Expats along the costas love bingo.
No, I’m not kidding. Bingo along the coast is a huge, multi million euro business that is completely beneath the Spanish Authorities radar, and remains that way for as long as no Spaniard ventures into the expat bar with his or her five euro stake.
But we’re not talking about quiet, sanitised bingo in large bingo halls, with comfy seats and a nice banker on hand if you win big.
I’m talking about the multitude of games up and down the coast, held in little expat corner bars, usually with the doors closed and curtains drawn to prevent curious bypassers from peering in.
The unwary winner will soon discover that their winnings remain in the bar, as the canny bar owner encourages winners to buy their friends a drink “and share the good luck”.
But this doesn’t seem to put anyone off.
In bars up and down the coast, the dreaded call of “eyes down!” can be heard, and hundreds of heads of greying hair can be seen to be bent over the cards. In a brightly lit room, the glare from the balding pates can be a severe nuisance.
Arrayed around tables, in groups of between 2 and 20, the murmur and laughter of conversation can be heard until the first number is called. The caller must, inevitable, pause after the first number to allow the hisses of “shh!” and “eh, where’s my pen?” to die away. And the game commences in earnest.
Callers change from bar to bar. Some games are hosted by the bar owner, who pockets a few euros out of every 10. Some are carried out by professional bingo callers, who move quietly from bar to bar with enough equipment to outfit a small casino. Profits are split with the bar owner, and a small retinue of professional bingo pensioners follow these shysters with all the fanatism of a 16 year old groupie after her favourite music band.
It’s all illegal, of course; games of chance are strictly controlled by the state, equipment must be checked with state inspectors and taxes must be paid. But as long as the bar does not hang out too many “bingo!” signs, the police let it pass by quietly.
“No way am I going in there without armed backed” shuddered a local policeman once when I asked him about it (over a beer, off duty). “Pensioners are the worst – a colleague once got whalloped with a handbag by an 80 year old and there wasn’t a thing he could do. How can you arrest an 80 year old on a zimmer frame for assault?”
The game is addictive, and can be played for large amounts of money. Games handing out a couple of hundred euros on a line, and six or seven hundred for a game, are common.
At every call of a line, fans are broken out and elderly ladies fan themselves vigorously with their Spanish fans, while looking enviously upon the lucky winner as their numbers are checked.
14…yes. 21… yes. 44…yes. Comes the monotonous call from the checker and confirmation from the caller.
Occasionally, a call of “wrong” comes back. The excitement becomes palpable. The unlucky fool who miscalled shrinks back from the limelight and is usually too embarrassed to ever call out again. Discarded books are searched for and the numbers restart. At least one person will challenge on the grounds that they can’t find their discarded book, and will be disqualified after a brief argument with the caller.
The famous aides are always trotted out, along with a pantomime like chorus of time honoured responses.
“Sweet sixteen” is always a good one, with a ripple of wolf whistles coming up from the men. “Legs Akimbo” will cause the rattling of pens against drink glasses. “Downing street… number 10” will cause a hiss of “damn politicians, country’s going to the dogs!”
Woe betide the poor novice who allows himself to fall behind the numbers. The incessant, rhythmic calling causes a trance like experience in those who are not prepared for it, and once you fall behind you may as well give up and grab another drink.
But those who dare interrupt the religious silence of the hall during a calling may as well resign themselves to being a social outcast for the rest of the evening.
I have seen poor OAP’s frogmarched out of halls by their peers should they find themselves unable to shift the frog in their throats.
And the stares that any young bartender receives, should they be foolish enough to put on the glass-washer or heat up some milk, can cause an impressionable young man, perhaps on his first job, to burst into tears and flee to a back-store room.
So yes, it’s a vicious game, this bingo.