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Man Alive: 5 things you didn’t know about Bingo

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Keep Your Grip

Think bingo is just a game for the elderly? Don't know the difference between a number-nine and Gandhi's breakfast? Responsible for creating millionaires, spawning its own dialect, and driving at least one math professor insane, bingo history is littered with fun facts. Read on for five of the best.

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Hope it's a winner.

What's with the name-o?

Unpacking the etymology of the word "bingo" is a tricky task. Both the game and the word -- used as a general expression of surprise or pleasure -- are centuries old, and the two have, as far as we can tell, often gone together.

But not always. Although the game was called "bingo" in 18th-century England, by the 20th century Brits were calling it "Housey Housey." Some early American players called the game "beano," possibly because it was sometimes played using dried beans as markers.

In the 1930s, Edwin Lowe claimed to have (re)coined the "bingo" name after an over-excited winner leaped to her feet and inadvertently shrieked "Bingo!" instead of "Beano!" mid-game, but there are indications that it was already in common use in the northeastern United States long before Lowe came along. However it spread, by the time the Second World War was over, the game was largely "bingo" around the world, and so it remains today.

It could make you a millionaire.

Most smaller bingo games have prizes of maybe $50 or $100, but if you live in a gambling-friendly area (or near a Native American casino) it's not hard to find "progressive" bingo games where the pot grows until someone wins the whole lot. And while the odds are long, bingo millionaires are indeed out there. Guinness lists the world record win at over one million UK pounds, or somewhere around $1.6 million, won amid the exotic surroundings of Merthyr Tydfil, a middle-sized industrial town in South Wales.

It's not just for your grandmother.

Bingo once had a reputation as a game for the elderly, the retired, and the working-class. While that might have been true once, it's not true any longer; the average age of bingo players is falling fast, and some estimates put it as low as 30. Mike Myers plays it. Catherine Zeta Jones is a fan. Even newlywed Prince William was known to frequent bingo halls in his bachelor days, and this gentrification isn't a new phenomenon. A study conducted all the way back in 2002 found 53% of bingo hall attendees were aged between 18 and 45 -- and the younger the attendee, the more likely they were to have a white-collar job.

It's got its own slanguage.

England and America are often described as two nations divided by a common language. Step into a bingo hall on the other side of the pond, and you'll realize how true that aphorism really is.

Not only is the English variant of the game substantially different from the U.S. -- it's played with 90 balls, not 75, and on a nine-by-three card rather than the US's five-by-five -- but traditionally the numbers in the UK game are delivered by a "bingo caller" using an impenetrable series of slang names.

"Man alive" is five, maybe in a nod to Cockney rhyming slang. "Two fat ladies?" That's 88, a relic of less politically correct times. "David's den?" 10. David refers to David Cameron, present UK prime minister and resident of No. 10, Downing St. "Doctor's orders," referring to nine, is a rather lurid piece of British Army slang: the "number nine" was a potent laxative pill prescribed by military doctors, perhaps as a punishment for workshy soldiers thought to be faking illness.

Want more? How about "Gandhi's breakfast," meaning 80. Eight-nothing. Ate nothing. Took us a while, too. Or "Was she worth it," which is 76, or the price of a marriage license in British pre-decimal currency -- seven shillings and sixpence. The standard response from the players is a chorus of "Every penny." Aww.

It drove a mathemetician bonkers.

In the United States, bingo was popularized by New York toy salesman Edwin S. Lowe, who made a fortune printing bingo cards -- but he didn't do it alone. As bingo games grew larger and larger, Lowe realized he'd need a good way to make sure his cards didn't carry too many repeating number combinations. So according to bingo folklore, he hired a Columbia University math professor named Carl Leffler to use some math voodoo to create a series of cards with no recurring sets at all.

Back in 1930, without even an electronic calculator, it was a difficult task -- and one that got ever harder the more cards he produced. Leffler arranged to be paid incrementally more for each card he made, and thus motivated he churned his way to a mighty 6,000. Legend has it he was driven insane by his labors. No such fate befell Lowe, who went on to make "Yahtzee" a household word, among other successful ventures. He died a rich and presumably not-crazy man in 1986.

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