Monday, June 17, 2013

Jogo do Bicho and the Zebra

Zebras in Brazil? Well, not exactly.

We are in the middle of the Confederations Cup here in Brazil. Today features the unlikely contest between Nigeria and Tahiti. In the States we would say that Tahiti is certainly the underdog in this competition. Here folks say that Tahiti is definitely the zebra. It would be a zebra of a game if Tahiti won.

The local expression here refers to the zebra as an upset victory, an underdog, or a dark horse. And just like in the States, many people have a soft spot in their heart for the zebra. But any bicheiro (the guy who peddles tickets for the Jogo do Bicho) will warn you that betting on the zebra is a fool’s folly.

Jogo do Bicho is a gambling game created in the early 1920s to attract visitors to the Rio zoological park. Visitors to the zoo were encouraged to guess the identity of an animal behind a curtain. Winners were awarded a cash prize.

The game quickly morphed into a very popular, privately run, regional lottery using numbers associated with 25 different animals. It was soon operated throughout Brazil, which naturally attracted the attention of government authorities who sought to shut it down. Despite its popularity, Jogo do Bicho is now illegal in 25 of Brazil’s 26 states. Rather than disappear, naturally, the game moved mostly underground and is run by illegal syndicates often shielded from disruption by corrupt politicians. Nowadays ticket sellers are found in busy urban areas, in nondescript corner bars or even sitting anonymously on benches in the park. More automated versions of the game have popped up on illegal slot machines or video poker games generally found in the darker corners of men’s hangouts.

To play, one places a bet on any of the 25 animals. Each animal is associated with a sequence of four numbers. You can bet as little as one real or as much as the bicheiro and his higher-ups will allow. In some places the winning numbers are drawn daily at the local bicho headquarters. In other areas the winning numbers are the last two numbers of the daily state lottery draw. Over time since the game’s inception betting approaches, odds given and payouts awarded have become quite complex and may pay up to 50,000 times the bet.

But not if you bet on the zebra. You see, there is no zebra included among the 25 animals in the game. To take home winnings from a bet on the zebra it would truly be an upset victory.

The cultural influence of Bicho de Jogo goes beyond the common expression “zebra” for a dark horse or a long shot.

One of the most impressive influences of Jogo do Bicho is the strong and persistent association of the number 24 with homosexuality in Brazil. In the game 24 is the number given to a deer (veado in Portuguese), an animal that has long been pejoratively associated with gay men. Guys associated with this number often have to deal with jokes about their sexuality. This happens, for example, with schoolboys listed as number 24 in the class' alphabetical list or men that are born on the 24th of any month.

The number 24 is heavily avoided by Brazilian male athletes, with rare exceptions. In Stock Car racing, for example, drivers are allowed to choose their numbers, but the number 24 has never been chosen since the first Stock Car tournament in 1979.

The elephant in the game has come to be associated with death, and whenever there is a fatal traffic accident involving a car with one of the elephant's numbers (45-48) on its license plates, the betting on the elephant is unusually heavy.

Casual... casual...

So whether you are fond of butterflies, camels, tigers, goats, peacocks or cats, you have a daily chance to strike it rich in most parts of the country. Next time your nightly dream includes an animal, ferret out your local bicheiro (he may have moved his spot since last you saw him) and give it a go. But save your bet on Tahiti for today’s game against Nigeria.

For more information about Jogo do Bicho, including a lot more details regarding the illegal activity involved and the impact is has corrupting politicians, I refer you to this entry at Wikipedia. Most of what I have included here comes from their listing.

UPDATE: Nigeria took the game 6 -1 over Tahiti. No zebras here...

1 comment:

The Reader said...

I had no idea!! I knew about 24 and the association (our fruit guy explained it when he had his 24th birthday, and then laughed at us when the house we moved to next was house #24....), but I didn't realize *why* it had that association. Thanks for the lesson!