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A brief history of bingo

Elderly woman playing bingo

In sixteenth-century Venice, some long-forgotten enterprising businessman came up with a new way to make money. Customers would buy tickets for a fixed price which would be put into an urn. Tickets representing things that people wanted to buy—“precios”, or “prizes”, such as silk, beads, cats, and horses—were put into a second urn, along with some simply marked “pacientia”, or “patience”.

After a while, sales of tickets would cease, and the trader would simultaneously draw tickets from each urn: those whose ticket came out at the same time as one bearing the name of a prize would win it; those whose ticket came out at the same time as one bearing “patience” would win nothing.

This became known as “lotto”, and before long, everyone was obsessed, as captured in the famous diaries of Marin Sanudo:

At present, in this Rialto district, nothing is done except put money on the lottery. First anyone who wished to adventure had to give 20 soldi, then it grew to 3 lire, then to a ducat. And the prizes were carpets and other things; now there are money prizes, 200 ducats, and a piece of cloth of gold has been offered.

As this business grew and grew, the draws got bigger and bigger, sometimes lasting days at a time and drawing huge crowds. Before long, people worked out how to piggyback on the lotto market to make a secondary profit: selling the rights to tickets at inflated prices once the draw had started, with the twin advantages of: the in-play ticket having a higher change of winning because of the elimination of smaller prices (essentially, sixteenth-century Deal or No Deal); and capitalising on the fact that people didn’t have the time to stand around to wait for the culmination of a multi-day draw. This market in second-hand tickets become known as “bagarinaggio”.

This game had sticking power, and—despite an early decline at the hands of over-zealous Italian tax reforms—is the foundation on which everything from the National Lottery to charity raffles to Christmas tombolas is built.

Lottokugeln fliegen auf blauem Hintergrund

Perhaps the closest modern analogue to sixteenth-century Venice’s favourite game is bingo. Unlike most other descendants of the idea, bingo retains the aspect of bringing large crowds together at one time in one place to apparently compete in an activity whose winner is randomly determined.

Before we go on… a personal confession. I don’t enjoy bingo: I find it interminably dull. We used to play bingo at home with relatives at Christmas when I was little, and I always wanted to be the bingo caller because being the player was so very boring. It just does nothing for me at all.

After a period being played underground—especially in the First World War—bingo was finally legalised in Britain in 1960. At once, the craze swept the nation. By 1963, something like a third of the adult population—14 million people—were members of bingo clubs. As high street picture houses and dance halls became unprofitable with the rise of television, they were often converted into bingo halls.

Perhaps because gambling was still a little unseemly, or perhaps to extend their reach, bingo halls often called themselves something else entirely: two large operators, Top Rank and Granada plumped for “social clubs”. It’s hard not to notice the similarity to coffee shops today: these frequently try and sell themselves as community hubs or venues for groups to meet, rather than merely shops that sell hot beverages. Perhaps it’s a necessary part of winning “heart and minds” to facilitate a rapid expansion.

Over the next two decades, bingo halls went from strength to strength. By the 1980s, national bingo games were being launched which networked clubs across the country together, and the first purpose-built bingo halls were appearing on the scene.

But in the 1990s, things changed. Bingo started to decline. This seems to be most commonly attributed to the National Lottery, but—to my mind, at least—this seems an unlikely association. It strikes me that there is a considerable difference between attending a bingo club with friends and the solitary activity of buying a lottery ticket at the corner shop. The bigger problem may have been that the average age of a bingo club member in 1990 was 62, and tastes had simply moved on.

Bingo hall after bingo hall closed—a fifth of all halls closed between 1995 and 2000. The decline continued into the new century, arguably hastened by the introduction of the smoking ban in 2007: industry experts estimate that some 50% of players previously smoked while playing, and many of them left when this was banned.

Also in 2007, in response to claims that the National Lottery’s huge jackpots had harmed the bingo industry, the Gambling Act allowed clubs to introduce games with rollover prizes for the first time. This led to much bigger jackpots: just months after the new rules were introduced, there was widespread media coverage of a £1.1million win.

