Bingo

Introduction

Bingo is a domino game based on the the card game Sixty-six, and has nothing to do with the popular lottery game played with cards that hold a grid of numbers. In America in the 19th century, in regions where playing-cards were prohibited on religious grounds, several popular trick-taking card games were adapted to use dominoes instead. Other examples are Domino Euchre and Domino Loo or Rounce, but according to contemporary sources Bingo was the domino game demanding the most skill.

It seems that most of these American domino trick-taking games fell into disuse in the 20th century. 20th century game books, if they mention them at all, simply recycle the old descriptions or adapt them in a way that indicates that the author is unfamiliar with the game itself and is relying only on an imperfect understanding of an earlier written description. A notable exception is Texas 42 which continues to be played in that state along with its variant Moon.

Because of its high reputation, 20th and 21st century authors have continued to feature Bingo in collections of domino game rules. To repair what seemed to be gaps in the 19th century accounts they have superimposed their own interpretations of some of the rules, producing a game that is probably very different from the 19th century original.

On this page I try to describe the game as I believe it would have been played in its 19th century heyday. For this, perhaps the most useful description one of the earliest, found in Hoyle's Games by 'Trumps' (William Brisbane Dick) published in 1868. It states that "this game is played as similarly to the card game Sixty-Six as the difference between dominoes and cards will permit". This principle enables many details to be understood that would otherwise be obscure. The Standard Hoyle (Excelsior, New York, 1887) attributed to Barnet Phillips also provides some useful insights. In this book Bingo is hailed as 'the king of domino games', an accolade that probably helped to sustain its reputation through the 20th century even though few if any players survived.

Players, Equipment and Objective

The game is for two players using a double six domino set.

This is a trick-taking game, a trick consisting of one tile played by each player. The winner of each trick stores the two tiles face down and plays the first tile to the next trick. The tiles have values and the objective is to collect tiles in tricks worth at least 70 points and claim a win. This ends the play and if the claim is correct the player scores one or more game points (sometimes known as sets or rubbers). The first player to score 7 or more game points (sets, rubbers) over as many deals as it takes wins the game.

Value and Rank of Tiles

In this game the blanks represent the number 7 throughout. The double blank [0-0], known as the Bingo, is the highest tile in the set and beats all other tiles, even the trumps.

There are seven 'suits': 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and blank (0) representing 7. In each hand one of these is the trump suit, whose tiles have the power to beat all tiles of other suits (except for the Bingo).

In each suit, the highest tile is the double of that suit, followed by the others in descending order. Tiles that show a trump number belong only to trumps. Tiles that are not trumps and not doubles belong to two suits.

For example if fours are trumps, the trump suit ranks from high to low: [4-4], [4-0], [4-6], [4-5], [4-3], [4-2], [4-1] (the double is highest and the blank is next because the 0 counts as 7).

If fours are trumps, the fives suit ranks from high to low: [5-5], [5-0], [5-6], [5-3], [5-2], [5-1] (omitting the [5-4] because it is exclusively a trump).

The game is played for tricks, like a card game, and the objective is to win tricks containing valuable tiles. The point values of the tiles are as follows:

  • The double of the trump suit is worth 28 points.
  • Other doubles are worth the sum of their ends. So for example the [0-0] is worth 14 points (since the blanks count as 7) unless blanks are trumps in which case it counts 28.
  • All other tiles of the trump suit are worth the sum of their ends. For example if fours are trumps the [4-0] is worth 11 points and the [4-2] is worth 6 points.
  • The two non-double tiles whose ends add up to 10 - that is the [6-4] and the [0-3] - are always worth 10 points even when they are not trumps.
  • All other tiles - that is tiles that are not trumps, not doubles, and whose ends to not make a total of 10 - have a value of zero.

The total value of the tiles in the set varies from a minimum of 131 to a maximum of 147 according to the trump suit as follows:

SUITtrumpsdoubles 10pt tilestotal
0914210143
6864410140
5814620147
4764810134
3715010131
2665220138
1615420135

If the deal is played right to the end the winner of the very last trick (the 14th trick) is awarded 10 extra points. So with a minimum of 141 points available, when all the tiles have been played at least one player is always in a position to claim to have 70 points or more.

