One month ago a third-year student at Southampton won over £27 000 playing bingo for the first time. The Wessex Scene went to the hall where he won to investigate this unlikely student pastime.
Mecca Bingo Hall lies at the heart of Portswood and boasts a capacity of over 1100 people. Its manager, Chris Walker, says it offers a healthier form of entertainment than the local amusement arcades.
“Ultimately, it’s still a form of gambling and it can be addictive” Chris admits. “But bingo is a safe and open environment. We know who walks through the doors every day and if I think someone’s gambling to the point where they’ve lost control, I’ll bar them from the hall.
“Besides, it’s more of a social activity. Yes, the people who come on a Wednesday where the entry fees and prizes are higher – they’re here for the money. But on a Tuesday when it’s five pounds for two hours of bingo, the players who turn up are just having a bit of fun.”
Of course as the manager of his hall, Chris is inclined to defend the game. Nevertheless, there are elements to a night of bingo that do undoubtedly propel it beyond other means of gambling. Unlike a night pushing buttons on a fruit machine, the hall offers hot food and drink with table service. And unlike poker, bingo is entirely chance-based, meaning it is less likely a player will convince themselves that they’re an expert who will win more than they lose. Not that that this stops the superstitious from deluding themselves as anyone who has watched an episode of Deal or No Deal will know.
Bingo can trace its history back to 1530 when Lo Giuoco del Lotto D’Italia was started, a lottery still played every week in Italy. The popular pursuit spread through Europe offering businessmen a lucrative venture as well as providing entertainment for the masses. Germany for a period in the 19th century adopted a free version of the game in schools as an attempt to teach pupils maths and history – a cunning method that continues to be employed by knackered teachers desperately trying to ‘make learning fun’.
It was in the USA that the term Bingo was first coined. In 1929 a New York toy salesman called Edwin S. Lowe was watching a game of ‘Beano’ which was a card-based lottery played in country fairs. Someone accidentally shouted out “Bingo!” instead of “Beano!” and Lowe decided the mistaken term was catchier. Working with a mathematics professor (who is said to have gone mad soon after) the toy salesman-turned-entrepreneur developed more number combinations and more cards. Bingo was an instant hit.
Today there are nearly 600 bingo halls in the UK. That is a number that has been decreasing for several decades but the internet has recently revolutionised the game. The revenue of online bingo in the UK exceeds £700 million with sites offering a social aspect in the form of chat rooms as well the inherent convenience of a quick flutter being available on any laptop.
Chris is surprisingly calm about the potential threat of online competition: “We did a survey and it found that only 7% of our customers play bingo online. The hall is doing well by itself, we’re up from last year in fact.”
Everyone is aware of the stereotypical bingo player: Little Old Lady. If we were to examine Mecca’s lurid pink website or an advertisement for third-wave feminism such as this, we could presume that the Bingo heavyweights are targeting a new demographic: Hysterical Younger Ladies.
The statistics do show that female participation is higher, but perhaps not to the extent we might imagine. 70% who go to Southampton’s Mecca Hall are women. And the average age will certainly shock some people: just 35 years old and getting younger.
This is partly due to the increasing number of students, some from our university, who are making a night of bingo their entertainment. Since the big win there’s been a noticeable increase in student custom, drawn by the prospect of winning a ludicrous sum of money like £27 000 (which, as one man smugly quipped, will soon only cover the tuition fees of the winner’s three-year degree).
Would Chris ever advertise at the University of Southampton? “Well my predecessor went along to your Freshers’ Week” he replies after a pause. “But that didn’t turn out too well, so probably not like that. Actually though, I am planning on offering some student discounts in the near future.”
You heard it here first.