Despite this—and perhaps giving the lie to the idea that National Lottery jackpots were behind the decline in the first place—the bingo sector continued to shrink, serving just 3 million customers in 2011. By June 2012, just 468 bingo clubs remained—and 16% of those closed by June 2013.

In March 2014, Chancellor George Osbourne cut the tax on bingo halls from 20% to 10% “to protect jobs and protect communities”—though given the moribund state of the industry, it’s hard to imagine there was much left to protect. It has had some effect: chains new clubs are opening, albeit in the single-figures after many years of double-digit decline. I suspect that club number have continued to fall on an industry-wide basis, but can’t find the figures to confirm this. Commentators claim that chains opening new venues is evidence of revitalisation of the bingo industry; I’m afraid I simply can’t see it. I can’t foresee bingo halls being more than a historical curiosity in a decade’s time. Perhaps I’m wrong.

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But, of course, there’s a whole other side to this story. Online bingo has grown exponentially over the last decade: there were 20 UK bingo sites in 2004, while there are 350 today. The lack of venue overheads has transformed the cost structure of the game: online games cost as little as a penny, and rarely more than 10p. And the industry’s expansion has heralded new operators, perhaps better equipped to compete in the digital world that bingo hall operators of old.

Many of the market leaders, such as Foxy Bingo, Costa Bingo and Cheeky Bingo are entirely new operators. It has been said that The Sun makes more money from its online bingo operation that it does from selling newspapers.

Allow me another personal confession: I don’t understand the appeal of online bingo. When given a free trial of a couple of sites, I could not have been more bored. At least in physical bingo, one does have to keep up with marking one’s tickets. Not so in most versions of online bingo, where either tickets are marked for you, or you are declared to have won whether you keep up or not. All of the sites also had chat rooms, but these were qualitatively no different to those that can be found anywhere online: they certainly didn’t strike me as a compelling reason to log on to the sites. The experience isn’t one I’d recommend.

The online bingo market seems like it is still nascent. The explosive growth of advertising for bingo sites is necessary as indications are that brand recognition and loyalty seems fairly poor: when Google changed its search rankings in 2013, it transformed the market. 888, which used to be everywhere, was one of the big losers of this change.

It’s curious that some bingo sites—much like early bingo halls—are starting to position themselves more as online social venues that gambling sites. It’s hard to tell whether this is a reflection of genuine demand, or a fig leaf to cover the desire to gamble as it seems to have been in the 1960s.

With the lack of interaction necessary in online bingo games, I wonder whether they are really “bingo” in the traditional sense at all. Perhaps sixteenth century Italian lotto has taken another evolutionary step; or perhaps online bingo—bingo without the time and concentration commitment—is today’s “bagarinaggio“.

In a case of history repeating itself yet again, politicians seem to be starting to consider online gambling as a possible source of tax income: just like the Italians centuries ago and the bingo halls of the 1960s, the market might be harmed by burdensome tax rates.

Really, I’ve no idea what the future holds. But one thing is certain: I’ll enjoy standing by and watching more than I’d enjoy a game of bingo.

You can read far more on the history of bingo in Britain in this fascinating report written by my friend Graham Soult for Two Little Fleas.



I was invited (though not paid) to write this post by a company marketing a report on Britain's bingo market written by Graham Soult for an online bingo comparison site, Two Little Fleas. Much of the content of this post is based on Graham's report: it is repeated in this post with kind permission. You can see the report in full on the Two Little Fleas website.

This 2,295th post was filed under: Miscellaneous, .

News organisations are wrong about A&E waiting times

Hospital surgery corridor

Answer me this: what happened to waiting times in A&Es in England last week? To help you answer, here are some tweets published by reputable news organisations today:

You would be forgiven for thinking that waiting times had reduced. You would be… possibly right, possibly wrong. The correct answer is that we don’t know. Performance against the weekly A&E waiting time targets—which is what all of the above are actually reporting—tells us nothing about the waiting time in A&E.