The Deal

The start player for the first deal is chosen by drawing tiles or any other convenient method. For subsequent deals, the winner of each deal is the start player in the next deal. The whole set of 28 tiles is shuffled face down.

Each player draws a hand of seven tiles. The players arrange these tiles in front of them so that they can see the faces of their own tiles but the opponent cannot see them. Then the second player turns one tile in the boneyard face up. The high end of this tile determines the trump number for this hand. This tile stays face up on the table and it is drawn as the last boneyard tile unless a player "closes the game" as described below.

The Play

The play consists of two phases, phase one when the boneyard trump tile is face up, and face two when the boneyard is empty or the trump has been turned face down by a player closing the game.

First phase

In each trick, the first player plays (leads) a tile and the opponent responds by playing a tile. In phase one there are no restrictions - in each trick each player can play any tile from their hand. The winner of the trick is determined as follows.

  • If either player plays the [0-0], the [0-0] wins the trick no matter what the other tile is.
  • If the [0-0] is not played then:
    • If both players play trumps the trick is won by the higher trump.
    • If only one of the players plays a trump, the trump wins.
    • If neither player plays a trump, the higher end of the first tile played is the suit of the trick. If the second player also plays a tile of that suit, the higher tile wins the trick. If the second player plays a non-trump tile of a different suit, the first player wins the trick.

Examples. Suppose 5's are trumps and player A leads the [4-3]. The suit of the trick is 4, because 4 is the higher end of the led tile.

  • If player B plays the [5-1] player B wins the trick because the [5-1] is a trump.
  • If player B plays the [6-4] player B wins the trick because the 4 matches the suit of the trick and 6 is higher than 3.
  • If player B plays the [4-0] player B wins the trick because the 4 matches the suit of the trick and the 0 counts as 7 which is higher than 3.
  • If player B plays the [4-1] player A wins the trick because 1 is lower than 3.
  • If player B plays the [6-3] player A wins the trick because the [6-3] is not a trump and does not belong to the suit (4) that was led.

The winner of the trick collects the two played tiles, stores them face down in the collection of tiles that he or she has won, draws one face down tile from the boneyard and adds it to his or her hand. The loser of the trick then similarly draws a tile so that both players have 7 tiles again. The winner of the trick plays the first tile to the next trick.

After the winner of the 7th trick has drawn a tile, the only tile remaining in the boneyard will be the face up tile that was used to determine the trump suit. The loser of the trick draws this tile and the winner of the leads to the first trick of phase two.

Second phase

The second phase of play begins when the boneyard is empty, or if a player closes the game (see below). In the second phase, the first player to each trick is still free to lead any tile, but the second player must 'follow suit' and subject to this restriction must win the trick if possible. Specifically this means that:

  1. If a trump is led:
    • the second player must play a higher trump if possible (second player wins),
    • if no higher trump is held, the second player must play a lower trump if possible (second player follows suit but first player wins),
    • if the second player has no trumps but holds the [0-0], this tile must be played (second player wins),
    • having no trumps and no [0-0] the second player may play any tile (first player wins).
  2. If a non-trump is led, the suit of the higher end is the suit of the trick.
    • The second player must play a higher tile of the same suit if possible (second player wins).
    • If no higher tile of the suit led is held, the second player must play a lower tile of that suit if possible (second player follows suit but first player wins).
    • Having no tile of the suit that was led, the second player must play either a trump or the [0-0] if possible (second player wins).
    • Having no tiles of the suit led, no trumps and no [0-0], the second player may play any tile (first player wins).

Examples for phase 2. 4's are trumps and player B, playing second to the trick, holds the following tiles: [0-0], [5-4], [4-1], [6-6], [6-2]

  • If player A leads the [4-3] B must play the [5-4] (the only higher trump B holds).
  • If player A leads the [6-4] B must follow suit with the [5-4] or the [4-1].
  • If player A leads the [6-3] B must beat it with the [6-6].
  • If player A leads the [6-0] B must beat it with the [0-0] (the suit of the trick is 0, not 6).
  • If player A leads the [3-2], player B, having no 3's, must play the [5-4], the [4-1] or the [0-0] to win the trick.

