It's National Bingo Week! A magnificent effort has been made to widen the popularity of Vera Duckworth's favourite night out by publicising this week's glittering array of events and revamping the country's glamorous gaming establishments. Not only is there a huge nationwide game going on with a pounds 250,000 prize, but Top Rank staff will be performing zany antics galore. The highlight is the Bingo Caller of the Year competition at the Beacon Bingo Club in London's sunny Cricklewood next Sunday at 11.30am.

bingo caller of the year?!

That's right. "The Cream of Britain's Callers" will be there shouting "three Fat Ladies" for all they're worth and dreaming of that trip to Vegas where they will be invited to "ply their trade in one of the world's top gambling establishments". The 24th of September is to be the tearful day when Birmingham's Patrick Bowler will be compelled to give up his crown. Patrick, last year's winner, is convinced of the game's rising popularity: "There used to be a stigma attached to men going to Bingo," he confesses, "But since they opened licensed bars at the clubs, men feel they can go along for the beer."

stigma? what stigma?

The Romans played it, the modern Italians love it, Russians can't get enough of it and it is the only gambling game allowed by our armed forces. All right, so you have to be 18 to play and it was only made legal here under the Gaming Act in 1960, but clubs have been raking in cash since then with 2.8 million regular players, 80 per cent of whom are women. When American Edwin Lowe patented his game under the name of Bingo in 1930 he didn't have an inkling of the potential pick-up joints he was creating for British men in the 1990s. Think of it! Hundreds of halls around the country packed with pouting babes about to strike it rich. Realistically, they can't all look like Vera Duckworth ... can they?

why is this fun?

Because you get to win loads of money. Since 1986, pounds 283m has been paid out in prize money. Bingoists insist that there is a far greater chance of winning at Bingo than at the National Lottery; every week the big national bingo game links 700 clubs by computer and offers a top prize of around pounds 75,000. Bingo publicist Tara Munro won pounds 200 the first time she took a journalist to the game but forgot to shout out her victory because she was trying to help the floundering hack. Staggeringly, most big prize winners (90 per cent) go back to playing Bingo at their local clubs and fritter away their winnings. This figure actually includes winners of the pounds 250,000 prize like the one offered on the 20th of this month in the big game.

how do you play?

Go along to your local Bingo Hall with your lucky rabbit's foot and join up. Membership is free. Once you have received your membership card, tick off the numbers called until you have got a full house and thousands of pounds. This may take many years, but it won't cost you much. The average amount spent per session is about pounds 7 (including drinks) so if you hit the jackpot first time it is a bargain. Most people, however, play every week all their lives and never win enough to move to the Bahamas.

what if all my balls come up?

They won't. They don't use ping pong balls any more. It is all super hi-tech with a computer that generates random numbers and displays them on screen. The days of Les Dawson lookalikes in shiny suits winking and guffawing their way through the balls are over - it is now much more like playing space invaders.

how do I celebrate national bingo week?

Join a club, play the pounds 250,000 game and go and see "the glamorous" Leslie Joseph of Birds of a Feather announce the Bingo Caller of the Year. You could do worse than going to the Top Rank in Manchester, where you can get into bed with a male model and a few hundred other women to take a flutter.

8 For further information, telephone the Bingo Association of Great Britain on 01925 234 700

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