This year marks the 60th anniversary of Yahtzee, and the 30th anniversary of the death of its creator, Edwin S. Lowe. He was also the fellow who popularized bingo. And he was the son of an Orthodox rabbi.
Born in Poland in 1910, Lowe went from dirt-poor but savvy New York teen to hardworking traveling salesman in the Depression-era Deep South to hugely successful game developer; in addition to Yahtzee and bingo, he was the man behind many magnetized board games—the ancestors of the ones our kids play in the car. His miniature versions of games were hugely popular with WWII soldiers.
In 1973, Milton Bradley bought his company for $26 million. By the time Lowe died in New York in 1986, he’d become a Broadway-producing, real-estate-developing multimillionaire.
Lowe’s only grandson, Evan Haymes—a real-estate developer and “operator and asset manager of disruptive and opportunistic ventures” (I don’t know what these words mean) in Midtown Manhattan—recalls that his grandfather came to New York City as a young boy, after his family emigrated from Poland and made a brief stop in Palestine. Obituaries in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times said Lowe arrived in America at 18, after a longer stay in the Holy Land. In any case, while working as a traveling toy salesman at 19, he stopped by a carnival in Jacksonville, Georgia. There he saw a huge line of people waiting to play a game called “beano.” This proto-bingo game involved only 12 numbers and 12 possible combinations. When a player’s number was called, they’d put a bean on their card; winners got a Kewpie doll. The exciting, suspenseful, easy-to-play communal game was clearly a source of joy during the Great Depression. As Lowe told an interviewer later, “It was the only booth alive with smiles and whoops.”
Lowe brought beano home to Brooklyn to play with friends. One woman got so excited when she won that she forgot the name of the game and screamed “BINGO!” And, the legend goes, a light bulb went off in Lowe’s head. He told an interviewer, “I cannot describe the sense of elation which that girl’s cry brought to me. All I could think of was that I was going to come out with this game and I was going to call it bingo.” He changed the name, expanded the game to 24 cards, and started selling it. Immediately it was a hit for church fundraising events. But a Catholic priest was irked that his church was dealing with too many duplicate winners, and asked Lowe to come up with some additional winning combinations. Lowe asked a Columbia University mathematician to work up some new possibilities, and soon Lowe’s bingo offered 6,000 possible combinations. Lowe tried and failed to trademark the name, but he still became by far the dominant player in the bingo biz.
He was clearly an ace marketer. “I used to get thousands of letters asking for help on setting up bingo games,” Lowe said in an interview with Gambling Times. He created an instructional manual and a monthly newsletter called The Blotter (“absorbs all bingo news”), which soon had 37,000 subscribers. By 1934, there were as many as 10,000 bingo games a week around the country, and Lowe claimed to have 64 presses printing Bingo cards 24 hours a day. “We used more newsprint than The New York Times!” he boasted.
As for Yahtzee, its origins are shrouded in mystery. The story goes that in 1956, Lowe was invited by a wealthy Canadian couple to a party aboard their yacht. They’d invented a dice game to play with guests, and they wanted Lowe to produce a version they could give away to friends. Lowe agreed if they’d give him the rights to sell the game; in exchange, he’d give them the first 1,000 copies. Lowe changed the game’s name from “The Yacht Game” to “Yahtzee.” (This story is apocryphal because no one has ever identified the mysterious rich Canadians.Haymes doubts the story about Yahtzee’s genesis; in the family’s own narrative, Lowe—who was already famous for bingo—invented the game and brought it to a party on a boat. “I don’t buy these ‘Canadian yachters’ at all,” Haymes said drily. “‘Canada’ is a euphemism for ‘I don’t really know.’”)
Again, Lowe’s marketing savvy helped the game get huge. Yahtzee, unlike bingo, was slow to take off because it was hard to explain in a simple and enticing way. (Here’s how you play: Each player rolls five dice up to three times in one turn in an attempt to get the best score in 13 different categories that are similar to poker hands … and it took me five minutes to write a phrase describing the game simply enough to use in a parenthetical, and it is a crappy and un-alluring description, so you see what Lowe was contending with here.) Promoting the game in ads was challenging. So Lowe came up with the notion of Yahtzee parties. Once people played with other people, they were hooked.