As an aside, before we get into this properly, I should clarify that “waiting time” doesn’t mean what most people think it means. The “waiting time” referred to in these statistics is the total time a patient spends in A&E, from the moment they walk in the door, to the moment they walk out again (whether that is to go home, to go to a ward, to go to the pub, or wherever). That’s not what we think of as “waiting” in common parlance: while you’re with the doctor, you are—in statistical terms—still “waiting”.

The NHS doesn’t report on waiting times, only on the proportion of patients seen in less than four hours. When the reporters wrongly say that A&E waiting times have improved, what they actually mean is that a greater proportion of people entering A&E are leaving again in less than four hours. This tells nothing about the amount of time people wait on average.

Imagine an A&E department that sees only five patients: A and B have minor injuries, and are seen and treated within 30 minutes. C and D need a more complex set of investigations, so end up being in the A&E department for 3 hours. E needs a very full assessment and ultimately admission; as a result, E ends up being in the department for a total of 5 hours before a bed can be found. The average time these patients spend in A&E is 2 hours and 24 minutes; 80% of them were discharged in 4 hours.

Now let’s say that someone puts a laser-focus on that 80% and says it’s unacceptable: whatever the cost, it must be brought down. So the department tells the nurse that used to do the “see and treat” job (which served patients A and B so well) that she must help with only the most complex patients, because they are breaching the target.

The same five people with the same five injuries now come into the revamped A&E. A and B have minor injuries, but now must wait alongside everyone else. They hang around for 3 hours. C and D need complex investigations, but these are slower to start because of people with minor injuries clogging up the queue. They are discharged after 4 hours. The new complex patient team deals with patient E slightly faster, getting her up to the ward with seconds to spare before the four-hour deadline.

100% of patients were seen within 4 hours. The hospital’s management is overjoyed! The BBC tweets that A&E waiting times have decreased: 100% of patients are seen within four hours instead of 80%. Politicians become a little self-congratulatory.

Yet… what has actually happened? The average waiting time has increased from 2 hours and 24 minutes to 3 hours and 36 minutes. 80% of patients are waiting longer than they did before.

And that is why—whatever the news tells you—we have no idea what happened to A&E waiting times last week. The average time could have doubled; it could have halved; it could have stayed precisely the same. We simply do not know.

This 2,294th post was filed under: Health, News and Comment, Politics.

The life-changing magic of tidying

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Today, I finished reading a rather unusual book. Marie Kondo’s The life-changing magic of tidying is a book for which I wouldn’t have had even a passing consideration had it not been for a recommendation from Tim Harford in the Financial Times. Tim—an economist—reckoned that a book on tidying had—in his words—”rocked his world”. This I had to read.

Kondo’s book rocked my world, too.

Kondo is a professional tidying coach. Who knew that such a thing existed? Her advice, delivered in a way that can only be described as heartfelt and beguiling, is to bin most of what you own, and form an intimate relationship with what is left. And when I say intimate relationship… this is a lady who believes most strongly in talking to your possessions at length, caressing the spines of your books, and treating every inanimate object in your home as if it is your friend.

Her horror at some of her clients seemingly innocuous actions—balling socks, hanging shirts, keeping shower gel in the shower—is absurd, yet delivered with such passion that it becomes entirely endearing.

I so badly wanted to share so many passages from this short book that it might have come close to plagiarism. But because I really, really want you to buy the book and experience the beguiling madness for yourself, I’ve chosen a single passage from the start of a chapter to give you a flavour of the advice within.

 This is the routine I follow every day when I return from work. First, I unlock the door and announce to my house, ‘I’m home!’ Picking up the pair of shoes I wore yesterday and left out in the hall, I say, ‘Thank you very much for your hard work,’ and put them away in the shoe cupboard. Then I take off the shoes I wore today and place them neatly in the hall. Heading to the kitchen, I put the kettle on and go to my bedroom. There I lay my handbag gently on the soft sheepskin rug and take off my outdoor clothes. I put my jacket and dress on a hangar, say ‘Good job!’ and hang them temporarily from the wardrobe doorknob. I put my tights in a laundry basket that fits into the bottom right corner of my cupboard, open a drawer, select the clothes I feel like wearing indoors and get dressed. I greet the waist-high potted plant by the window and stroke its leaves.

