How to Play Bingo

The bingo card consists of a 25-by-25-square field. Five vertical columns are headed B, I, N, G, and O; except for the N column, each has five numbered squares. The center square in the N column traditionally is an unnumbered “free” space, which can be used to complete a bingo up and down, across, or diagonally. Getting a bingo without using the free space is called a “hard-way bingo.”

There are permanent and disposable bingo cards. Permanent cards are thick and have small sliding “windows” that you pull out to cover your numbers; at the end of the game, you simply slide the windows back and play the same card again. Disposable cards, which are more common, are thin pieces of paper, often with more than one card on a sheet, and they are thrown away when the game is over.

◄ A standard bingo card. At many bingo halls, the top of the card carries the establishment's logo. The “free” square also may bear a logo or other symbol.

In the United States, bingo uses a field of numbers from 1 to 75. The numbers 1 through 15 are always found in the B column, 16 through 30 are in the I column, and 31 through 45 are in the N column. The numbers 46 through 60 are in the G column, and 61 through 75 are in the O column.

Although some bingo halls use a computerized program to generate the numbers, most still use actual bingo balls. Balls labeled with the letter-and-number combinations are kept moving in a large wire cage or kettle-like container, and forced air pops out one ball at a time. The bingo caller announces the number on the ball. Once drawn, the ball is set aside until the end of the game so it won't be called twice. In most bingo palaces, large electronic boards around the room light up the numbers as they're drawn. These boards also often display the pattern being played for a given game.

When you complete the pattern on your card, you yell out, “Bingo!” and wait for a clerk to come and verify your win. Play is halted until the win is confirmed. Prizes are divided evenly among multiple winners.

It's crucial that you pay attention during your bingo session and make sure you mark the numbers on your cards as they are called. Most bingo halls require that “bingo” be made on the last number called; they won't pay on so-called sleepers, or cards where a previous number created a winner but wasn't called by the player.

At most bingo halls, you can play as many cards as you like, or as many as you can handle. It isn't uncommon for veteran players to follow a dozen or more cards in a given game. If you're just starting out, you might want to restrict yourself to three or four cards at a time until you become more adept at finding the numbers.

The Bingo Atmosphere

Today's commercial bingo halls are huge, buzzing caverns of almost ceaseless activity. Many bingo halls allow smoking, although some have separate rooms — and even separate games — for smokers and nonsmokers. When the games are separated like this, the payouts typically are smaller for each game. Several state and local governments have enacted laws prohibiting smoking in public places; American Indian bingo halls usually are exempt from these laws, but many of them have built separate smoking areas in response to player demand.

Even when a bingo hall is part of a casino, it will be separated from the main gaming floor. The reason for this is twofold. First, bingo halls make their money by charging admission fees, rather than encouraging players to just walk up to a table and place a wager. Second, the noise of the gaming floor would interfere seriously with players' ability to hear the bingo numbers being called. In some cases, usually at tribal casinos, the bingo hall may be located in a different building from the casino.

Bingo Etiquette

Perhaps more than any other casino game, bingo is a social activity. It isn't uncommon for players to form lasting friendships with the floor clerks and other personnel at their favorite bingo hall. Nor is it unusual for players to bond with each other, at least for a given session. Many bingo palaces encourage this friendly, family-like atmosphere, offering, for example, “birthday bingo” once a month to celebrate players' birthdays or specials where everyone at the game winner's table shares the wealth.

In this kind of atmosphere, novices are welcomed into the fold and are likely to find a seasoned veteran offering (solicited or unsolicited) tips and advice. On the other hand, unfamiliarity with bingo etiquette can lead to some hard feelings or harsh words from the regulars. The following are among the most important etiquette rules:

  • Buy a card for one of your neighbors at least once a session.

  • When you win, “share the wealth” by tossing a lucky dollar or two to the people at your table.

  • Don't be standoffish, but try to keep your conversations brief and your voice low so the people around you can hear the caller.

  • If you get up to get a drink or a snack, ask your neighbors if you can bring anything back for them so they don't have to miss a game.

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