Pushing Your Luck in Cuba

The querida phenomenon; why locals love iron bars and pure-bred dogs; and the story behind those ridiculous ‘dos: Here is Havana is your go-to resource for the inside scoop on all sorts of Cuban cultural minutiae.

This place is so intriguing and complex, I’m constantly heeding Mom’s advice to ‘learn something new every day.’ If you’ve been here, you know this perpetual learning curve of which I speak, surely. Or maybe you live somewhere/somehow that, like Cuba, allows – indeed forces – you to learn something new every day. If so, I salute you.

What’s holding my fascination and providing ‘ah ha!’ moments lately is the long-standing, deeply-rooted Cuban tradition known as La Bolita.

From Ciego’s piña-studded campo to the listing wooden houses of Regla, Cubans are playing the numbers. Like an underground Powerball, La Bolita is technically illegal but in practice allowed to function (not unlike other things here including the world’s oldest profession; two houses sharing one phone line; and foreigners buying property). Not only does it function, La Bolita flourishes as a twice-daily gambling habit nursed across the country.

I was quite surprised to discover how many people I know play La Bolita – work colleagues, neighborhood doctors, Harley dudes, government guys, grannies, ballet dancers. So diverse are the Cubans playing the numbers, I think it may be one of the most genuinely and naturally integrated and equitable systems in contemporary Cuba. La Bolita leaps across class, race, gender, and geographical lines and though I haven’t made a point of asking, I’m sure my LGBT friends are also placing their daily bets (see note 1). In short: La Bolita doesn’t discriminate.

First a little background: Most HIH readers know that until los barbudos rolled into Havana in 1959, Cuba was a viper’s nest of dissolution – rotten with drugs, prostitutes, gin joints, and gambling (no wonder Hemingway called it home!). In those days, fun seekers and ne’er-do-wells from the US used to hop down to use the island like college kids do Cancún and the ghetto: a place to score, get sloppy and slum, before returning to safe, cushy lives back home.

The Revolution put an end to all that (mostly, technically, anyway) and gambling was especially targeted and vilified. Big, lucrative casinos in nightclubs like the Tropicana and Sans Souci and hotels including the Riviera and Capri were shut down, along with smaller enterprises in the back alleys of Barrio Chino and out in Boyeros. La Bolita, however, was a national pastime, a traditional pursuit and while publically and officially banned, has survived all these years. The daily numbers, for those wondering, are drawn in Miami and Caracas, if my sources are correct (see note 2).

From why folks emigrate to how Cubans (mis)behave at all-inclusive resorts, I find all aspects of culture intriguing here. But La Bolita captures my fascination beyond what may be rational. To wit: I recently placed my first bet. I thought this was just a question of picking a series of numbers from the 100 in play and laying down my money á la the NY Lotto. Silly me. This is some really complicated shit and I needed a tutorial from my friend Aldo to place my bet correctly.

>Here’s what I learned:

Numbers range from 1 to 100. Nothing complicated there. But each number corresponds to a symbol – think Mexican lotería.
loteria mexicana
The symbols are key and transcend simple number-figure association, however. For instance, Cubans often play numbers appearing in dreams: if you’re chased by a Doberman while dreaming, you should play 95 (big dog), if it’s a Dachshund, 15 (little dog) is more appropriate. Beware dreams of 63 leading to 8, because that will land you in 78 and finally 14 (murder, death, casket, cemetery). Scary. When this happens, do you play these numbers, just in case?

Folks also bet numbers they see in their daydreams – I’m sure you know someone who hopes to get a 100 or some 38 (car, money) or a Cubana who has already made their dreams come true through a 62 (marriage) to a foreigner.

The numbers and their corresponding symbols have also passed into common vernacular. Fidel is called the caballo (1) for obvious reasons and for those who doubt my claim that Cuban Spanish can stump even fluent, native speakers, what would you do if your taxi driver said you owe a fish and a nun? Would you hand over $5? $20? $50? You’d be ripping either yourself or him off if you did (see note 3).

My life (like everyone’s if we choose to pay attention) is riddled with symbols and I had no problem knowing what numbers I would play. In fact, I determined not to let this year go by without playing La Bolita as soon as I learned 43 (my age) stands for scorpion (my sign). What could be more propitious?

But how to play? I knew I’d have Aldo place the bet because I didn’t want to show my foreigner face at any of the neighborhood ‘bancos’ – Cuban for Bolita bookie – lest I make them  nervous; it is illegal after all. So I’d play 43 and if I needed to pick a bonus number, I figured I’d go with 52 in honor of my beloved Frances.

Were it that easy.

As it turns out, there are all kinds of variations you can play, including the ‘parlé’ (a type of trifecta); a fixed number with additional jackpot numbers; and other combinations which still confuse me. There’s also a specific way to note your numbers on a piece of paper that needs to be folded a special way when you place your bet. The minimum bet is 1 peso cubano (about 4 cents)  but most people wager more; payoffs can be huge – Aldo recently hit for 700 pesos and another friend’s uncle once won 5,000. Of course, he’d bet much more over the course of his lifetime, but that’s the gambler’s carrot and curse, no?

En fin: like many things Cuban, I’m sure La Bolita is played differently in different latitudes (see note 4) – including in South Florida where it thrives. What I relate here is simply how it went down in my corner of Cuba. I ended up playing scorpion-San Lazaro-machete (43-17-94) in keeping with various symbolic occurrences lately. Alas, my 37 (brujería) proved powerless: I lost my 25 pesos.

