Jogo do Bicho (“the animal game”) is an illegal gambling game from Brazil. Very popular throughout the country (but mostly in the South-East), the “game” is actually a lottery-type drawing operated on a regional basis by mobsters known as bicheiros or banqueiros (“bankers” who also bank many Carnival contestants). Unlike most state-operated lotteries, in Jogo do Bicho you can bet any amount of money, even a cent. Despite its popularity (and being more or less tolerated, especially in Rio de Janeiro), it is still illegal and those involved may be prosecuted.
The name of the game arises from the association of the drawn numbers with a random selection of 25 animals (to help memorising). Over the decades, superstitious theory has evolved around selecting the proper animal, much of it involving dreams. Horse, for example, can be indicated by a dream of a horse, or by dreams of wheat or milk or naked women. The elephant 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 is unusually heavy. When the Rio papers published the picture of a derailed locomotive in the 1960s, so many bet on the last four figures of its registration number that the bicheiros were forced to warn that they could not pay off at the usual odds if it won.
Bets & Prizes
Each of 25 different animals is assigned a sequence of four consecutive numbers. Ostrich is 01 to 04, horse 41-44, camel 29-32, and so on up to cow, which occupies 96-00. The most common way to play is to bet one real on an animal. If the last two numerals in the daily state lottery draw form one of the four numbers designated by your animal, the bicheiro owes you 15 reals. For longer odds and higher payouts, you can try to pick the last three or even four numbers exactly, or you can choose a combination of a number and numerals designated by an animal.
Unlike many aspects of the Brazilian culture, the creation of the game is fairly well-documented: originator of the jogo do bicho was one Baron Drummond, a bluff, bawdy, Brazilian-born Englishman, to whom Emperor Dom Pedro II gave a title and the concession to the Rio de Janeiro zoo. To popularize the zoo, the Baron encouraged visitors to guess the identity of an animal concealed behind a curtain, paid off to winners. In time the guessing game became a tremendously popular numbers game, with different numbers for 25 Brazilian beasts.
Tickets were soon being bought by those who hadn’t even visited the zoo. Within months, government authorities made its first attempt to shut down the game. The animal lottery simply shifted to a new habitat in the city centre, an environment in which it has thrived ever since. Rudyard Kipling, visiting Rio in the 1920s, wrote of seeing bookies wandering the streets carrying placards with colourful pictures of animals.
The game became popular because it accepted bets of any amount, in a time when most people struggled to survive a very deep economic crisis. “If you see two shacks lost somewhere in the backlands,” a Brazilian diplomat once observed, “you can bet that a bicheiro lives in one of them and a steady bettor in the other.”
For decades official policy fluctuated between tolerance of the game, fueled by generous payoffs to authorities, and intermittent campaigns to snuff it out. Finally, in 1946, the government outlawed casinos and games of chance, the animal game among them. Nevertheless it survives. Today it is played everywhere in Brazil, but continues to be controlled from Rio de Janeiro by about a dozen bosses.
A crackdown on the game by the police in 1966 nearly paralysed São Paulo. More than 60,000 men were idled. At the time it had grown into a US$500 million-a-year business that employed roughly 1% of Brazils total working force. The crisis was quietly resolved in return for unspecified concessions.
I’ve played several times, its very simple to make a bet and there are bookies usually within a 5 minute drive, depending on where you live. I never won, but at least the odds were a lot better than the lottery in California.
If you speak Portuguese, I highly recommend the HBO 6-part series Filhos do Carnaval (I’m assuming they have it with English subtitles, although it also played on Spanish HBO under the title Hijos del Carnaval).