Today Hasbro (which bought Milton Bradley in 1984) sells online versions, word-based versions, and a zillion branded versions: Hello Kitty Yahtzee, Pokémon Yahtzee, 40th-anniversary-of-the-movie-Jaws Yahtzee, Nightmare Before Christmas Yahtzee, Doctor Who Yahtzee, Ghostbusters Yahtzee (the cup is shaped like Slimer the slime monster), Hobbit Yahtzee, Walking Dead Yahtzee, Cthulhu Yahtzee, My Little Pony Yahtzee, Spongebob Squarepants Yahtzee, Star Wars Yahtzee, Spider-Man Yahtzee, Mickey Mouse Yahtzee, Disney Princess Yahtzee, South Park Yahtzee, Glee Yahtzee (the dice cup is the Slushee cup representing the icy beverage thrown in the faces of the Gleeks), Three Stooges Yahtzee, M&Ms Yahtzee, Muppets Yahtzee, Elvis Yahtzee, Harley Davidson Yahtzee, Montreal Canadiens Yahtzee (?), and many, many more. There’s a snazzy retro version designed to look like the 1956 original (though Yahtzee superfans gripe that the dice cup should be leather and not metal, and the dice should be translucent red rather than white). Mathematicians study optimal Yahtzee strategy. A 2003 article in the journal Chance computed the 1,279,054,096,320 possible game outcomes; Tom Verhoeff and Erik Scheffers of the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, with similar mathematical wrangling, created the “Optimal Solitaire Yahtzee Player” site so that players know what best to do in any given situation.
After conquering the world of board games, Lowe turned to other interests. In 1964, he opened a $12-million, 450-room Tudor-style inn called the Tally-Ho on the nascent Las Vegas Strip. The Tally Ho was an experiment by a man who’d made a ton of money in gaming to see whether a gambling-free hotel could survive in Las Vegas. It had four swimming pools, a sommelier room, a top-rated Swiss chef, and a golf course that was then considered one of the most challenging in the West. But it was quickly clear that a Vegas hotel needed gambling to survive, and the Tally Ho was denied a license. It changed hands, but closed six months later. In 1966, the Tally Ho became the Aladdin (which hosted Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding) and then in 2007, Planet Hollywood.
Despite Lowe’s eight marriages (two to the same woman), he had only one child: Gail Lowe Haymes Maidman, who died this past January. Gail grew up at 110 Riverside Dr., where Babe Ruth lived. (“He once gave her an Easter egg,” Haymes said. “She lost it and the whole apartment wound up smelling like something had died in the walls.”) After her parents divorced, Gail stayed with her mother (despite, Evan says, Edwin offering a million dollars for custody) and wasn’t close to her father for a while until the two reconciled.
Haymes remembers his grandfather fondly. “We called him Grandpa Lowe or GPL,” he said. “I had fun with him, but a lot of people were intimidated by him. He was very methodical, very formal. He wasn’t arrogant or pompous, but he took himself very seriously. I almost never saw him in shirtsleeves; he was always in a suit or blazer, but he’d get down on the floor and play with me.” Evan recalls growing up surrounded by fabulous old ornate roulette wheels, poker chips, and dice cages that Edwin manufactured.
Evan said his grandfather was, above all, disciplined. “I had some dumb job when I was 19, the year he died,” Evan recalls. “And he showed me the proper way to pick up an ashtray. He took everything seriously—even picking up an ashtray had to be done right. I had this goofy Flamingo Kid attitude, and he was like, ‘You have to be the Flamingo MAN.’”
Evan’s younger sister Starr—10 years his junior—was the apple of their grandfather’s eye. “On my birthday, he always took me to FAO Schwarz,” she recalled. “I could have whatever I wanted. I always wanted the car, but I was too shy to tell him, so I’d pick something small. Then we’d go to Regine’s for lunch. I’d order steak and he’d say, ‘You never order the most expensive thing on the menu!’”
Like her brother, she recalled Edwin as somehow both serious and fun. “We’d go to his house in Quogue and spend hours playing Penny in the Middle, a game where you’d throw a tennis ball at a penny and try to get it to flip over,” she said. “He wasn’t a particularly patient person, but he was always patient with me.” She hypothesized that the serial marriages were a reflection of his nature: “He didn’t like to waste time. If he didn’t like something, he just left.” Indeed, she said, “The first time he saw my grandmother he said, ‘I’m gonna marry her,’ and they got married four days later.” Bingo.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.