What’s a game that’s easy to play? Loved by everyone? And popularized by a struggling NYC toy salesman? If you said “Bingo”…BINGO! What you probably didn’t know about this fun-to-play classic is that it owes its existence to a bag of beans and a good old dose of everyday magic.
Our brief Bingo lesson starts in 1530s Italy, where Bingo’s precursor, a game called Lo Giuoco del Lotto D’Italia—a weekly lottery that’s still played today—has taken the country by storm. By the 1770’s, the game has made its way to France where it takes on the abbreviated name, Le Lotto. By the 1800’s it’s being played in Germany, which gave us the root word for “lotto”: Lot, meaning “fate”, and hinting at the random chance of winning. By 1929, the game finally reaches North America, where the modern story begins.
That fateful year is where our bag of beans enters the picture. With America headed into the the Great Depression, a down-on-his-luck toy salesman, Edwin S. Lowe, stumbled upon a carnival game that would change his life forever. The game, a derivative of the old European Lotto, was called Beano. Players were given a card with a series of numbers on it, along with a bag of beans to use as play markers. A caller would pull numbered slips from an old cigar box, and when someone scored enough beans to make a line they’d yell “BEANO!” before collecting their prize. Sound familiar?
Taken with the game, Mr. Lowe brought the beans back to his home of New York City, where they’d have their magic moment. One night, Lowe gathered some friends to try out his newfound game. Libations flowed. As the evening progressed, the group fell deeper and deeper under the spell of the lively, easy-to-play game. Then, during a heated round of play, one of the guests scored a big win. Bursting with excitement, she accidentally yelled “B-B-B-BINGO!” instead of “BEANO!”, and the planets aligned. Bingo was born!
The toy salesman knew instantly that he had a hit on his hands. “I cannot describe the strange sense of elation which that girl’s cry brought to me,” Lowe said. “All I could think of was that I was going to come out with this game, and it was going to be called Bingo!1”
In an effort to build out the game and reduce duplicate wins, Lowe hired Carl Leffler, a math professor from Columbia University, to increase the number of bingo card combinations. As the game grew in demand, and Lowe’s need for unique cards increased, so too did the difficulty of figuring out additional combinations. Ultimately, Lowe found himself paying the professor $100 per card, roughly $1,548 in today’s money, a veritable fortune.
Today, Edwin S. Lowe and his bag of beans are long gone. The pure adrenalin-filled excitement of a Bingo win however, not only lives on but has grown in popularity. Around the world, crowds assemble in Bingo Halls and Charitable Gaming Centers hosted by energetic callers who shout out ball numbers and letters, or online where the same excitement is generated by computer. Players mark their cards with ink daubers, touchscreens or a click of the mouse.
From its storied past, to ubiquitous present, the popularity of Bingo remains as strong as ever. And to think, we owe it all to a simple bag of beans. Let’s take a look at a few modern magical milestones in the history of this glorious game.
- 2008: The biggest win ever recorded is paid out to Christine Bradfield at a Bingo Club in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. She wins £1,101,686 ($2,185,260).
- 2009: the “highest” game of bingo ever played sees a group of climbers compete on the slopes of Mt. Everest, 17,500ft above sea level.
- 2010: The largest online bingo game is organized by Coca Cola Japan. 493,824 players compete in Tokyo.
- 2012: John Orchard of the UK wins £5.9Million playing bingo online—the largest bingo win in history
- 2019: A bingo card measuring 400 ft² is created at a casino in Chandler Arizona. At the same game, a record-breaking set of bingo balls was also unveiled. Yowza!
Ready for a little Bingo in your life?
1Source: “Gambling Times Guide to Bingo” by Roger Snowden Reprinted by permission of Roger Snowden © 1986 Gambling Times Incorporated