By Paul Kavanaugh
One of the most ubiquitous words in the English language. Sure, people yell it at Bingo halls when they have a winner – But I bet you use it all the time for other purposes.
Suppose you’re making a point to someone and they get that flash of “I get it” – your reply is naturally “Bingo.” Or you’re searching a map for a certain place when you suddenly discover it – again, “Bingo!” You might be surprised to learn that the term was originally “Beano.”
Bingo as a game of chance can be traced back to 1530, to an Italian lottery called “Lo Giuoco del Lotto D’Italia,” which is still played every Saturday in Italy.
From Italy, the game was introduced to France in the late 1770s, where it was called “Le Lotto”, a game played among wealthy Frenchmen. The Germans also played a version of the game in the 1800s, but they used it as a child’s game to help students learn math, spelling and history.
When the game reached North America in 1929, it became known as “beano”. It was a country fair game where a dealer would select numbered discs from a cigar box and players would mark their cards with beans. They yelled “beano” if they won. At a carnival near Atlanta, Georgia, New York toy salesman Edwin S. Lowe renamed it “bingo” after he overheard someone accidentally yell “bingo” instead of “beano.”
He hired a Columbia University math professor, Carl Leffler, to help him increase the number of combinations in bingo cards. By 1930, Leffler had invented 6,000 different bingo cards. They were developed so there would be fewer non-repeating number groups and conflicts when more than one person got Bingo at the same time.
Lowe was a Jewish immigrant from Poland. Not only did his E.S. Lowe company produce bingo cards, he also developed and marketed the game Yahtzee, for which he bought the rights from a couple who played it on their yacht.
In the US, the game is primarily staged by churches or charity organizations. Their legality and stakes vary by state regulation. In some states, bingo halls are rented out to sponsoring organizations, and such halls often run games almost every day. Church-run games, however, are normally weekly affairs held on the church premises. These games are usually played for modest stakes, although the final game of a session is frequently a coverall game that offers a larger jackpot prize for winning within a certain quantity of numbers called, and a progressive jackpot is one that may increase per session until it is won.
Bingo is not legal in Tennessee (more about that later) but is in Virginia under the regulation of the State Gaming Commission. There are four local bingo parlors that we are aware of, three in Bristol, Virginia and one in Wadlow Gap. While all offer slightly differing versions of the various games, the constant is that, by law, 10% of the gross proceeds goes to charity and 1.125% goes to the State of Virginia as revenue. Most parlors offer pull tabs as well, so there is always a lot of action going on. Regulations limit the payout per game to $100 with the exception of the different progressive games, where the payouts can, over time, grow substantially. One large jackpot game is allowed each session as well. Some places split that into two games with half the jackpot awarded in each game.
Locally, the largest of the parlors is AmVets Post 5, located on Euclid close to where it merges with State Street. They operate four nights per week, two under the auspices of AmVets and two under the auspices of their Ladies Auxiliary. AmVets began their bingo games in Tennessee, but with the law change moved to several places in Bristol before acquiring their own building in 2000.
What makes AmVets unique is that they offer both conventional paper cards, typically played with a dauber, and computerized cards that can support many more cards than a paper player could possible keep up with. AmVets also has computer pull tab machines that look eerily like a slot machine and are just as much fun. AmVets allows smoking but does have a non-smoking section. The friendly staff operate a gift shop and a snack bar with many excellent food and dessert items. They have had a progressive jackpot reach as large as $21,000, although they are typically won before reaching such a high level. Operating on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, AmVets is always fun to visit. Give them a try – maybe you’ll be the one to yell Bingo!
St. Anne’s Catholic Church, up on Euclid from Piedmont, is a church sponsored bingo hall that operates three nights per week. The sessions are actually played in the Msgr. Hickie center behind the church at the corner of Oakview and Chester. The school sponsors the Monday games with the proceeds going to tuition abatement and the church sponsors the Tuesday and Saturday games with the proceeds going to various church and local charities.
