Bingo night

I grew up in Reno, Nevada, home to deep blue skies, over 300 mountain ranges, and legal gambling. My childhood was dotted with the special family dinners when my grandparents would take us out to eat in casinos. This was back in a time when casino owners were local businessmen, usually well-known in the community, and my grandparents knew a few of them.

We played Keno during dinner. (I don’t even know if this still goes on; maybe someone from Reno can tell me.) Every table had a centerpiece holding blank Keno tickets and thick black crayons. Each of us would take a ticket and mark our numbers, then we’d watch the electronic Keno boards that were mounted throughout the dining room, and compare the official numbers with those on our tickets.

I never saw anyone actually place a bet. We did it for entertainment, and probably to keep us kids busy; during the course of one dinner, there were several rounds of the game. And that was Keno, in Reno, in the olden days.



Fast forward to Bize-Minervois in France, where people play Loto. France has two kinds of Loto: one is the serious, big-money version that is broadcast on nationwide television, and the other is the serious, play-for-prizes local version that is held in towns of all sizes throughout the country, generally set up as fund-raisers for things like schools or cancer research. I am here to talk about the serious local version.

This form of Loto is similar to what we call bingo in the United States. I’d been intending to go to one of these events, partly to have fun with my friends, and also because it’s a great way to learn numbers, and numbers are tricky in French. I kept missing my chance to go, until one weekend in March, and I’m glad I went, because it was the last one until November.

I was unprepared in so many ways for the scene that greeted me when I walked through the doors. First, I arrived a little on the early side, so there weren’t yet many people there. Just inside the door, there were two tables of three people selling Loto cards for one euro per card. Picture that each table had a large pile of Loto cards, in total disarray and spilling off. When my friends arrived, we paid for and selected our cards, which are well-used, with stains and other marks, and they’ve all been stamped with the name of the town: “Bize-Minervois.”

We turned to face the room, full of folding tables that were rapidly filling with people. I rather expected a full fleet of les anciens to be there, and the old folk were certainly well represented. But there were also plenty of young people there, and quite a few families with younger kids. So, my second surprise was the range in ages of those participating. Like last month’s carnaval, this was a Saturday night party for the whole town.

Did I mention the word “serious”? Because the third surprise for me was the seriousness of the participants. As people found their places to sit, they’d get settled in, removing coats, taking out bottles of water and snacks, and arranging their Loto cards. My arranging process was a snap because I only had four cards, which I’m pretty certain marked me as a rank beginner. In contrast, there were two women sitting nearby who each had 24 cards neatly arrayed on the table in front of them.

As a Loto novice, I also had no idea that people own boxes of Loto tokens that they take with them to every Loto night. The tokens are round colored disks of translucent plastic, with a thin edge of metal. When you have a match for the called number, you put your token on that number. Nearly everyone owns a set, and each set comes with a handy magnetic tool for scooping up all the tokens at the end of a game. This was a major “Who knew?” moment for me. Oh, and for folks who are oblivious (like me) or forgetful, there are cups full of raw corn kernels that you can use for markers.

So why all the seriousness, you may wonder? It’s all in the prizes. That night, there were around seven or eight full legs of ham, plus baskets of prizes that included other foods, gift certificates, and the such. Every winner got at least one bottle of wine. There were around 24 games that night, and the winners of the two “full-card” versions of Loto really made a haul, with things like luggage, 500-euro gift certificates, and meals at nice restaurants.

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And that brings us to how the game is played, and the connection with Keno in Reno. First, a little background. I had to look this up. In Italy, there was a lottery game called Il Giucco del Lotto d’Italia that is documented back to 1530 and is still played every Saturday night. The game came to France in the 1700s, where there were the additions of tokens and of cards with the numbers 1–90, plus the innovation of numbers being drawn randomly and called out. Later, the game moved to Germany and was used for school lessons.

In the 1920s, a man named Hugh Ward standardized the game for playing in carnivals. A toy merchandiser named Fred Lowe saw people playing this game called “beano” and took the idea home with him to New York, where he hired a mathematician to come up with 6,000 different numeric sequences (to lower the odds of multiple winners in a single game). There is some thought that someone was so excited upon winning a game, that he or she shouted “bingo!” instead of “beano!” and that’s where the name came from.

A player arranges his cards so that all rows and columns are visible on all cards. The host of the event randomly draws a number, and clearly calls out that number. Each player puts a token on every spot containing that number, and then a new number is called. Here’s where it got interesting for me: it was when someone told me in patient (meaning slow) French that you win when you’re the first player to have five numbers in a row, which is called a quine, pronounced “keen.” This one word instantly transported me back to the 1960s and to casinos in Reno, Nevada, because now I knew where the name of Keno came from.

In fact, the game of Keno is somewhat different from Bingo, and Keno traces its history to China. But there are plenty of similarities: lots of numbers, lots of people playing and/or gambling, and five numbers in a row is a quine. I just put a check mark in a box I didn’t even know I had, and I think it’s pretty keen!



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