The Italians first played bingo in the 18th century and called it lotto (not to be confused with the Italian state lottery).  The procedure was simple: The operator called out numbers drawn from a container and a player crossed them off when the numbers called coincided with numbers on the printed card he held.  In Britain and America lotto was played as a parlor game in the 19th century and was taken up by English troops at the beginning of the 20th.  It then became known as house (possibly because of a tenuous connection with the stock exchange, known in slang as “the house”), and the call used to assemble a group for a game of house was “housey-housey.”  This catch phrase soon became the British name for the game itself.  The Americans adapted the French word Quine (“set of five”)and called the game keno.  Today, the cry of the winner on completing a line on his card “Bingo!” is used in most places as the name of the game.  But whether game is called lotto, housey-housey, keno, or bingo, the play is essentially the same.

The modern bingo player buys a card bearing a selection of numbers (24 in Britain, 25 in America); the purchase price is his stake money.  The focus of his attention is the bingo operator and the container in which are 90 disks or balls (75 in America ) numbered consecutively.  These are drawn one at a time by the operator and the numbers called out.  A card-holder cover each number on his card that coincides with the called number and wins a prize when a certain pre-arranged series has been covered (a straight line or some special design).  Since every card sold has a different selection of numbers printed on it, one card-holder is bound to be successful before the others.  (In Britain and other countries where bingo is played, a machine called the “kenogoose” is usually used to stir up numbered celluloid balls and then to project them through a funnel.  The operator does no more than call the number of the balls as they are presented to him by the slot machine.)

The front and back of a betting slip used by a “runner” (the intermediary between agent and bettor) in the New York numbers game.  To evade arrest, runners usually use slips made of specially treated paper that will ignite at the touch of a cigarette, and keep the slips minutely folded in the backs of their rings, watches, etc.  Number  at the top of the columns are the bettor’s initials and the money staked.  Bets are placed daily before noon and pay-outs to poker winners are made the next day.

British entrepreneurs have converted most of the nation’s failing cinemas into thriving bingo halls: About 13,000,000 bingo players have replaced film fans since 1956 (of these , 10,000,000 are estimated to be women).  British Railways run highly successful “Bingo Special” trains during the summer months, which provide trips from London to seaside towns and backgammon, with practically non-stop bingo sessions held on board both ways. The majority of these trains passengers are women.

Lotteries and numbers games are one form of gambling in which no mathematical system can possibly have an effect on the outcome-simply because every ticket has the same chance as every other (unless the lottery is crooked).  But, as in so many other “pure chance” gambles, this undeniable fact has never prevented gamblers from trying to find some systematic way to beat the odds-gamblers like George Massy, owner of the ship Sofala in Joseph Conrad’s short story “The End of the Tether.” Massy won a lottery prize and bought the Sofala  with the money; but for year afterward he ruined himself financially by buying far more lottery tickets than he could afford, convinced that sooner or later he would win again.  Conrad describes Massy’s obsession thus:

A British “Bingo Special” train, (arranged by a bingo organization) on its way from London to Brighton in 1962.  The 300 women and 50 men on the train played bingo incessantly through the round trip.  Numbers were called over loudspeakers from a central control on the train; stewards in each compartment relayed cries of “bingo” by telephones.

“He opened the writing besk, spread out a sheet of thin grayish paper covered with a mass of printed figures and began to scan them attentively… It was the list of the winning numbers from the last drawing of the great lottery which had been the one inspiring fact of so many years of his existence…A great pile of flimsy sheets had been growing for years in his desk, while the Sofala…wore out her boilers…

“For days together, on a trip, he would shut himself up in his berth with them…and he would weary his poker brain poring over the rows of disconnected figures, bewildering by their senseless sequences, resembling the hazards of destiny itself.  He nourished a conviction that there must be some logic lurking somewhere in the results of chance.  He thought he had seen its very form.. Nine, nine, nought, four, two.  He made a note.  But what’s this?  Three years ago, in the September drawing, it was number nine, nought, four, two that took the first prize.  Most remarkable.  There was a hint there of a definite rule! … What could it be?  And for half an hour he would remain dead still, bent low over the desk, without twitching a muscle.”

But not all lottery addicts turn like Conrad’s fictional hero to mathematics for help; many place their faith in mysticism.  Prophetic “dream books” (and other works of do-it-yourself divination) have wide sales wherever lotteries are held.  These books are allegedly the compilations of numerologists, soothsayers with the blood of ancient prophets in their veins, phalmists, chronologists, astrologers , psychologist. Clairvoyants, and so on.  The dreams in the dream books are classified into numbered subject section; and each section has numerous subsections that, by cross-indexing, can be made to cover an almost endless variety of dreams.  By juggling with the numbers attached to the interpretation of your dream, you are supposed to be able to find the right number to choose in a lottery.

Naturally the large prizes offered in lotteries encourage attempts at cheating.  For instance, a numbers game that flourished in Belgium in 1945 was completely ruined by 12 of the agents who sold the tickets.  This game was lined with the five daily balances of the Bourse (the Paris Stock Exchange) that were published in the newspapers.  If a number on a holder’s ticket corresponded with the final five digits of the balance figure at any time during the week, he could draw a prize through the agent.  Tickets were sold tightly sealed, in order to prevent the agents from perpetrating the very swindle they did perpetrate.  Obviously, if they could see the numbers on any of their unsold sealed tickets and these turned out to be winning numbers, they could draw additional prizes for themselves.  In this case the agents discovered that if the sealed ticket were soaked in carbon tetrachloride the paper became temporarily transparent and revealed the number; and that, when dry again, the paper showed no sign of its soaking.  The agents played havoc with the laws of probability and before long put the promoters out of business.

A bingo operator, or caller, can cheat by simply calling out a false number for the ball he has drawn: Above right, his thumb obscures the actual number.  For checking purposes the balls are put in a corresponding numbered hole; but if the caller puts a ball in upside down (right) the switch is unlikely to be spotted during the game.  Such subterfuges are usually used to end a game quickly or to assist an accomplice (who signals the numbers he needs).