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Art & Entertainment: Games: Tombola

New High-Tech Bingo in Italy
By Frances D'Emilio, The Associated Press

ROME (AP) - After the plates of pasta, fish, fruit and fruitcake are cleared away on Christmas Eve, it will be time to open up the wallets and while away the hours around the kitchen table with round after round of tombola, a cherished Italian pastime.

A rough cousin of bingo, tombola reflects the country's centuries-old passion for numbers. Italians love them so much they've even invented a kind of science of interpreting dreams with numbers.

Dreaming of fattening its tax coffers, Italy's government is betting that passion will guarantee success for bingo, the newest numbers game in town.

After years of talk, the first triumphant cry of ``bingo!'' finally resounded last month in a legal Italian parlor.

For generations tombola has been played not only around grandma's dining room table but also in clandestine game parlors for big stakes, with organized crime taking home its cut.

In the first two weeks of legalized bingo, the national government's share of revenue amounted to $140,000, said Caneo Zarrilli, an official dealing with bingo at the Finance Ministry.

``It's going well enough,'' said Zarrilli, noting the early numbers were based only on the couple of parlors, in small towns, that were the first to start operations. The government, which approves parlor concessions, gets 23.8 percent of the revenue.

So far 414 parlors have been authorized to open, and the government envisions a total of 800.

``We think it's an innovative game that can catch on without taking resources away from other games,'' Zarrilli said.

Bingo parlors up and down the peninsula are advertising opening dates and hiring people to sell cards and refreshments. A bingo ``academy'' in Tuscany says it has a waiting list of people who want to learn a game they've never seen and maybe boost their chances of getting one of the estimated 13,000 parlor jobs.

Those in the business wonder if the rapid-fire pace that's a fixture of bingo in other countries might be too stressful for Italians, who are used to playing tombola while crunching on torrone, a holiday nougat, or gossiping about relatives who didn't show up for dinner.

``The technology was unbelievable,'' said Tina Bianchin, who won $400 in Italy's first legal bingo game in Treviso, northern Italy, on Nov. 10.

As she stepped into the bingo parlor for the first time, she recalled, ``I had in mind the old game of tombola. When I was a child we played it using kernels of grain and beans to cover the numbers.''

Homespun tombola is nothing like the flashing electronic numbers boards scattered around the bingo rooms.

``I once saw 1,500 people in a parlor in Brazil, cheering like they were in a stadium. And in Spain, a wedding party held their reception during a bingo game,'' said Luca Petrini, who runs the bingo workers school in Tuscany. ``We don't know yet what the Italian reality will be.

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