There are no electronic machines at St. Anne’s; they are the traditional paper cards only. Originally in Tennessee at the K of C, they moved to the parish center when Tennessee outlawed bingo. Some K of C volunteers, as well as church volunteers, have been working bingo for the church for many, many years and have gotten to know the regulars so well that they consider themselves a family, and as a family, celebrate and grieve together with various life events. Pull tabs are a big part of St. Anne’s bingo nights, and their progressive jackpots can get right up there as well. The snack bar features hot dogs, pizza, sandwiches and lots of sweets. St. Anne’s is a non-smoking facility, although they do allow for several 10-minute breaks throughout the evening for those who want to step outside. Fun for all is the order of the day, and well worth a visit for the chance to yell Bingo!
A third bingo hall in Bristol is Interstate Bingo on Euclid, just up from the highway. Their games are on Saturday and Sundays with a daytime and evening session both days. We weren’t able to get more information by press time, but rest assured they operate along the same general lines as the other places, although they do not appear to have computer machines.
Finally, the Ruritan in Wadlow Gap has bingo every Monday and Friday beginning at 6:00. The admission book is $20.00; everything else is optional. Extra books are $5, progressive games are $5, blackout games are $4 and the quickie is $1. All games pay $100 except blackout pays $500 and progressive would be whatever amount it is in that given night. All proceeds go back to the community in various ways… scholarships, schools, police, hospitals, local food pantry, St. Jude’s. They hold 2 community events each year and everything from food, games, and door prizes are free to the public. Next up is the Harvest Moon Celebration on Oct. 21 beginning at 2:00 and including a corn hole tournament, cake walks, bounce houses, face painting, food and drinks. Live band at 7:00 will be Ivy Road and Benny Wilson with door prizes during the music.
So, there you have a brief history of bingo and a look at our local operations. But wait, you say, what about Tennessee. This is a rather sordid story. Tennessee did allow bingo games into the late 1980s, but many were ripe with corruption. Operation Rocky Top was launched in 1986 as an FBI and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation undercover investigation into illegal activities in charity bingo, including the illegal sale of bingo licenses.
A first-year member of the Tennessee House of Representatives (and future Lieutenant Governor), Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, became a secret participant in the investigation in 1986 after he reported to authorities that a bingo lobbyist had offered him bribes and had boasted about bribing other lawmakers. For the duration of the investigation McNally “wore a wire” and cultivated the trust of bingo lobbyists and other insiders so they would talk freely in front of him and offer him bribes. Ned McWhirter, who was Speaker of the Tennessee House when the investigation began and who was elected governor in 1986, also was praised by federal officials for cooperating with the investigation.
Operation Rocky Top became public in January 1989 when W.D. “Donnie” Walker, a one-time bingo regulator in the state government who later became a lobbyist, pleaded guilty to offering McNally a $10,000 bribe in exchange for his vote on a measure to legalize horse racing. In exchange for a plea bargain, Walker gave investigators details on how he had helped bingo operators become chartered as bogus charities so they could obtain state licenses to run bingo games, and how bingo operators then channeled money back to state legislators who were part of the scheme. At the height of activity there were nearly 300 bingo operations in the state with estimated annual revenue of $31 million.
The investigation resulted in over 50 convictions and the incarceration of several politicians, most notably state House Majority Leader Tommy Burnett.
Two other targets of the investigation committed suicide before testifying: Tennessee Secretary of State Gentry Crowell (in December 1989, just before he was scheduled to testify for a third time before a federal grand jury) and State Representative Ted Ray Miller of Knoxville (after being charged with bribery). Following the scandal, Tennessee established limits on political contributions and placed new restrictions on lobbying – and de-legalized bingo. Luckily for us, Virginia has regulators who are right on top of the games and allow all of us bingo fans a place to play and enjoy each other’s company. See you there – hopefully I am the one yelling BINGO!