably one of the most popular pastimes in the UK, this game actually has very different origins. Like most that are associated with the gambling industry, the origins of bingo can be traced back to Europe with its roots said to have been established in Italy as early as the 16th Century (around 1530).
The way this format worked is not too dissimilar to the game that we all know today; essentially players would all have cards with numbered squares on them and then the winning numbers would be subsequently drawn out of a sack.
It is understood that it was an offshoot of the state-run Italian lottery ‘Il Gioco del Lotto d’Italia’ (which interestingly can still be played today in the country every Saturday). Following this, like a number of games, this soon spread to France (around the late 1770s) and was known as ‘Le Lotto’, commonly played by the aristocracy which was typical around that time. Like many games that made their way to France at around that time (including blackjack), the format of this game changed slightly with a young Frenchman creating an alternative version.
As such, he took it a step further, utilising technology as well to print numbers on cards; three vertical horizontal rows and nine vertical, with each square on the cards having random numbers ranging from one through to 90 in different arrangements (which is arguably the ‘90 ball bingo’ that is so well known today). Just like the previous concept of the game, numbers on wooden chips were still drawn from a sack, while the first person to fill a horizontal row was deemed the winner.
At around the time of the 18th Century, the game arrived on British shores while also spreading across other European regions. As opposed to when it first arrived in France, the game became popular in industrial towns and as a result, the working class, who saw this as a way to ‘blow off steam’.
In the 19th Century (the 1880s to be precise) the game had reached Germany with the country starting to notice the growing popularity of the game in neighbouring France however, German academics realised that this could also be used as an educational tool in order to be able to teach children to learn mathematics. Similar to ‘Le Lotto’, the German version of the game involved having to pick numbers out of a large drum, while in order to win, students would have to be able to cover the corresponding numbers or spell out a word. In modern society, the game is still played in the country today, however, with a slight difference. When a player has filled out a card, they call out the word “voltreffer”, which is roughly translated as “perfect”.
Bingo migrates West
Like many gambling orientated games, bingo eventually reached America at the turn of the 20th Century, along with the first swathe of immigrants from Europe, however, again there was a slight variation to the original game in early America compared to how we know it today. This was coined as ‘Beano’ and was particularly popular at local carnivals. Drawing comparisons to the French game, though with fewer numbers, players were required to cover their squares with beans, which meant the winner would ultimately shout “Beano”. According to legend, in 1929 Edwin S Lowe, a struggling toy-maker was inspired to create his own version of the game at a time when the Great Depression and Wall Street Crash had the country in a vice-like grip of fear and considerable uncertainty.
Having seen an excitable round of “Beano” in New York, this gave him the idea that he needed to evolve the game and becoming a caller, he invited a group of friends to play his version with the numbered cards. As a result of the tension, one player became particularly flustered that he yelled out “Bingo” with uncertainty and hence, the name was said to have stuck.
While there may be some truth to this account of events, it was understood that the game had been known as “Bingo” in the UK for years before and it was likely that it gave its name to the American style, however, what is known is that the game single-handedly helped Lowe to save his toy company.
From there on, Lowe took it a step further and built this out, starting to print cards, increase the number of combinations and effectively packaged and produced the game, selling it under the name of “Bingo”. Born from this success was another game that Lowe created, called “Yahtzee”.
Like many games with a gambling nature to them around that era, Bingo became popular with Allied troops during World War II (also World War I before it had become advanced) and this helped to act as a form of distraction as well as entertainment, during what were testing and stressful times. By the 1940s, people were playing bingo across the country.
Bingo in the UK
It wasn’t really until the 1960s when the game of bingo really exploded in the UK becoming considerably popular. In 1961, to be precise, commercial bingo was essentially developed from nowhere, with Eric Morley, director of Mecca at the time, claiming that he was responsible for the invention of this.
Regardless of whether this was true, Morley certainly helped to popularise the game across the UK though it was believed he famously said “I invented bingo”, while some of the main media headlines during the 1960s varied from “Bingo’s hold on womenfolk”, “Woman’s Bingo bonanza” and “Wife’s Bingo led to divorce”, which highlights the grip that it appeared to have on that particular demographic of UK society.