The winner of the trick adds the two tiles to their trick store. No tiles are drawn in phase two: the winner of the trick simply leads to the next trick.

Declaring doubles

If the first player to a trick holds two or more doubles, the player may declare them and lead one of the doubles to the trick, showing the other(s). The declaration scores extra points as follows:

doubles declaration score
two double 20
three triplet 40
four double doublet 50
five king 60
six emperor 70
seven invincible 3 game points

If the [0-0] (bingo) is one of the doubles in the declaration, 10 extra points are counted.

The points for declaring doubles are only valid after the declarer has won at least one trick. This will normally already be the case when the doubles are declared, since the declarer earns the right to lead to a trick by having won the previous trick. The exception is when the first player declares when leading a double to the very first trick. In this case the points for the declaration will not count unless and until this player wins a trick.

The 70 points for emperor are enough to win the deal, so as soon as they are scored the declarer can claim, end the play and score one or more games points. Declaring four or more doubles including the [0-0] also wins automatically since the player wins at least 50+10 for the doubles and 14 more by leading the [0-0] to the trick.

The lucky player who holds all seven doubles and declares them wins 3 game points without further play. However, holding seven doubles when it is your opponent's lead is not quite so good. One of them must be used to take the lead, and the player can then declare just six doubles (emperor) and claim an ordinary win.

If blanks are not trump and the player on lead holds the [0-0] and the double of trumps, this is also enough to claim a win. The declaration scores 30 points (20+10) and in addition the player will take at least 42 points (14+28) by winning tricks with these two tiles.

Tiles that have been declared and shown cannot be used again for a subsequent declaration.

Claiming a win

Tricks are stored face down. A player may look at the most recent trick but not at earlier tricks, so players must keep a mental count of points takes. A player who believes they have 70 or more points can claim a win. This ends the play. The tiles in the player's tricks are then exposed and their values totalled, together with the value of any doubles declaration by the player.

  • If the claim is correct - the player really has at least 70 points - the claiming player wins, even if the other player in fact had more points.
  • If the claim is incorrect - the claiming player has less than 70 points - the opponent wins.

As in the card game 66, the rule that players must keep a mental count of points taken and cannot look back at past tricks was strictly observed. However, new players learning to play Bingo may prefer at first to keep a running tally of the points taken, perhaps using a Cribbage board or some other device, until they become familiar with the scoring.

Closing a game

If the winner of a trick in phase one believes, after drawing, that he or she can take at least 70 points without drawing further tiles from the stock, the player can close the game by turning the trump tile in the boneyard face down before leading to the next trick. At this point the play enters phase two - the second player to each trick must follow suit and beat the first player's tile if possible. No further tiles are drawn from the boneyard.

If after the players have played all the tiles in their hands the player who closed the game has not reached 70 points, the other player automatically wins.

It is not possible to close the game before leading to the first stick: the player must have won at least one trick before the game can be closed.

Note that if the game is closed, there is no 10-point bonus for the last trick (since it is not the 14th trick).

Scoring

For a successful claim when the game was not closed, the winning player scores game points as follows:

  • 1 game point if the opponent has at least 30 points;
  • 2 game points if the opponent has at least one trick but less than 30 points;
  • 3 game points if the opponent has no tricks.

For an incorrect claim, the opponent scores 2 game points.

If the game was closed, and the closing player correctly claims to have scored at least 70 points, the number of game points scored depends on the opponent's score at the time when the game was closed.

  • 3 game points if the game was closed when the opponent had taken no tricks;
  • 2 game points if the game was closed when the opponent had taken less than 30 points;
  • 1 game point if the opponent had taken 30 points or more when the game was closed.

If the player who closed fails to reach 70 points or claims incorrectly, the closing player's opponent scores

  • 2 game points if the game was closed when the opponent had taken at least one trick;
  • 3 game points if the game was closed when the opponent had taken no tricks.

In the rare case where the opponent of the closing player wins by scoring 70 points and claiming correctly, the closing player's opponent scores 2 game points.

If blanks are not trumps and the double of trumps and the [0-0] are played to the same trick, the player of the [0-0] immediately scores 1 extra game point for beating the double of trumps.

The first player to score a total of 7 game points wins the whole game.

