The origins of Tombola

A Christmas classic

Deirdre Pirro
November 30, 2017 - 12:25

Traditionally, Christmas Day is a family occasion in Italian households when all members, from elderly grandparents to newly born babies, gather around the table. After lunch, when the dishes have been cleared away, an odd assortment of objects take their place, ready to play tombola, a game not unlike bingo. Throughout the country, the most commonly played form of the game is the Neapolitan version, which requires a “cartellone”, or game board with squares containing all the numbers from 1 to 90 used by the croupier, who covers each number with a “tombollino”, or marker, as he calls it; a series of numbered cards that players purchase, each one containing blank squares and 15 squares containing random numbers, arranged in three rows, each with five numbers; and, finally, 90 round wooden or plastic “tombolini” numbered from 1 to 90, kept in a container that may vary from a cloth sack to a “panariello”, a small basket with a hole at the top from which they are extracted.



After deciding on what is frequently a token price for each card, the players buy the one they want whilst one of them purchases the “cartellone” and becomes the croupier who will shake the bag or basket, extract the “tombolini” and call out the numbers. If a player has the number called he usually places a dried bean or other marker on a number to indicate and remember he has it. The money from the cards has been divided before the game starts into five prizes, from lowest to highest, with tombola being the jackpot. The lowest prize, called the “ambo”, means that the player is the first to have two numbers on the same row; the “terno”, three numbers on the same row; the “quaterna”, four numbers on the same row; the “cinquina”, five numbers on the same row; and lastly, the grand prize or the “tombola” for all numbers on the card.



When extracting the numbers from the sack or basket once it has been given a vigorous shaken, the croupier will often use colourful expressions for each one, based on a list known as the Neapolitan “smorfia”. Although the origin of the term “smorfia” is unknown, some think it is associated with Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams as events in dreams are sometimes interpreted as numbers that are frequently used in gambling. Another theory is that the provenance lies in the Jewish Kabbala tradition, in which words and signs have mysterious meanings in the Bible and each has a specific number. Some of the most popular are number 9 “la rabbia” (anger), #14 “i cornuti” (the cuckolded), #17 “la disgrazia” (bad luck), #23 “la suocera” (mother-in-law), #33 “gli anni di Cristo” (Christ’s age), #77 “le gambe” (legs) and #90 “la paura” (fear).



Legend has it that Neapolitan tombola originated in 1734 out of a dispute between the absolute but enlightened monarch Charles III of Bourbon (1716–88), King of Naples and Sicily, and a Dominican monk called Gregorio Maria Rocco (1700–82), known as Father Rocco, who because of his rousing sermons and work with the poor was, according to Alexander Dumas, “more powerful in Naples than the mayor, the archbishop and even the king”. Up until then, the popular game of “lotto”, or the numbers game, had been clandestine, but the king wished to tax it, thereby plenishing the royal coffers with a rich source of income. The churchman disagreed as he believed the “lotto” (deriving from the French word “lot” meaning “prize”) was a “deceptive and amoral amusement” and in a country that strove to live by Roman Catholic teachings, it distracted the faithful from prayer. In the end, the king won, but only after agreeing that the game would be suspended during the Christmas period. The king’s subjects, however, had no intention of complying with this edict, so as an alternative they replaced “lotto” with the almost identical “tombola”, which they enjoyed within the family, free from levies and playable at any time, especially at Christmas.



Today, in Italy, the “lotto” and lotteries are regulated by Law No. 528 of August 2, 1982 and by the Decree of the President of the Republic No. 560 of September 16, 1996. The General Inspectorate for the Lotto and Lotteries, under the Ministry of Finance, takes responsibility for it, whilst the Lottomatica, or shops with special gambling licenses, collect the bets on the numbers people have chosen and distributes the winnings. There are three draws every week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays that relate to 11 different wheels: Bari, Cagliari, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome, Turin, Venice and a national wheel. On each wheel, 5 numbers between 1 and 90 are now extracted electronically, whereas in the past an urn was rotated by hand and the numbers drawn by a blindfolded child. Often, just like that child, unfortunately for the “lotto” wagerer, or even for the tombola player, luck also turns out to be unseeing.

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