A Times article published on 19 December 1961 even stated that “Gambling today is a response to commercially offered opportunity”, with the term ‘Bingoholics’ coined. Ther media continued to play their part even suggesting that from the day that commercial bingo started, press coverage induced a notion that women’s gambling was a ‘new dangerous phenomenon fuelled by greedy leisure entrepreneurs’, again printed in the same Times article.
The emergence of bingo halls really helped to motivate an upward surge of the game and as a result, it became even more popular. Nearly every small town in the country had their own bingo hall, as Mecca took full advantage of the demand for the game, while it became increasingly popular at seaside holiday resorts.
Growth of Bingo into a major entertainment offering
Following a successful few decades for the bingo industry, especially with the launch and expansion of other dedicated bingo companies.
With the passing of the 1968 Gaming Act, this meant that more possibilities were available for bingo players when they visited bingo halls, including access to some of the first gaming machines which expanded the amount of entertainment that was available to patrons. This led to the creation of what was called the ‘Link’ or National Game, whereby a considerable jackpot was formed across all of the social clubs around the UK and every player who called bingo first in each location would have their ticket sent to the central National Game computers where each one would be analysed. The winner would be the one who achieved ‘Bingo’ with the least numbers and as a result, the jackpot would often be in the low six figures.
While Mecca was arguably the first major bingo company having bought numerous bingo halls around the UK and put their branding on them, there was also a good number that started to appear. Often perceived as being in direct competition with Mecca was ABC (Alpha Bingo Clubs) who formed in 1961 and after building a successful presence, eventually became Coral Social Clubs after being bought by Star in 1970, however, they did retain their Coral name. This was until they merged with Granada 1991, before completely rebranding as Gala in October of that year.
By now, bingo was essentially a monopoly. Gala followed an aggressive expansion strategy adding 17 Ritz clubs to their portfolio in 1998. By 2000, it was the largest bingo operator of its time even eclipsing Mecca. Interestingly in 2015, Mecca owner Rank bought Gala Coral bingo clubs ahead of Coral’s merger with Ladbrokes.
Transition to online bingo
While online casinos in general typically started to become popular around the early 2000s, it would be a few years later until bingo followed suit online and it wasn’t really until the late 2000s when the first bingo sites started to emerge.
In no time at all, these became arguably more popular than bingo halls, especially with the branding and marketing efforts behind some of the most attractive brands such as Foxy Bingo. According to Statista, the online bingo industry today is worth in excess of £1 billion. It was initially predicted among many that the social aspect of the traditional bingo hall would be unable to emulate its success online, however, there were many different advantages for the online bingo player.
Of particular interest for online bingo players was the different variations of bingo available which started to emerge from 2010 onwards with the 90 ball and 75 ball and 80 ball varieties giving customers more of a choice, while it became clear that players began to favour the faster nature of the online bingo industry.
Bingo players who enjoy being able to partake in their favourite activity online, now have hundreds of different brands to be able to choose from, each one having their own advantages, while there are also the major ones such as Wink Bingo who are owned by major gambling operator 888 Holdings as well as Jackpot Joy, while Mecca also has its own online version. One reason why the main online bingo brands were able to significantly capitalise on success was that they leveraged celebrities to promote their brands, in the case of actress Barbara Windsor who became synonymous with Jackpot Joy.
Bingo networks were also created, such as Dragonfish, which are essentially software providers which different brands would use and as a result some of the more in the know players would become accustomed to the look and feel of a bingo site and be able to recognise the network that their favourite site was running off.
Not just popular in the UK, there are many different countries around the world which have a huge online bingo following, with a number of bingo operators in the UK also accepting players from different countries.
From its humble origins in Italy, it is clear to see how much the game of bingo has developed over the centuries and as technology continues to move forward, it is clear to see that the game still has considerable potential. While the traditional bingo scene may never be what it was, there is a definite argument that as far as online bingo is concerned there are many more opportunities.