Issue 1 Invented Languages Winter 2000/01

Bingo in Swedish Is Bingo: An Interview with Krister Fredriksson

Mats Bigert and Krister Fredriksson

On my way down to the bingo hall, I ran into a little armada of walkers parked beside the entrance. How the owners of these vehicles had managed to get down the remaining steps is a mystery: these ancient clients are worthy of archaeological research.

If you want to do some time-travel back to the 60s, this is the place to visit. Only the staff belongs to a younger generation, and they look like they were born right there and then, in the bingo cradle of the utopian Swedish welfare state. The staff move between tables full of fossilized people. The scene calls for the kind of whispering usually reserved for churches. In here, you talk quietly. The only thing shattering the oppressive silence is ecstatic screams of "BINGO!!!" which occur about every three minutes. I am guided to a seat beside an old lady, and I sit down and scan the room. The first and most striking impression is of the smoke—everyone here is puffing away. At a time of anti-smoking fascism, the bingo hall turns out to be a natural preserve for the worst ravages of nicotine. On my left I notice a glass-enclosed chamber to which non-smokers are banished. They seem disconnected from the rest, and it's not often that you hear a bingo scream from in there.

I buy a bingo card for about three dollars. It's made of thin, pink paper with the word BINGO printed horizontally and a series of five-by-five squares with numbers between one and seventy-five running vertically. Across the other side of the smoking chamber is a raised platform where a bingo caller is sitting behind a microphone. His voice is the bingo player's North Star that guides the lucky winner toward a crossed-out line of numbers. The voice is monotonous and nearly hypnotic as the caller shouts outdated Swedish men's names to indicate which letter column the number is in: "Gustav 12, a one and a two....... Ivar 27, two, seven...... Nils 33, double 3.....Oskar 60, a six and an O......" To get a bingo you have to fill in a horizontal row, and then there are more prizes for two, three, and four filled rows. Filling in the whole card is our final destination, and the largest prize goes to anyone who can do that before the bingo caller has shouted out 59 numbers. Only crosses and circles are allowed for marking the numbers; any other geometric excesses mean immediate disqualification. You can rent a pencil for about a quarter.

I wait until an older man's orgiastic scream brings the game to a finish and I focus on the next round's virgin numbers. When the caller announces the new game, and the first number hacks its way through the smoke to me, I disappear into complete and total concentration. It turns out that I need all my faculties as a sentient being to keep up with listening and checking to see if the ephemeral numbers being droned have any relevance for my little card. The physical environment disappears and I enter the abstract kingdom of real numbers. I listen and cross out, listen and cross out. For a millisecond I contemplate whether circles are a more efficient way of marking, if the added length of the strokes of the cross are longer than the circumference of the circle. Plus, you don't need to lift your pen from the paper, which is clearly a waste of time. But the cross does feel more aggressive and better suited to the tense mood that's suddenly overtaken me, and I quickly give up my side thoughts. This subliminal digression is enough for me to miss a number. Desperate to catch up, I turn to my table companion who turns out to be a quintessential example of programmable humanity. Without lifting her glance, she gives me the last five numbers in rapid succession. She seems to have noticed how flustered I am and has pegged me as a beginner. "Don't start playing this game," she says, still with-out letting her own bingo card out of her field of vision. "I've been here since ten in the morning without getting a single row. See that envelope over there? I was on my way to the bank to pay the rent but I made the mistake of passing by the bingo hall. I thought I'd come in for a couple of games but I've been sitting here, what's the time?... Jesus, 4 o'clock... for six hours now... and I only have half the rent left. Now I need to win big to get out of this hole!"

Nevertheless, I'm surprised about how long it takes to gamble away all your money through bingo. In most modern games of chance, this can happen pretty quickly, but here whole days could pass before you're completely wiped out. It seems to go with the territory: the slowness, the monotony, and the control that comes with pitching in 2–3 dollars per game. You can't trump your way out of this swampy existence by suddenly raising the stakes. Everything in this bingo hall seems to be a relic from the golden age of social democracy and solidarity, where everyone was supposed to have the same conditions and the same right to a slice of the big social pie, for better or worse. And if for some reason you end up doing so badly that you get caught in the number loops and lose all your hard-earned retirement savings and social security money, it's for a good cause anyway. Ninety-five per cent of all the money accumulated by the Swedish government through bingo goes directly to the good fairies running communal athletic organizations.

If we look for the roots of bingo, we end up going back a long time, to Italy. Gioco del Loto, "a game of lots," which eventually became bingo, was invented in 1576 by a nobleman in Geneva by the name of Benedetto Gentile. He developed a game with five numbers between 1 and 90 which is still played in Italy today. The game spread all over Europe, gave birth to many variants, and eventually ended up in the US. In 1929, the American gaming company E.S. Lowe launched the version of bingo that we know today. The word bingo is of unknown origin, but according to one story is a mutation of beano, which in turn is supposed to come from the beans used to mark the cards. During the Depression, the low-cost game spread like wildfire over the American continent, only to be hurled back at Europe in its new form during World War II.

