Iraqi Youth Turn to Bingo-like Game to Forget their Worries
The lounge at the playwrights’ club in central Baghdad’s Karada district offers alcoholic beverages and dambala, a game similar to bingo. The scene there looks like a stock market’s trading floor as depicted in American movies. Everyone has taut nerves, tensely holds a pen and hears nothing but the sound of the numbered balls quickly spinning in the basket, as they are drawn one by one.
Mohammad Sami, a young taxi driver, slammed the table and threw his pen and paper when he heard the number 45 called. The man, in his 20s, wanted number 47, which would have paid for his accumulated debts. That number “would have won me $1,000,” he said angrily.
Sami and a few other young men have become addicted to dambala, which is being played at several Baghdad clubs to attract customers and make regular profits. They sit every day at the tables as if they were employees. Cigarette smoke surrounds them while they await to hear the numbers being called out. When they hear a number, they scratch it off the square card they have bought.
Dambala is similar to bingo. It consists of several cards, each of which has 20 numbers. One card costs 10,000 dinars to 15,000 dinars [$8.60 to $12.88]. The basket contains 90 numbered balls, which are drawn one after the other. The card whose 20 numbers are drawn first wins the grand cash prize, which is determined by the number of cards in play.
Not only the poor and destitute play this game, many traders play it, too. Sami, who has been playing the game for three years in various clubs, said, “The affluent are the most likely to win. … We are the children of [the poor]. We rarely win.” In those three years, Sami once won $1,200. However, he often wins the secondary prizes — by being the first to fill in all the corners of the card or filling in a horizontal or vertical line — which rarely are worth more than $100.
Saif Rahim, a rich young man who works in the food trade, sat in the far corner. Everybody knows him, and waiters take extra care of him because of his generous tips. Saif wins the first prize more than once a week on average. Speaking to Al-Monitor, he said that “luck is my ally. … I play for fun. … I take none of my winnings to my kids because I consider that money haram [religiously forbidden] because it is attained through gambling. … So, I go directly to a nightclub and spend all that money there.” A Bangladeshi worker at the club told Al-Monitor that whenever Saif wins, Saif tips him $100. Saif said that this makes him feel lucky.
Dambala players believe in certain rituals that they think help them win. For example, when the last number is read, the player throws the card to the floor and steps on it with his shoe. Sami explained this by saying, “If you respect the card, you won’t win. … You must humiliate it.”
Many players are superstitious about the pens given by the club. They feel those pens bring them bad luck, so they bring their own pens. Sami said that he made his daughter kiss the pen to bring him luck.
Starting about four years ago, these clubs became widespread in Baghdad and are in great demand among the youth. Club owners have many stories about people who have become addicted to the game. Ibrahim, a bartender at a club on Saadoun Street, told Al-Monitor the story of a young man who spent all his money on the game and never won. He even gave the key of his taxi cab to the club’s owner as a guarantee so that he could get one last card.
Dambala players refuse to be described as gambling addicts. They say that they play every day in “an attempt to forget the worries of work and the anxiety caused by the poor security situation in Baghdad.”
Sami pointed out that he will continue playing until he wins enough money to pay off his million-dinar debts. After that, he said that he would quit playing. But in his interview with Al-Monitor, Ibrahim said that all these players win several times and never leave the game because “it has gotten into their blood.”