Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How to Play Bingo


Bingo Equipment
Knowing the basics is the key to unlocking the excitement of bingo. If you've played before, you may think you already know everything ... but how much are you missing? The information below will reintroduce you to the bingo equipment and how it's used.

Bingo is basically a game of chance. Players use cards that feature five columns of five squares each, with every square containing a number (except the middle square, which is designated a "FREE" space). The object is to listen for the numbers that appear on the cards to be called. When one is called, the player marks the square. The first person to complete a predetermined pattern of marked numbers is the winner.

The columns are labeled B, I, N, G, and O. Letters always contain a certain range of numbers, as shown below.

 BINGO CARD BASICS

 Column Letter
Numbers
 B 1 to 15
 I 16 to 30
 N 31 to 45
 G 46 to 60
 O 61 to 75 

The Cards

Bingo players buy cardboard cards or disposable sheets printed with one or more card faces. The type of game cards used varies widely depending on the hall. Some halls still use traditional cardboard "hard cards," or "all-night boards," that can be marked with chips, tokens, or pennies. But most halls today use disposable strips or sheets of paper cards containing a set number of faces, such as six (known as a 6-on) or three (a 3-on).

The process of purchasing cards is called the "buy-in," or, in other words, you pay money up front to buy cards to be used during a specific session. Sometimes the buy-in is for single-face, stand-alone cards, but, more often, the buy-in is for tear-off, disposable sheets of paper containing a number of card faces. Expect to spend anywhere from $1 to $20 for a minimum buy-in.

Some of the more popular calls are:
Legs Eleven for B-11
Sweet Sixteen for I-16
Two Little Ducks (Quack, Quack) for I-22
Any Way You Can Get It for O-69

The Caller

A person known as the "caller" picks the numbers from a basket or blower and announces them to the players. It's also the caller's responsibility to announce the pattern of the game before calling the first ball. There are literally dozens of patterns from which to choose, and the pattern call changes from game to game. The two most common patterns are straight-line bingo and coverall, or blackout.

Straight-line bingo: In the simplest version, a player gets "bingo" with a five-number straight line stretching from one end of the card to the other. The line can be vertical, horizontal, or diagonal. The straight line may include the free space, in which case the player would only need to have four numbers called.

Coverall: Also called blackout, coverall is a typical jackpot game. The goal is to cover every number on the card within a certain number of calls. In a 49-number coverall, a coverall must occur within 49 calls, or else the game is over and nobody wins.

The Numbers

The caller selects each ball at random, sometimes from an electrically operated blower machine similar to what's used to call state lotteries, or else from an old-time mechanical or manually operated cage. The blower may have a trap that automatically catches one or more balls at a time while the machine is running. A rush of air blows balls into a chute, then the bingo caller selects the first one and announces the letter/number combination to all of the players.

There are 75 balls in the machine, and each one is printed with a letter from the word "bingo" and a number from 1 to 75. All of the balls are essentially the same size, shape, weight, and balance, so that during the bingo game, each ball has an equal chance of being pulled.

Once a number is called, the ball may be displayed on a closed-circuit television system with monitors around the room. Then, the corresponding light on the big overhead scoreboard is activated. The scoreboard, which may also display a lighted diagram of the pattern in play, is there so players can keep track of numbers already called. Some halls still have an old, nonelectric tote board that serves the same purpose.

After the numbers are announced and put on the scoreboard, you need to know how to mark your cards.

The Daubers

As each number is called, players scan their cards, and if they have the number, they mark it with a token or a dauber (a special penlike ink stamper). The easiest way to mark a disposable paper card is to use a dauber. Daubers have become an essential tool of the modern bingo player. To use the dauber, players simply remove the cap and press the wide, foam-rubber tip firmly on the square containing the called number, producing a large, round color smudge. The advantages of the dauber are that it's quick, permanent (nobody bumping the table is going to send your chips flying), and easy to see, so you can ignore marked boxes and concentrate on the rest of the card.

Dauber trends: For dauber ink, it's purple -- that's according to BK Entertainment, a bingo supply company that sells more than 40 billion bingo cards a year. Daubers typically contain 21/2 to 4 ounces of ink, which is offered in a variety of colors, including blue, red, green, magenta, teal, and, of course, purple. That's enough colors for a six-pack, which some players in fact do keep with them -- one for each game in a session. The trend is now toward bolder, richer colors, such as bright orange. New fast-dry inks are available to keep players from messing up their hands and shirtsleeves. Wondering what to get your favorite bingo aficionado? Dauber four-packs make a thoughtful present!


When you have your equipment in place, you are almost ready to play. In the next section, we'll look at the basic rules and etiquette to prepare you for almost any bingo game.