I get in touch with the director of the bingo hall, Krister Fredriksson, who has run bingo halls since the early 60s, and ask him how the game ended up in Sweden. At the entrance to the bingo hall where Fredriksson has his office, there are two doors side-by-side. It turns out that one is for smokers and one for non-smokers, another example of the nicotine segregation that runs so deep in the world of bingo.

So how did bingo end up in this long, skinny Nordic country saturated with Lutheran morality?

"In the 60s, the game was imported to Sweden by a small communal athletic organization in Gunnarstorp, in the south of Sweden. They were in England on a fact-finding trip, and they discovered the game's potential for scraping together money for the new Swedish athletics movement that shorter work hours and newly won leisure time had given rise to. Raffles and yard sales were given up for bingo halls, the new poison. Since being introduced, the number of game halls has multiplied like rabbits. In 1974 the turnover was around 100 million dollars. Today, it's almost 300 million dollars."

And what about the technical side? What did bingo hardware look like in the beginning?

"At first, there was a set of balls in a bag that you shook, and took out a number that you called. Then came what's called the bingo cage, where you put the numbers in what looks like a large hamster wheel. We have one here in case the computers crash, or if we have to play without electricity."

I envision a dark cellar where ghost-like figures lit by candles play bingo the old-fashioned way, while bombs are falling outside....

"After the drum came a variant where table tennis balls were put in a plastic container with a vacuum cleaner motor attached to it, which makes the balls shoot up one at a time into a tube. And in the 80s the Swedish Lottery Commission finally decided to computerize the whole thing because of cheating."

But they still use people to call out the numbers, which is nice. It's really interesting to listen to how different callers sound. Some of them "sing" out the numbers, for example. Are there trends within this field?

"I think I can assure you that no one in our hall 'sings.' But every hall usually develops its own character where the callers take after one another. If you go to Gothenburg, there's a really huge difference between how they sound compared to Stockholm. Take the letters for example. In Uppsala, they say Olle instead of Oskar for the O!"

I go out into the hall and listen to the caller to see if I can tune in to her distinctive character. Unlike other halls, here the caller sits at a podium with no glass, which gives the shout a familiar ring. The shout is clear and measured, but soon becomes too perfect. I decide that in a real bingo hall the call has to come from a hermetically sealed box from which no false sense of familiarity can leak out.

I go to Las Vegas Bingo in downtown Stockholm and find what I've been looking for: a real hardcore bingo hall. This is where the professionals come. When I speak with Pia Carlstedt, who has worked in the hall as a caller for twelve years, she keeps talking about "the big players."

"The big players come here every day, seven days a week. We open at ten in the morning and close at twelve at night. Some of the big players sit here all day; they even bring their own chairs. We know most of them well and they don't hold back from shouting and screaming if one of the personnel makes a blunder or calls too quickly."

Is it important then to mind your step? It can't be easy rattling off numbers forever.

"Someone like me who's been working here for so long can now manage the numbers nearly perfectly for about half an hour, but when I step down...it's like I've been...I've been...somewhere else."

It sounds like a kind of meditation, as if you're detaching your consciousness.

"Of course it can be relaxing, but then you have to be really used to it. You do have the satellite halls to keep an eye on as well."

The calls from the city center are transmitted to five unmanned halls out in the suburbs of Stockholm.

"You hear those other halls in your earphones all the time. And then you have your own hall to look after, if someone has bingo, which prize it is, and so on."

I heard that you and your colleagues use numbers as names. Do you ever use your real names?

"No, just numbers that are changed every day. But actually we have talked about sticking to specific numbers. Today my name is 5 and tomorrow maybe it'll be 2."

We've now gone a few more steps up the ladder of abstraction and I begin to wonder quietly if this bombardment by numbers can be good for anyone. In one pro-bingo article I read, the writer claims that the game prevents senility, but only if you play three cards at once. However, the pace of the numbers makes anything more than four cards a mental impossibility, he says. OK, but what good does a mathematically alert mind do against heart attacks, lung cancer, and thrombosis? On closer examination, bingo turns out to be one dangerous occupation.

"Yup, a few people have died here. Gotten heart attacks or strokes and fallen off their perches. We also have problems with junkies who come down and go berserk, break chairs, and then all of the old women end up in huge fist fights. It's busy around here alright."

Mats Bigert is one half of Bigert & Bergström, a Swedish artist collaborative team whose work has been shown at the Venice and Kawngju Biennials. Bigert is a contributing editor to Cabinet.

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