History of Bingo
Bingo is a first cousin of the lottery — a game of chance in which players try to match randomly drawn numbers to win. Most historians agree that modern bingo is based on the Italian National Lottery, or Lo Giuoco del Lotto d'Italia, that began in the early 1500s and is still played weekly. The game is believed to have migrated to France, Great Britain, and other parts of Europe in the 1700s. Players were issued special cards marked with rows and columns of numbers; to win, the numbers called had to form a complete row or column on the card.
In 1929, on the verge of the Great Depression, a toy company owner named Ed Lowe saw a version of this game in Georgia, in which players used beans to cover the numbers on their “cards,” as they were called. Upon his return to New York, Lowe introduced the game, with a few refinements, under the name “beano.” According to the story, one woman who played Lowe's game got so excited when she won that she stuttered out, “Bingo!” instead of “Beano!” The new moniker stuck, and the game grew so popular that Lowe was able to charge his game-hall competitors $1 a year for the right to use the bingo name.
In the 1930s, John Harrah, father of Harrah's Casinos founder William Fisk Harrah, operated a $100-a-week bingo hall in California. He sold the business to his son, who moved it to Reno, Nevada, and built it into a $50,000-a-year operation. When the first Harrah's Casino opened, it was known as “the house that bingo built.”
In the United States, commercial bingo is considered a Class II game and is legal even in most states that prohibit other forms of gambling. The American version of the game uses a field of seventy-five numbers, while European versions use ninety numbers. Bingo is allowed for charitable purposes in Ireland and is highly regulated in Great Britain; it is the only form of gambling allowed in the British military, where it is known as “tombola,” “house,” or “housy-housy.”
Truly high-stakes bingo really came into its own in the 1970s on American Indian reservations. Because tribes are recognized as governments, they are able to offer games that far exceed the prize limits imposed on non-Indian bingo operations. In a very short time, high-stakes bingo palaces became economic engines for impoverished tribes across the United States, bringing in much-needed revenue and providing steady jobs for thousands of people. Today, it isn't uncommon to see tribal bingo operations advertising payouts of $50,000 or $100,000 or even more.