My next task is to empty the contents of my handbag onto the rug and put each item away in its place. First I remove all the receipts. Then I put my purse in its designated box in a drawer under my bed with a word of gratitude. I place my train pass and my business card holder beside it. I put my wristwatch in a pink antique case in the same drawer and place my necklace and earrings on the accessory tray beside it. Before closing the drawer, I say, ‘Thanks for all you did for me today.’

Despite—or, perhaps, because of—the madness, it seems to me that there is actually some really sound advice in this book. And Kondo’s enthusiasm for tidying is contagious. I couldn’t help but do a bit of tidying while reading.

So wonderful craziness with a dash of sense and a heap of motivation. What’s not to love? Trust me, Marie Kondo’s The life-changing magic of tidying is a book you will really enjoy—even if it would usually be the last thing on your reading list.



The picture isn't my house. I'm not that tidy.

This 2,293rd post was filed under: Reviews, .

So far, Cameron is winning the TV debates debate

In the game of poker that is the planning process for General Election TV debates, Cameron—the player with most to lose—is currently playing best. The broadcasters have played worst, totally fumbling their hand.

exposure of a product

Cameron patently has the most to lose from taking part in the debates. Unlike Miliband and Clegg, he’s not all that unpopular as a leader. He has little to gain and much to lose from sharing a platform with Farage, and further legitimising UKIP’s candidacy.

Cameron’s demand for inclusion of the Green Party will not be met by the broadcasters. If it were, it would look like the participants had been chosen on Cameron’s recommendation alone—hardly a fair and impartial source—opening them to justifiable legal challenge from the other parties who want to take part.

So Cameron is faced with two possible outcomes: the broadcasters do not go ahead, in which case he comfortably sidesteps the problem; or—more likely in my view—the broadcasters go ahead and “empty chair” him.

In the latter case, all options remain open to Cameron. Changing his mind, if that’s the way the wind is blowing, is a one-day story at most. He could even duck the first debate, with Farage, on the grounds that he objects to UKIP’s inclusion without the Greens, take or leave the second (3-way) debate for much the same reason, and still face down Miliband in his preferred (and accepted) one-on-one format.

The debate including Farage will doubtless be a fiery occasion which will probably do damage on all fronts—but it’s likely to do more damage to those present than to an absent Cameron. Speeches criticising an absent leader don’t make for nearly such good TV as people yelling at each other. Clegg and Miliband’s commitments to “anyone, anytime” debates means that they can’t duck Farage; it might make sense for Cameron to let them demolish each other one-on-one in the second debate, too.

Cameron’s other advantage, which Miliband seems insistent on handing to him gift-wrapped, is that opponents are now calling for Cameron to debate in airtime they could be using to build a message or attack Cameron’s record. The media’s own obsession with the debates will likely trap them in this neutralised position until there is movement—which, clearly, Cameron will prefer to leave until the last moment. Cameron calculates—I guess accurately—that his apparent prevarication over taking part in TV debates damages him less than full-frontal attacks from his opponents.

The broadcasters bungled this process by announcing a plan rather than debates. The announcement of a plan implied room for negotiation and manoeuvre. Had they had the common sense to announce the invitees, the format, and the dates, making them fixed events to which leaders were invited, the landscape would now look very different—and I’d wager that all four leaders would be signed up.

The spanner in Cameron’s works could come from the “digital debate” proposed by The Guardian, The Telegraph and YouTube, and confirmed last week to include Cameron’s five preferred participants. Yet, despite being proposed a consortium which buys ink by the barrel, nobody seems to have noticed. If the two papers were to announce a date and invitation list on their front pages, along with assurance that they would “empty chair” those who didn’t turn up, all of those invited might find it difficult to graciously decline… and even more so if they could get a broadcaster to commit to covering (but, to ease the legal challenge, not producing) the event.

Unless the digital debate consortium make a move, it seems unlikely that anything will move in this story for a few weeks at least… but it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

This 2,292nd post was filed under: Election 2015, News and Comment, Politics, , , , , , , .


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