Eyes down for bingo fans

Once the preserve of old ladies and seaside towns, bingo hasn't always enjoyed the most fashionable reputation. In a year that has seen a smoking ban and new gambling laws, and Felixstowe's popular pier bingo closing this weekend, JAMES MARSTON lifts some bingo myths - and gives first-timers a guide on the etiquette.

Once the preserve of old ladies and seaside towns, bingo hasn't always enjoyed the most fashionable reputation. In a year that has seen a smoking ban and new gambling laws, and Felixstowe's popular pier bingo closing this weekend, JAMES MARSTON lifts some bingo myths - and gives first-timers a guide on the etiquette.

ONE player won £200,000 and just a couple of weeks ago a woman won £20,000 - at one bingo hall in Ipswich.

The game in Suffolk might not have the glamour of the tables of Monte Carlo, but the promise and the fun it brings are still pretty popular. Each week more than 4,000 of us pass through the doors of Gala bingo hall, in Ranelagh Road.

And despite the smoking ban - a move that left the bingo industry fearing for its future - bingo is as popular as ever.

Manager Nigel Calloway said: “Bingo is the fun side of having a flutter. It's not serious gambling. It's more about coming out to meet people as well as the chance to win some cash. It's a night out, and if you don't win it's not too disappointing.”

The stakes vary from night to night. You can buy your 'books' for £5 on a Monday or spend £15 on a Sunday for higher prizes. Nigel said: “We hand out up to £200,000 a week in prize money. About four years ago we had a winner of £200,000 and just a couple of weeks ago a lady won £20,000.”

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With room for about 1,000 people, Ipswich Gala is a big operation. Nigel said: “We have about 40 staff. There's a diner and a bar and we are open seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year 363 days of the year - we close for Christmas Day and probably Boxing Day.

“There's morning, afternoon and evening sessions every day. We start at 11am and at that time attract a few mums that have dropped the kids off at school and pop in for a quick game of bingo. The first main session of the day starts at 12.45pm.”

More than three million people play bingo regularly in the UK, with around 500 clubs linking together to play the National Game every day. Eight per cent of the population play bingo - 10 per cent of all women and 5pc of all men.

But isn't playing bingo all about old ladies? Not at all according to Nigel.

He said: “Bingo has had its detractors but it's a myth that it's for old people. We have a lot of young people enjoying bingo. Groups come here on Fridays and Saturdays before going out into the town.

“Drinks are reasonably cheap and I'd estimate that about 60 per cent of our members are young people. Bingo isn't all old people knitting anymore and out older members are young at heart.”

Clarissa Harvey, 23, said she had come to bingo to celebrate her birthday.

She added: “My gran got me into bingo. I love playing. It's a nice place to meet people.”

Francesca Davies, 42, of Grove Avenue, Little Waldingfield said: “I am partially sighted and I have memorised by cash bingo card so I know the numbers by heart. I call for my two friends when they have a claim. Bingo is a social event, it's where we all meet up and it's a way of meeting people of all ages.”

Eric Price, 75, of Suffolk Road, Sudbury, said: “I enjoying winning. It's a good way to meet people and it's a fun thing to do.”

Assistant manger Christine Bailey, who has worked at Gala for ten years, said: “People think I'm a bit mad but I play bingo on my day off. It's a place where women and men can go alone and be safe and feel comfortable. We try to create a friendly atmosphere and it's a bit like being part of a family.”

The smoking ban introduced in July, was opposed by the bingo industry which was concerned business would suffer. Nigel said: “It has affected us a little bit but business has started to pick up again since it came into force. We haven't seen the massive decline that I think was predicted. The worst case scenario hasn't happened.”

Nigel said some bingo players, though not many, have said they have given up smoking as a result.

He added: “I think people quite like the fact that they can come here and not leave smelling of cigarettes.”

New gambling laws have also had limited effect on the game. The Gambling Act 2005, implemented this year had three main aims according to the department of culture, media and sport; keeping gambling crime free, making sure that gambling is fair and open and protecting children and vulnerable adults

Nigel said: “The new laws haven't affected us too much. New members used to have to wait 24 hours before playing but that is no longer the case.

“We have had to reduce the number of high jackpot fruit machines. We used to have 20 to 30 but now we only have four.”

What do you think of the game? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk

Nigel's guide to bingo etiquette:

Become a member

“At the door you are greeted by a member of staff. You need to be a member to play bingo. To become a member you have to be over 18 and if you are between 18 and 25 we will ask for photo id.

“We ask for your name, address and date of birth. It's a simple procedure and just takes a few minutes. Once you've done it we can issue a membership card there and then and you can play bingo straight away.”

Choose your books

“At book sales staff explain what you need to buy for each session, it's normally six books. It's also where you can buy a dabber of a pen.”

Choose a seat

“Once in the main hall you can choose a seat. It's all non smoking now.”

Try Cash/Party Bingo

“Before during and after the main sessions we play cash or party bingo. This is a form of seaside bingo played on a board that's at your table.

“It's played for cash or prizes for stakes ranging from 25p to £1. It's played throughout the day.”

Main session

“The caller is announced and its eyes down. The caller will explain the game, call the numbers and deal with claims. We play for one line, two lines and then the full house. The caller has an overview of the whole club and he keeps the game going. He's got to be a bit of a showman.”

Making a claim

“The caller relies heavily on members shouting out to stop the game. If your numbers come up the claim is checked and the money given to you there and then.

“We keep a record of who wins and what they win. If it's over £500 we take the customer to one side and count it out to them.

“If they win over £1,000 we supply them with transport home. For even bigger wins we draw a cheque.”

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8,800 betting office licences

3,600 bookmakers' permits

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Bingo was played by the Romans and was recorded as a children's game under the name of Lotto in 1778.

Bingo was popular in the early 1900s, but was properly established by American toy salesman Edwin S. Lowe in 1929

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