Uncertainties and Variants

I am fairly confident that the above description reflects the way the game was originally played, apart from a few slight uncertainties.

No author explicitly mentions the 10 extra points for winning the 14th (last) trick. This rule is included here on the basis that according to the 1868 Hoyle the rules of the card game 66 should be followed as far as possible, and the rules of 66 in the same book do include the usual 10-point bonus for the last trick. Also, these 10 points bring the minimum number of points in a game to 141 which neatly avoids the problem of an undecided game where neither player is able to claim 70.

All the accounts are surprisingly vague about the ranking of the dominoes and the rules of play. However, in the 19th century there were several other trick-taking games with dominoes and the books included several of these games. We can assume that unless otherwise stated the tile ranking and play were similar in each game. This gives us some confidence that the double is the highest tile in each suit and that when a tile is led the higher end determines the suit of the trick.

No author explicitly states or gives examples of how the [0-0] is affected by the requirement to follow suit in phase two of the game. Analogies do not help here as the special power of the [0-0] is unique to Bingo. Since nothing is stated to the contrary, I have assumed that for the purposes of following suit the [0-0] counts as a tile of the blank suit and not as a trump if blanks are not trumps. Therefore if 5's are trumps and a player leads the [5-5] in phase two, the opponent holding the [0-0] and [5-3] must follow suit with the [5-3] rather than winning with the [0-0]. Also, if the [0-0] is led in phase two, the other player must play a blank if any are held, not a trump.

There are two genuine variants mentioned in the 19th century sources.

  1. Many played that in phase two, the second player was obliged to follow suit, and to play a trump if unable to follow suit, but when following suit was not obliged to beat the first player's tile. In this variant it is not clear to me what happens when a non-trump is led and the opponent has no tiles of the suit led and no trumps but does hold the [0-0]. My guess is that the [0-0] must be played in that case.
  2. Some played that the threshold for winning 2 game points rather than 1 was that the opponent should have less than 20 points rather than less than 30.

20th Century Variants

Most 20th century descriptions of Bingo depart from the original 19th century game in one or more respects. It is possible that some of these changes represent the evolution of the game. It is however fairly clear that many of them result from attempts by authors who were not players of Bingo or of the underlying card game 66 to fix what they perceived as deficiencies in the old rules by inventing new rules of their own. I will discuss some of these variants below.

Rank and value of tiles and rules of play

Some authors, while stating that the blank counts as 7 for the purpose of counting points, do not make it clear whether this also applies to ranking for the purpose of winning tricks. When writers talk about the tile with more spots or the 'heavier' tile winning a trick, it is possible that some of them are counting the blank as seven invisible spots, and maybe others regard the blanks as the lowest tiles of their suits, so that for example the valuable [3-0] can be beaten by the [3-1].

Hardly any of the descriptions explicitly state that the double is the highest tile of each suit, even though this is known to be the case in other domino trick-taking games such as Texas 42. So maybe some writers believe that if the [5-5] is led it can be beaten by the 'heavier' [6-5] (if neither 5's nor 6's are trumps).

There are many different opinions about what happens when both players play non-trump tiles. Some say that the second player can only win the trick by playing a higher tile that matches the higher end of the tile that was led, some say that the second player can win by playing a higher tile that matches either end of the first tile, and some simply say that the tile with more pips wins the trick, irrespective of suits, and that if the two tiles have equal numbers of pips the first player wins.

Several authors say that in phase two when a non-trump is led, if the opponent cannot match the higher end they must match the lower end in preference to trumping or discarding from another suit. It is conceivable that this was a genuine rule or a later development. Under this rule if, for example, the [4-2] is led in phase two when 5's are trumps, a player who has no fours must play a 2, and if it is a higher tile of that suit such as the [6-2] that wins the trick. Michael Engel gives this version of the rule in Das Grosse Humbolt Domino Buch (2004) as part of a description that is more complete and accurate than most. A consequence is that in Engel's version the rule for deciding which tile wins is different in phase two from phase one where the higher end of the first tile determines the suit of the trick. According to Engel if the first player plays the [4-2] and the second player plays the [6-2], neither being a trump, the [4-2] wins in phase one because the second player has not followed suit but the [6-2] wins in phase two because the 2 matches.

