NEWS

Eyes down at Cyprus bingo hall

For teenagers and 20-somethings in the capital of the affluent Mediterranean island of Cyprus, the traditionally tame pastime of bingo has become part and parcel of a hip night out on the town. «This is the one game that brings all the ages together in Cyprus,» says Nikos, alias «The Stallion,» a Rambo-like gym instructor who stands guard at the door of the club in downtown Nicosia that has become a hit with young Greek Cypriots. Walking down the stairs of what used to be a basement cinema, you enter an upbeat world more akin to a mini-Vegas casino than the humble bingo hall beloved of senior citizens. State-of-the-art equipment – giant glass-encased bingo globes on a stage linked to cameras, flat-screen TVs galore, digital boards with numbers flashing – has been imported from Spain for a cool 2.5 million euros (almost $4 million). No expense has been spared, right down to the red seats and plush carpeting of US gaming houses. «I stole the idea from over there, after a visit to Atlantic City,» admits Nicholas Christofi, an ex-betting shop owner, of his brainchild. Hundreds of clients have been flocking each night to the club since it opened in late January, including a high percentage of trendy under 25-year-olds. «I got ‘bingo-devirginalized’ today,» whispers a blushing 17-year-old schoolgirl who prefers not to be named, amid the hushed ambience of the hall filled with eyes-down punters. «It’s very addictive, I will probably come again.» But the patrons insist it’s all good, clean fun. «I am not gambling, just having fun,» says Effi Christou, a 20-year-old student, while Andria Michael with her boyfriend at her side chimes in: «I came with my friends. I don’t know about Las Vegas, I haven’t been there, but this is modern and fun.» In the «New Cyprus,» a small holiday island with a robust economy which has been racing to catch up with the outside world since it joined the EU in 2004, the work force apart from the comperes are all foreigners, mostly from Eastern Europe. Dyed-blonde Greek-Cypriot women compete to catch the eye with natural blondes in smart waistcoats who sell bingo cards costing 5 euros for six lines that the younger clientele often split and share to economize. With «Bingo Jackpot Burgers» and «Bingo Platters» on offer on the restaurant menu, a well-stocked bar, a coffee shop, and with not-too-loud MTV and music on tap between games, the club also provides a relaxed atmosphere for women-only groups. Smokers, especially image-conscious cigar-aficionados, are welcome despite the prominent «No Smoking» posters – in a sign that some things will take rather longer to change in Cyprus. With its 650-person seating capacity, about 1,500 customers pass through on weekend nights. They throw down their felt markers and biros on the tables in unison out of disappointment when a bingo is called and they have failed to win any of the prize money of up to 5,000 euros a game up for grabs. Under the radar Despite having accepted the principle of allowing casinos several years ago, the Greek-Cypriot south of the divided island has yet to issue gaming licenses. Such curbs on gambling have prompted lively debate over the «lack of patriotism» of those who cross to the breakaway Turkish-held north of Cyprus to lose huge sums in its numerous casinos, alongside Turkish mainlanders and Israelis also skirting casino bans in their own countries. The hugely popular bingo in Nicosia flies under the radar over the issue of permits. That is thanks to its linkage with a local football club, in this case a «refugee» team from the north, giving it the right to operate not as a business alone but as a social club for fundraising purposes. «We have a more professional way of doing things,» says Costas Leontiou, a spokesman for the football team, referring to the traditional village club houses which organize a weekly «tombola» as the game is known locally. However, gambling is «in the blood of Greeks, of people of the Mediterranean in general… This is a mild form of gambling,» he concedes. In the materialistic, get-rich-quick culture of today’s Cyprus, betting shops, lotto and another lucky numbers game known as Kino have flourished, even with the absence of casinos and with a ban on card games which involve betting. The retro attraction of bingo for youth and younger women has also reached parts of the United States and Britain, where it is considered the «sport» of choice for old-aged pensioners, according to gaming groups. In October 2006, Prince William, 25, who is second in line to the British throne, was spotted at a bingo hall near the elite Sandhurst military academy where he was training. And on the social networking site Facebook, groups of young people are lobbying for bingo with its marking of numbers on a grid to be considered a sport, even an extreme version.