“How would you like to go out for dinner tonight?” my normally thrifty husband Jeff asked on Saturday afternoon. What? Jeff is actually willing to pay for dinner? You bet I’m going! Then I found out it was at St. Catherine of Sienna’s Bingo night. Three dollar hot dogs, four dollar hamburgers. I shouldn’t have been surprised. But we went, and I had a darn good hamburger too. Those Knights of Columbus sure know how to flip a burger!
Not only did I get to eat out, I won a jackpot too! Woo hoo! I’m rich! But only half as rich as I could have been. Two of us hit bingo at the same time so we split the pot. And that’s just fine. I got more than my money’s worth of fun playing the game surrounded by good people.
My first recollection of playing bingo goes all the way back to my early childhood in the 1950s. My family was on the way to our grandparents’ house in Colfax. My teenaged sisters brought out a set of car bingo cards. The cards were made of layers of cardboard and had twenty five squares, each with a little sliding transparent red door. There was a picture in each square of something to look for outside the car window. I remember a picture of a cow, a gas station, a stop sign, and a mail box. I’m not sure I understood what winning meant at the time, but I sure had fun looking for the items in the little pictures. I remember asking my dad to find an airport because I needed to see an airplane.
I thought Bingo was an ancient game because everyone on earth knows how to play. I discovered that it was actually invented in the early 1920s by an American.
According to my friend Wiki, similar games of chance have been around for a long time. The first was a state lottery game called “Il Giuoco del Lotto d’Italia” that was played in Italy about 1530. Players had cards with numbered squares on them and the winning numbers were drawn out of a sack. The game was based purely on chance.
The lottery game made its way to France in the late 1770s where numbers were printed on cards, three horizontal rows and nine vertical, with the numbers one through 90 in random order. Numbers were drawn from a sack, and the first person to cover a horizontal row was the winner. By the nineteenth century the Germans were using the game to teach children spelling and multiplication tables.
In the early 1920s variations of the game were popular at fairs. Hugh J. Ward created and standardized the game at carnivals in Pennsylvania. He copyrighted it and published a rule book in 1933. Similar to the French game but with fewer numbers, players covered their squares with beans, prompting the winner to shout “beano!” Legend has it that a woman, in her excitement of winning, shouted ‘Bingo’ instead. The name stuck.
In 1929 a toy merchandiser, Edwin Lowe, produced a couple of versions. By the 1940s Bingo was being played throughout the US and around the world.
My oldest sister Karen introduced me to the gambling kind of Bingo on my 21st birthday. In some families, they make a little ceremony of taking the first sip of ‘legal’ drink. In our family, we head for Reno or Lake Tahoe to gamble – just for the day.
Karen was a single mother at that time and didn’t have much money to spare. While the aunts, uncles and my mother went off to gamble after lunch, she and I went to play Bingo. Bingo at Lake Tahoe? Hard to believe nowadays, but back in the 1970s the second floor of Harrah’s Club was a Bingo parlor.
Bingo was the place to go to get the biggest entertainment value from your dollars. Back in the day, not only did the cocktail waitresses bring you free drinks as long as you gambled, but they brought you free little sandwiches too. The green vinyl boards with three cards on each cost one dollar per game.
I watched Karen play two boards to see how it was done. Then, flush with my birthday money, I bought two boards as well. Then three. It was pretty darned exciting! They called straight Bingo, any five in a row. I’d get four in a row on one card and then wait. And wait. Bingo! Someone else would call out. Argh! So close! Then I’d put down three more dollars for three more boards.
The next game up was a coverall, or black out. Karen splurged and bought three boards. The woman selling the boards told us if we combined our boards we would get the seventh one for free. So we did. That was seven boards, or 21 cards, and more than 500 numbers to watch! And we had a caller who should have been an auctioneer with the speed at which he called!
I scanned the numbers as fast as I could but Karen was on the edge. She was like a hungry hawk watching a mole hole. You could feel the tension in the room as the numbered balls piled up. Most of the Bs and Os were gone, and then the Ns were done. Any minute you just knew the room was going to explode. And then, “BINGO!” shouted Karen! I waited for the chorus of ‘Bingos’ to follow but none did. Karen was the sole winner of more than two hundred dollars.
Karen beamed from ear to ear as the bingo lady paid her in cash. I saw a joyful tear roll down Karen’s cheek. We left the bingo parlor and went to the café in Harrah’s where Karen treated me to a cup of tea. She excitedly told me that the first thing she was going to do with her winnings was buy her kids new shoes. If anybody deserved to win, Karen did. Watching her win at Bingo was one of the best birthday presents I ever got.
Jeff and I have played Bingo many times and in many places. We even have our own lucky daubers, those ink pens that fit perfectly into the paper squares and give hope for a win every time you daub.
We’ve learned a lot about the game of Bingo. Did you know that the most numbers you can cover on a Bingo board without having a Bingo is 19? Did you know that the least amount of numbers that can be called before a Bingo is won is only four? And if you thought that Bingo trivia was fun, you can tell your friends that there are 552 septillion, or half of an octillion, or 552 trillion trillion possibilities for card combinations.
If you are asked “Would you like to go out for dinner tonight?” always say yes. And if you’re lucky, it might be the Knights of Columbus serving you dinner! Next Bingo night at St. Catherine’s is May 19th, 6pm. Or you can also have fun every Thursday afternoon at 1pm at the Martinez Senior Center! Don’t be square, see you there!