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Quartz Obsession — Bingo — Card 1
Once associated with church basements and overly serious old ladies with elaborate lucky charm arrangements, bingo has experienced a bit of a comeback lately. You’ll find it in trendy bars, headlining swanky fundraisers, and played at speakeasies in Mosul.
The game itself is simple—players purchase cards (some play multiples at a time) with a grid of random numbers, and listen as a caller pulls numbers at random (usually balls spinning in a hand-cranked tumbler), marking each corresponding square. The first player to fill their card, or achieve the specific pattern for the game—an X, the frame of the card, or something altogether fancier—wins. Although it’s been around for centuries, bingo has garnered interest from a new set of trendsetters in venues where the only blue hair you’ll spot is the cobalt or aqua variety.
Grab your lucky dauber—it’s bingo time.
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Quartz Obsession — Bingo — Card 2
25: Months the Polish company Bingo Airways was operational
6: Episodes of National Bingo Night, which aired on ABC in 2007
$25 million: Bingo wagers in the US state of Nebraska in 1993
$9.4 million: Bingo wagers in Nebraska in 2011
75: Balls played in most North American bingo games
90: Balls played in the UK, using a 3×9 grid
£1 billion ($1.24 billion): Value of the UK bingo market, including bingo halls and online play in 2019
70,080: Participants in the largest ever game of bingo, played in Bogotá, Colombia in 2006
6,000: Bingo cards designed by Columbia University math professor Carl Leffler, who was allegedly driven mad by the task
50: Points awarded for a “bingo” in Scrabble—when all seven tiles are played at once
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Quartz Obsession — Bingo — Card 3
The earliest known version of bingo is Lo Giuoco del Lotto d’Italia, the Italian National Lottery, which has been played every Saturday night, with very few exceptions, since 1530, when it was created to raise money for Florentine infrastructure. When it started it was very similar to modern bingo—players had cards with rows, and numbers were drawn from a bag. Players hoped the numbers would match those on their cards, and had to be quick enough to spot their numbers and call bingo before their competitors did.
By 1770, the craze spread to France, where it was dubbed “Le Lotto.” It hit the US with a fervor in the early 1900s, when carnivals hosted “Beano” games, so-called because players used dried beans to mark off numbers that had been called. Legend has it that when toymaker Edwin S. Lowe was play-testing his commercial version in 1929, an excited player yelled “Bingo!” instead of “Beano!” However, the UK had been using the same name for a very similar game, so the story may be more marketing than history.
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Quartz Obsession — Bingo — Card 6
Jane Arraf, an international correspondent in Iraq for National Public Radio, visited a bingo hall in Mosul in 2019, where players could win up to $3,000 per game. “I think, most of all, it brought back a part of that Iraq that I had known and loved and that’s now harder to find, that tolerance where, if you want to, you can go to the mosque and pray, or if you want to, you can go and drink and play bingo,” she told All Things Considered. “And all of those things coexist.”
Bingo, which is called tombola in Iraq, has long been a way to socialize and win prizes like household appliances. While the venue Arraf visited catered to men only, mixed crowds gather to play bingo at the Alwiyah Club in Baghdad. On bingo nights, Arabic pop music blasts and alcohol is served at the once-dry bar. Families pay $4 per person to sit at a table and play bingo all night for small cash prizes.
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Quartz Obsession — Bingo — Card 7
The odds of winning at bingo may seem extraordinarily complicated, given that the cards are all different; some people play a few cards while others play 20; and the numbers are chosen at random. Bingo odds are actually quite simple—your chance of winning isn’t absolute, it’s in relation to other players. So your odds boil down to the number of cards you’re playing divided by the total number of cards in play. If there are 100 cards in play, and you’re playing 5, your odds of winning are 5 in 100, or 1 in 20. This is assuming a couple of things: That no one is tampering with the balls, none of the balls are damaged or dented, the number picker is working correctly, you’re perfectly eagle-eyed, and that you’re not playing a progressive bingo game.
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Quartz Obsession — Bingo — Card 8
“I sometimes feel as if ideas for a novel kind of pop up like numbers in a bingo tumbler, and then they’re ready to go.”
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Quartz Obsession — Bingo — Card 10
Bingo isn’t just played in church basements, it’s also an electronic casino game—one with a dark history. In 2002, software engineer Brett Keeton was accused of tampering with the programming of his company’s proprietary bingo software. Las Vegas casino officials noticed Keeton was winning at bingo more than the average player, and tipped off the Gaming Control Board (GCB) to the potential illegal activity. Keeton couldn’t control how the numbered balls were chosen, but it was believed that he had somehow rigged certain machines to allow more digital cards to be within a game session, increasing his odds of winning.
The GCB made Keeton aware that they wanted to talk to him; hours later, he jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge. Officials were stymied by Keeton’s motive—most bingo wins topped out at a few hundred dollars. “My experience in situations like this is, it’s the thrill of trying to defeat the system. But in this case, we don’t know,” the GCB chairman told the Chicago Tribune.
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Quartz Obsession — Bingo — Card 11
There’s more than one winning bingo pattern—and you’d better know your windmill from your postage stamp if you don’t want to generate a lot of dirty looks from serious players.
✉️Postage stamp: Four numbers in a square, in a corner. Typically any corner, not just the upper right where a postage stamp typically goes on a real letter.
🌬Windmill: A “postage stamp” in each corner, plus the free spot in the middle to resemble the fans of a windmill.
🍷Wine Glass: The whole bottom row forms the base of the glass; the free space and the space below it are the “stem.” Extend diagonal lines to each upper corner starting at the free space, and you’ve got a wine glass (though it looks more like a martini glass).
7️⃣Lucky 7: The entire top row, and the diagonal line going from the upper right to the lower left, forming the number 7 across the entire card.
☔️ Other inventive patterns include swatter and fly, witches hat, snowflake, dollar bill, teeter-totter, torch, umbrella, anchor, and roller coaster.
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Quartz Obsession — Bingo — Card 12
“Ever play virtual bingo with Matthew McConaughey?” asks the Enclave at Round Rock Senior Living facility. “You’d be a whole lot cooler if you did.” McConaughey and his family volunteered to virtually call bingo at the senior center to help entertain residents in quarantine in early April. What a nice young man!
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Quartz Obsession — Bingo — Card 13
For half of a decade, photographer Alison Turner traveled around the United States, visually documenting bingo halls in small towns across America. “Each location I encountered brought in a true sense of community, complete with their own unique set of personalities and characters. A place where emotions of despair and hope come hand and hand throughout the night,” Turner writes.