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An American Story

Online Bingo sites are still rather few and far between in the United States. Liberalized markets like Great Britain have been offering this great Western pastime for years; the legendary bingo brands are as famous for their websites and their celebrity mascots as they are for their bingo halls. The bingo brands are household names. The great digital daubing revolution hit at the turn of the millennium and shows no sign of slowing.

The question, then, is why has this not occurred in the USA as well? The history of bingo is as tied to the USA as it is Italy, the game’s presumed birthplace or to the United Kingdom, which pioneered commercial bingo in the 1960’s.

Even today, bingo is a popular and well-known game in the US, played in church halls in every state, up and down the country. It is not like the game petered into obscurity. Just last year, Amazon Prime released a horror movie based on a community bingo hall in suburban California.

In this article, we’ll explore bingo’s deep roots in the USA, why that hasn’t yet translated into a vibrant online bingo scene, and why these days may still be ahead. Hint, if you live in New Jersey, the digital daub has already begun!

The History of US Bingo - A Case of What Could Have Been

Roots in Europe

The roots of bingo grew out of Renaissance Europe. As humanity stepped out of the Dark Ages and into the light, we had more leisure time to entertain ourselves rather than spend every waking hour staving off grimness and starvation.

With the dawn of science and mathematics, we learned that numbers could be fun (if only schools today believed that mantra). In 16th century Italy, they created a lottery game where players would draw numbers from some old receptacle and match them to the numbers they had on a square piece of game parchment. Sound a little bit familiar?

Variations of this theme spread across the European continent. A game called “Le Lotto” was popular in France under the Ancien Regime, and it spread to Germany and the British Isles. The Navy, at the height of the British Empire, were said to organize games at sea, and the soldiers of World War I, cold and hungry, played a game called “Housey-Housey” to wile away the bitter hours.

Bingo Blossoms in America

In the early 20th Century, bingo arrived in the United States from Europe. Whether that was via American troops who had taken part in WW1, or through the traveling Carnival scene, the game arrived.

There are two figures, two American men, who are absolutely crucial to the foundation of bingo in America. The first is Hugh Ward, the second is Edwin Lowe.

Ward was a carnival man in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who pioneered a brand-new game called “Beano.” Members of the public sat around a curved table while a dealer pulled out numbers from a cigar box. Players would place a bean on a matched number, and once they had completed a line, they’d shout “beano!”

The second man, Edwin Lowe, encountered the game being played at a county fair and thought what a smashing idea it was!

Lowe was a budding board game entrepreneur, with various attempted business enterprises over the years. He turned “Beano” into a board game and took his invention on the road. Though it wasn’t an easy sell and he encountered many roadblocks along the way, we can credit Lowe with creating something akin to the 75 Ball bingo game that we have today.

At first, the game wasn’t perfect and too many people were winning. But after a collaboration with Carl Leffler, a mathematics professor, the game finally took shape.

By the thirties and forties, the game was known as “Bingo,” and it was gaining enormous popularity from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. The American people were playing tens of thousands of Bingo games every week.

In the United Kingdom, the game’s popularity also grew and after 1960 and the dawn of the Betting and Gaming Act, the country was fully primed for the commercialisation of bingo. This played out as companies like Mecca Bingo filled out bingo halls for the rest of the century and beyond and eventually ended up online.

But this logical progression never occurred in the United States. The popularity of Bingo in the USA easily matched countries like the United Kingdom in the first half of the twentieth century. But Bingo couldn’t really grow beyond being a church hall charity game. Why?

Gambling & US Law

The answer is, of course, the law. The USA market was never liberalized as it was in the UK. Though there was no great, overarching ban, many states outlawed various types of gambling within their borders. The reasons for this are diverse and numerous. The influence of religion, especially puritanical Christianity, was probably one of the largest drivers.

It’s no coincidence that the place with the longest and most liberal gambling laws in the US is Las Vegas, also known as the “City of Sin.” In fact outside of Native American reservations, Las Vegas has had a sort of monopoly on gambling in America. Even on online gambling!

Where there were little pockets of legal gambling, the casino monopoly holders would lobby against liberalization. The ever litigious Donald Trump tried to have lottery and keno games banned in New York in the 1990s by suing the state government because he believed it would adversely affect his Atlantic City casinos.

Things, of course, have started to change. More and more US States offer some kind of gambling within their bounds and some of the large casinos even started to get bingo halls. However, the dawn of online gambling was an even slower process.

The slow march to Online Bingo

The story of online bingo legalization, or lack thereof, in the United States can be told through three pieces of important legislation and a US Supreme Court case. These are their stories.

The Federal Wire Act of 1961

Why would a law written way before the dawn of the internet have such a bearing on it? This is because it made it illegal for financial institutions to wire money state to state for the purposes of betting or wagering on sports. In some legal opinions, this encompassed all forms of gambling (though that is hotly contested).

This law made it practically impossible to offer online gambling, as deposits and withdrawals through the financial system would cross state and international borders.

This aged act has acted as a bulwark against the widespread legalization of online bingo and other forms of gaming for many years. Although as States have liberalized their own laws, operators have found ways of getting around it.

Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA)

UIGEA added further roadblocks to legal online gaming. It was quite stringently enforced at times, including the famous incidence of “Poker Black Friday.” In 2011, various Poker sites such as PokerStars found themselves indicted by the US Government for trying to circumvent the UIGEA laws.

Events like this mark out the USA as especially draconian. In other countries like Japan, operators flocked to launch online casinos even though the industry is not regulated; they can operate quite happily i the “gray market.” The USA was not a gray market!

PASPA 1992 and its overturning in 2018

The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 was designed to settle the legal status of sports betting in the US once and for all, banning it in all but a few states like Nevada. Yet in 2018, the act was overturned by the Supreme Court by a 7 to 2 majority.

This is one of a few dominoes that started to fall which opened the door to legal online bingo.

New Jersey is crucial to this story. First, in 2011, they legalized online gambling within their own state using loopholes, like having all the websites based out of the aforementioned Atlantic City.

However in 2017, they went one step further and fought for PASPA to be overturned in the Supreme Court. In 2018, the legal challenge led by New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy was successful. PASPA had been overturned, which would give the individual States the right to repeal anti-gambling laws. New Jersey led the way and many states have followed suit to lesser and further degrees.

Can you play online bingo in the USA now?

New Jersey continues to be the shining light for those who want to play online bingo in the US. Though there aren’t the hundreds of bingo sites available to those in countries like the UK, there are more and more online bingo brands popping up in various states.

In New Jersey, you are able to legally play online bingo at sites like Virgin Casino and Borgata Bingo. They have nice big bingo bonuses and fantastic content, as good as anywhere in the world that offers regulated online gambling. Unfortunately, at this stage you must be physically located in New Jersey to be able to play at sites like these.

So what does the future hold and where will the next online bingo sites spring up?

Online gambling of some sort is now legal in almost a third of US states. The trend is good as the US market becomes more liberal. Because of the nature of State’s rights, it’s going to be a patchwork at first. But, one day we envisage a quilt of online bingo in the USA. It’s only a matter of time.