Is bingo considered gambling?

Bingo is everywhere. Although becoming rarer there are still physical bingo halls, often quite grand, dotting the high street, and everyone knows how to play it, and probably can’t even remember how they learned having been taught it at a young age.

For many, their exposure would suggest that bingo is far from gambling. Young children can play bingo with parents and at school to become familiar with numbers, but they cannot place bets. It’s played by groups to amuse members, homes to stimulate residents, even charities to have fun while raising money. Few, if any, of those would compare it to the more traditional view of gambling at a bookies or casino.

Bingo Balls – image source

What is bingo?

Surprisingly, the UK Gambling Commission has not defined what bingo actually is. While they have some guidance on the game, they have refrained from going so far as actually defining it, taking a view that is, effectively, they will know what it is when they see it. If necessary, they recognise that definition is down to the courts.

Despite their refusal to define bingo the commission have listed some core components to the game.

1. Each player had an equal chance to win

How this is achieved is largely irrelevant, whether players are given cards at random or are allowed to pick their own numbers, as long as each has a unique card and numbers are drawn at random it is fine. Even introducing odds to the game is fine as long as there isn’t a structured house or banker’s interest.

2. There must be a degree of participation

The player must be involved in the game. Traditionally, this would have been by marking, or ‘dabbing’ the numbers off as they were called and then claiming a win. This can now be done automatically by software, as long as there is notional player involvement. Many online games offer the option to manually mark numbers for those that want, although the software will still check in the background.

3. The game needs a clearly defined end

Everyone playing should know exactly how and when the game will be over. In almost all cases this will be when the first player has marked off every number on their card, but if different rules are played these should be made clear to every participant before the game commences.

The history of bingo

As a game bingo is often thought to trace its roots, but not the name, to 16th century Italy, although there is some evidence of similar games being played for much longer. The game really took off in the UK after the 1968 Gambling Act when bingo halls quickly appeared across the country. The traditional bingo hall was about much more than bingo, though.

While bingo was at the heart of the bingo hall much of the attraction was the social aspect. In stark contrast to bookmakers, which were required to make themselves visually unappealing and to offer no comforts to customers, bingo halls became destinations. Regular players would attend for the social side as much as the games and some would make family outings of a trip to the bingo, incorporating food and drink around their game.

Traditional bingo halls have been declining in recent years. No longer the social draw they once were their appeal has increasingly been limited to older demographics as other options have become more popular with younger people.

However, online bingo has seen a resurgence of interest. Part of this reflects the original attractions of the bingo hall, online bingo is very social. Part reflects the ease of play and change in image. Online bingo now can have any number of themes and is not limited to the dowdy and down-at-heel bingo hall.

Gambling is a lottery

Legally, bingo is considered gambling which might be news to the millions of parents, teachers and others who would have never considered their games as introducing people to betting and most definitely will not have registered with the Gambling Commission!

An explanation of why bingo is legally considered gambling comes from the 1978 Royal Commission on Gambling which saw bingo as, essentially, a lottery. Many familiar with the game might not immediately recognise this. There is a lot of ritual around bingo, especially when played physically, with the caller honing their job to the level of performance art with a series of names, or ‘bingo lingo’, for the numbers — in some places players would participate in chanting the name. Players would dab and feel the tension build before the first call of house. But when that is stripped away all that remains is a lottery.

Every player has a unique set of numbers. The winning numbers are drawn at random. Each player, therefore, has an equal chance of winning. The only way you can improve your chances is to play more cards in the game. The performance around calling numbers, dabbing them off and then claiming your prize is just theatre. Mathematically you could get the same result by giving each player just one number and then drawing that, but it definitely would not be as much fun.

When the money matters

There is, therefore, an argument to be made that all bingo is gambling. On one level this is true, whether played with children or at a club the basic rules mean that people are taking part in a lottery, albeit one with active participation. However, the Gambling Commission clearly does not license all bingo.

Their interest is, instead, in those games that have prizes. The commission has stated that they recognise two different types of bingo.

The first game is ‘cash bingo’. In cash bingo players are playing for the proceeds from the stakes, less a reasonable deduction for the operating costs. Therefore, in a game played by 100 people for a £1 stake the winner should reasonably expect to take away close to £100.

The second game they recognise is ‘prize bingo’. Prize bingo is for a fixed prize, stated in advance. In the same example the prize might be £50, so even through those 100 players have collectively paid twice as much in stake the winner would only take home £50. However, if only 25 players turned up and paid, the prize would remain the same.

Interestingly the commission does not mention the payment of stakes other than as a function of cash bingo. Indicating that their interest is focused on the prizes. It also means that bingo operators and players can’t claim that free games, whether from a no deposit bonus offer or from another part of the operator’s site, are exempt from licensing.

When the money doesn’t matter

Even limiting the definition to those games that offer prizes would still leave far more games than the Gambling Commission could possibly hope to license. While the commission has not indicated exactly what it thinks bingo is, it has indicated what bingo it does not care about.

If you are considering running a game of bingo to raise some funds this is permissible. The Gambling Commission sets limits on these, therefore for a game of bingo players are not allowed to pay more than £8 towards their game (they can pay more if the excess pays for other things, such as entertainment or food at a fundraiser) and the total of prizes must be under £600 or under £900 if the prizes are for a collective set of events rather than a single game.

If operating a prize bingo structure players must be informed beforehand what the prizes are, and what the funds are being raised for. The prizes, like a commercial bingo operator, must be fixed regardless of the number of players.

In both cases the games cannot be operated for personal gain and any funds raised need to be given to the identified good cause.

Bingo is gambling, except when it isn’t

Whether bingo is gambling depends on your perspective. On one level bingo, whoever and wherever it is played, is a form of gambling. It is a game of chance and all the players have an equal chance of winning. Whether you are toddler playing for the pride of being first to fill a card or an online player one number away from a massive cash bingo jackpot the fundamental game is the same.

From the legal perspective, the answer is a little fuzzier. You will know bingo when you see it, and as long as it meets the basic criteria of having equal chances of winning, some element of participation and a defined end it is bingo. Whether it should be regulated depends on the size of the prize and where the funds raised are going.

One question that has a clear answer is whether bingo is fun? It definitely is, and if you want to make sure you are playing with a properly licensed and great site then just make sure you play on a Bingo Sites recommended site.