Declaring Doubles

This is the analogue of the marriage declaration in the card game 66. In 66, a player who holds the King and Queen of a suit and leads one of them can declare a marriage and score points for it provided that they have previously won a trick. If the declaration is made by the first player right at the start of the play the player must win a trick before the points for the marriage can be counted.

In the early descriptions of Bingo, the rule for declaring doubles is exactly similar. A player who leads a double and declares and shows one or more other doubles scores points for the declaration. These points only become valid when the player wins a trick. This is quite clearly stated. For example 'Trump' in 1868 writes that the player who holds two doubles 'can, when it his turn to lead, play one, show the other and announce twenty points which are added to his account as soon as he has won a trick.'

Several 20th century writers give a different rule: that a declaration of doubles is only scored if the player who leads a double wins the trick in which the declaration is made. It is very likely that this change arose from a misunderstanding. The new rule makes it difficult to score for declaring doubles unless one of them is the [0-0], which cannot be beaten. A player might try to score a declaration by leading the trump double, but it would be very risky to do this in phase one unless the [0-0] had already been seen. If any non-trump double is led in phase one, all the opponent needs is any small trump to win the trick, invalidating the declaration and collecting the points for the double that was led.

Some 20th century writers also introduced the idea of redeclaring doubles. For example a player who started with 3 doubles could lead one of them and declare the Triplet. If that trick was won the player could then lead one of the other doubles to the next trick and declare Double. It is very unlikely that this was allowed in the original game. A consequence would be that any player with the [0-0] and two other doubles could win by scoring 50 points for the Triplet, leading the [0-0] and then scoring 20 more points by declaring the remaining Double in the next trick.

Claiming and Scoring

Some authors do not require a player to claim 70 points and end the play in order to score game points. Some of them imply that when a player reaches 70, they score 1, 2 or 3 game points according to what the other player has, but that play then continues. This makes it possible for both players to reach 70 and score game points in the same deal.

Some descriptions appear to allow points to be carried over from one deal to the next, though it is far from clear how this is supposed to work, especially in combination with the possibility of closing the game.

Few authors require players to remember the points taken. Some suggest that a cumulative score is kept throughout the game using a peg board, chips or paper.

None of the descriptions mentions the score of 10 extra points extra for winning the 14th trick.

Berndt's Variant

The Domino Book (Bantam Books, 1975) by Frederick Berndt describes a simplified version of the game, possibly invented by the author. The target score is 66 instead of 70 but the tile values are much lower so that more than one deal is needed to reach the target.

7 tiles each are dealt as usual. The first player can choose either end of the boneyard tile exposed by the second player as the trump suit.

Blanks count as zero. The [0-0] beats all other tiles. Other doubles have no special trick-taking power - for example the [5-4] beats the [4-4] even if 4's are trumps.

In phase one any tiles can be played. The [0-0] always wins if it is played. Otherwise if one tile is a trump and the other is not the trump wins. Otherwise if the two tiles can be matched at one end the higher tile wins. If neither tile is a trump and neither end matches the first played tile wins. The winner of the trick leads to the next after both players have drawn from the boneyard.

If phase two the second player must match one end of the first player's tile if possible. Failing that the second player must play a trump or the [0-0]. The winner of the trick is determined as in phase one.

The double in trumps scores the sum of its ends. Other trumps score the value of the non-trump end only. Other doubles score 3 points each. Tiles that are neither trumps nor doubles have no value. The total value of the tiles ranges from 39 points when 0's are trumps to 45 points when 6's are trumps.

A player who leads a double can show another double and will then score 3 points if the led double wins the trick. This can be done more than once by the same player, and the shown double can be reused.

At the end of the play the points are counted. A cumulative score is kept from deal to deal until one player has a score of 66 or more. This player wins 1 rubber. If both players have 66 or more the player with more points wins a rubber. When a rubber is won both players' point scores are reset to zero. The first player who wins seven rubbers wins the game.

A player who has won at least one trick in the current deal can close the game, turning down the face up trump. If the closing player fails to reach 66 points, then in addition to the points taken in tricks and declarations the opponent adds 7 points or the difference between the closing player's score and 66, whichever is greater.