Jogo do Bicho

Jogo do Bicho

This article was originally written by Phoebe Freeland, who lived most of her life in Rio. 

The “Jogo do Bicho” is an integral part of life in Brazil.  No matter how illiterate a person can be, they are fully conversant with the various combinations that govern this form of gambling, and can explain the meaning of “jogar na cabeça”, “no milhar” or “cercar”. In my last job, which spanned fifteen years, I worked in a room with two other girls and we all got on very well. Occasionally one of us would have a guaranteed foolproof and wizard hunch for that day, either as a result of dreaming about a certain animal or actually and unexpectedly seeing one, or a number that would consistently appear. After discussing our hunch or “palpite” we would then pass it on to the lift man who would hand it on to a runner who would take it to the proper destination. At 2pm the result would be widespread. On one occasion we were lucky as the animal we had chosen was the right one, and although the prize was not a gigantic one, we were elated. However, after deducting the tip to the liftman and one for the runner and our stakes there was just about enough to cover our bus fares home.  But it was the anticipation and the feeling of doing something illegal that was fun and as Scarlett said “tomorrow is another day”

My mother used to say that the inventor of the “bicho” was someone called Drummond who could have been English or a Scot. He was in charge of some gardens in the North Zone of Rio and had not enough cash to increase them or maintain them. He put up a small stage in the garden, which had curtains. On the stage and hidden from the public he would place stuffed animals and a number. People were invited to guess what animal and number would appear and they paid a small amount of cash. At 2pm the curtains would be opened and who had guessed correctly would win a prize in cash, and the rest would go into the kitty. This way he was able to give plenty of attention to the gardens. Whether this is correct or not I do not know, but my mother always stuck to this story. That district was called “Barão Droomon”  So perhaps he was promoted to the Aristocracy!*

The patron saint of the bicheiros is St. George and his feast day is 23rd of April. A picture or statue is often found in Brazilian homes and the saint is depicted on a white charger but there is always no sign of the dragon. Perhaps this is not so romantic as a white steed. At one time we lived near a favela which had the distinction of sharing a boundary with the then British Embassy and as soon as dawn broke there was a barrage of fireworks, no doubt to greet the saint. Some time afterwards there would be one lone one and I always felt this must be for the horse. Had the fireworks been released at any other time it would have signalled the arrival of the drugs. There was a police barracks right opposite but this was no deterrent.

In downtown Rio there is an old church dedicated to St. George and on his feast day it almost bursts to the seams with the numbers of his adepts. The first mass is celebrated very early in the morning and all day there is much coming and going. Near the altar there is a life size statue of the saint on his white horse and many people try and touch it for luck during the coming year.  One year both the horse and the number 23 were drawn and the bicheiros had to pay out so much that they nearly had to leave town. They did not dare do this as it would have damaged their reputation and have been a break in tradition.

When I retired I discovered that the “betting shop” was in a side street a block away from my flat. The bookie sat on a makeshift stool under a tree to receive the bets. The day’s results on rather a scruffy piece of paper would be stuck on a tree later that day. One day when I was walking home up this street I noticed a couple of policemen ahead of me, quite a rare sight. They seemed to be walking in a peculiar way and I realized they were trying to see the day’s results but hadn’t the gall to do so openly. They eventually pounced on a young lad from the nearby supermarket and gave him the necessary instructions. When he returned to them, from the dejected droop of their shoulders they had not been lucky. Unlike the runner in our office the boy did not get a tip.

This is something that will never be stamped out and can be described as “legally illegal”. Although it takes place openly, the sub-conscious feeling of wrong doing gives it spice. Perhaps the knowledge that many people would be out of work prevents the Powers that be from clamping down on it.


Comments by Chris Hieatt:

*Phoebe’s mother was quite right, but he wasn’t English or a Scot, he was a “Mineiro”, and his real name was João Baptista Vianna de Drummond. In 1888, in the time of Emperor Pedro II, he was given the title of Barão, so became Barão de Drummond. He bought a farm called Fazenda do Macaco, at the foot of the Serra do Engenho Velho, in the borough of Vila Isabel.  However, he was more interested in animals than coffee planting, and gave lessons in zoology. He set up his own zoo, which is still there, though today it is a park and not a zoo. 

The animals numbered 1 to 25

The rest of the story is – almost – true. The animals were real, not stuffed, and to raise money for the zoo the entry tickets had an animal sketched on them, and at closing time the tickets were drawn and the holders of the winning animal received part of the takings as a prize.  It became very popular, and today the game is played all over Brazil, though it was made officially illegal in 1946, and instead of being run by a gentle, animal-loving Baron, it is run by a different sort of baron. There are 25 animals, and each represents a group of 4 numbers, thus creating numbers from 01 to 100.  Group 1 (1,2,3,4) is the Avestruz, or Ostrich, and Group 25 (97,98,99,00) is the Vaca or Cow. Unlike the other lotteries, the bicho runs three times a day, Monday to Saturday, and once on Sunday.  If you would like the whole story, have a Google, there is plenty on the Internet.   Try