No fat ladies or legs eleven, but the new religion in Armenia is ... Bingo!

Phil Reeves reports from Yerevan on the mania for a game that arrived only last autumn, but now fills 14 new halls
Click to follow
The Independent Online
CENTURIES ago, as they sat and contemplated the bright blue heavens in the shadow of Mt Ararat, the Armenians decided to be the first country in the world to adopt Christianity. Now, 1,697 years on, this ancient society has acquired a new calling.

It wafted across the Black Sea and into the Trans-Caucasus from Eastern Europe late last year, but already thousands of people are converts. They assemble every day, including Sundays, and sit for hours, hoping the gods will be kind. The liturgy requires only one response: Bingo!

Bingo has taken Yerevan, the capital of this small country, by storm. Such is the enthusiasm that no fewer than 14 halls have opened in the city since the autumn. In Armenia it is a game for everyone (at least everyone over 17), from vulpine-faced students in leather jackets to elegant middle-aged women. What else would you expect in a country where unemployment is put at over 40 per cent, and where US government aid is the equivalent of nearly a third of the annual national budget? The chance to win consumer goods that many could not otherwise afford, or cash prizes which, though small, can still amount to a month's income, is proving irresistible.

"You British missed your chance," said Raphael Akupian. "This is your game. If you had only been ready to invest here, you could have made some money." Mr Akupian is president of Fortuna M, an Armenian-Bulgarian joint venture which runs a new city-centre bingo hall, which I visited late one evening. Outside in the yard stood the top prize so far this year, a pounds 4,200 white Zhigoli car wrapped in a pink ribbon: a jerry-can on wheels to Western eyes, but not local ones. The modest-sized hall was packed with hundreds of people, so many that scores were unable to get in. They milled around the hallway, forlornly clutching tickets. Others stood in the street, pressing noses to the large windows. Within, the atmosphere was as a tense as at a murder trial. Young, soberly dressed women in mauve blazers and slacks patrolled the hall delivering beer and snacks (but, notably, not vodka). Most of the crowd, however, was too absorbed, too keen to save money for the next game, to drink. Unable to afford new cards, some players drew their own on scraps of paper. Worthless though these home-made slips were, at least they satisfied a craving to play.

The mood was humourless; there was no Butlins-style patter, no "legs eleven" or "two fat ladies"; each number was read over the tannoy in an iron-hard voice, like a public announcement at a prison camp. When the car was finally won, by an elderly man, the hall solemnly stood up to applaud.

Although sometimes assumed to be a British game, bingo derives from the Italian lottery game Lo Giuoco del Lotto d'Italia, which began in 1530. In the late 1700s it crossed the Alps to France, where it was played along similar lines to today's game.

The strange name, however, has American roots. Historians of gambling say it came from "Beano", a game involving dried beans which was played at the carnivals and fairs in the American South in the early 1900s. Edwin Lowe, a New York toy salesman, happened upon it and took it back to the Big Apple. While playing with friends there, one bellowed not "Beano!" but "Bingo!", supplying Mr Lowe with a lasting name for a game that by 1995 was relieving Americans of $88m a week.

Although it will be years before Armenians have anything like the disposable cash of the Americans (whose tax dollars help support them), all the signs are that the game will eventually be as big here as anywhere else. The flesh is willing even if the pocket isn't.