Bingo the new hot number in Italy
ROME, Italy -- Bingo fever is sweeping Italy after the government finally legalised the game born there five centuries ago.
And the Rome government is hoping to win its own jackpot from the move -- in the shape of a tax bonanza.
The traditional numbers game may be a past fad in other countries, but high-tech bingo salons, with their cash prizes and giant video screens flashing numbers at a rapid-fire pace, are suddenly "cool" in Italy.
The game is actually coming home. The land of sleek fashion and Roman antiquities is also the birthplace of "gioco del lotto," the world's first lottery played in 1530 which later evolved into bingo across the world, including the United States.
But legal obstacles kept Italians waiting for their first legalised commercial bingo hall until just two months ago.
Bingo is similar to tombola, already popular with Italians during the holiday season with hand-made numbers cards and dry beans.
"Tombola is part of the reason bingo is already popular among all ages," Claudio Leone, a 37-year-old policeman, told Reuters during a night on the town at "Rouge et Noir" bingo hall in northern Rome. "But also because the salons are new and trendy."
Decked out in rose-tinted sunglasses and fur-fringed coats, teens in the Italian capital are turning the local bingo salon into one of the hottest night spots in town.
Seated next to senior citizens, students and veteran gamblers, they huddle over their bingo cards, crossing out squares anxiously as numbered balls are plucked from an aquarium-like tank and read aloud.
"We discovered we have two sets of clients," said Leonardo Triulzi, the manager of Rouge et Noir.
"Up to 10 p.m. we get the families, the older people, but after 10 p.m. there is an explosion of young people -- it's a totally different place," he said.
The government made bingo a legal form of gambling in 2000 and the first licensed hall started operating in the northern town of Treviso in November last year. Another 45 or so have since opened, paving the way for a new source of tax revenue.
Some 800 bingo centres are expected to open across Italy over the next three years, contributing 23.8 percent of sales to the government.
In 2002 alone, the Economy Ministry is betting on raking in up to $50 million a month from bingo.
"Bingo appeals to Italians love of gaming," said Canio Zarrilli, a director of lotteries at the Economy Ministry.
Illegal betting abounds in Italy and the state-run Lotto raises billions of dollars for government coffers every year.
Bingo has appeared just in time to compensate for a drop in lottery revenues due in part to the growing popularity of video-poker, which has swept coffee bars.
And if the first weeks are any indication, the government has hit the jackpot. One recent Saturday night, teens waited up to two hours in sub-zero temperatures to get in the door of Rouge et Noir.
"All you need is luck," said a broadly smiling Michele Zanetti, after winning three times in one night.
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