Oh well, there’s always tomorrow for learning something new (and placing another bet).

Notes

1. Let me take this opportunity to wave the rainbow flag: every May, Cuba celebrates the ‘jornada de anti-homofobia’ known as IDAHOBIT globally – and it’s one helluva good time. This year’s festivities kick off May 7 and run through May 18 in Havana and this year’s host province, Ciego de Ávila.

2. Over several years of writing this blog, it has become clear that Here is Havana readers are hip, informed, and sit upon a wealth of knowledge; if anyone has light to shed on the mecánica or history of La Bolita, please share!

3. A nun is 5 and a fish is 10; your taxi ride cost $15.

4. While researching this post in fact, a friend of mine and closet bet-placer, told me about La Charada (traditionally la charada china). This predates La Bolita, which takes its first 36 numbers (horse/caballo through pipe/cachimba) from the older chinese tradition. This numbers game dates from the 1800s when Chinese workers arrived on these shores. According to one source, in 1957, Cubans wagered between $90 and 100 million on La Charada, la Bolita and other numbers’ games.

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18 Comments

Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad

18 responses to “Pushing Your Luck in Cuba

  1. Arturo

    My Grandparents used to tell me about playing La Charada way, way back from the 1920’s until the point they left in the 1960’s in Santiago. La Bolita was later on, as you said and I completely forgot about it until I read this.

    Your description of the Viper’s den which was pre 1959 Habana is absolutely correct with the NYC Mob running the show and paying everyone off. In many ways, I respect Fidel for cleaning the place out in that regard and taking back “his” country and it’s independence.

    Because of the Chinese people’s influence as workers, business owners and a lot of them living in the Oriente province in the early 1900’s, they had many things in their culture spill over like this. And of course, how can I forget Chinese food? Interestingly enough, you now see very few Chinese anyplace but Habana.

    I think it is a great game for the people to play especially now, dreaming of hope and financial freedom changing their life and dreaming about the numbers that will set them free. Don’t give up and keep playing Blancita…….

  2. Candy sita

    Thanks for the great article. The strangest La Bolita occurance in my pretty town of Gibara was two years ago. We threw a big 50th Anniversary bash for my brother and his wife (50 years of legally wedded bliss in Cuba: unheard of!). Half the town bet the number 50. The next day there was a huge buzz on the streets, because, you guessed, it, the number 50 came up! Many big winners. Mami, who had never bet once in here life (too damn frugal except when the door to door salesladies come by with their bags of clothing, jewellry or shoes) promptly went and bet the number 50! She has done so daily for the past two years, and no, the number has never come up again. Every time I go, I take my favourite bookie a big three hole notebook and a pen, which she dictates has to be red.

    • haha. great story. I would love to write about the bookies next….for those who are curious, #50 means “policia”. I bet your family and friends weren’t the only ones playing 50 that day!! 😉

      • Candysita

        Bookies! Dios mia!! I have had to stop going to the only one I have ever had any luck with because his house freaks me out. He claims to have fought with Fidel and has a grainy photo to prove it ( although it’s difficult to see any resemblance: the man in the photo is young, toothy and a full shock of jet black hair…now he looks like Bugs Bunny with only his top two middle teeth and bottom two incisors, and his hair, for some unknown reason, is a true Mohawk with a strip of mangy white wisps down the middle and absolutely none on the sides). His house is chock full of “stuff”. One long shelf contains nothing but dolls heads…big, small, some with hair, some just with greasy tufts, all with eyes open, staring at you, although some have their eyes gouged out as well. One shelf holds nothing but the legs and arms of said dolls , but whether they one day long ago matched is anyone’s guess. He has hundreds of dinky toys, categorized into trucks cars, those with wheels, those without. Then there are the glass jars with embalmed bits and pieces of animals, birds’ heads, and in one, a human toe. Every square inch of the walls are covered in old photos, religious photos of St Jude, Jesus, the Virgin de Caridad. When anyone would come to make a really big bet, he would put on a brooch, which consisted of a pin attached to his grimy shirt, a small chain from the pin attached to the shell of a cucaracha that would walk in circles around the pin. The old goat took a shining to this Yuma, who out of respect for my elders, would sit and let him ramble on. And in true Cuban machismo, he grabbed me once and planted a wet sloppy kiss right on my kisser. .His hand on my wrist was like a vice grip and I could barely break free. Last time I ever went there. Now I take my chances with the old bird with the red book.

  3. Luna

    I’m reading Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World and she writes that either her mom or grandmother use to play the numbers here in New York City. So even the Supreme Court justice did it! I read that and I knew Sonia was my sister and she’s on the US Supreme Court! (I’m Cuban-American). It must be a Caribbean thing. La Bolita!

    It is interesting how dreams etc are connected to numbers.

    -Luna

  4. Jake

    Just out of curiosity, what is the symbolic relationship to the machete? Did you give someone a good machetazo?

  5. Caney

    La Charada

    1. Caballo, Sol, Tintero, Camello y Pescado chico
    2. Mariposa, Hombre, Cafetera y Caracol
    3. Marinero, Luna, Taza, Ciempiés y Muerto
    4. Gato, Soldado, Llave, Vela, Militar, y Pavo Real
    5. Monja, Mar, Candado, Periódico, Fruta y Lombriz
    6. Jicotea, Carta, Reverbero, Botella, y Luna
    7. Caracol, Sueño, Heces Fecales, Medias, Caballero y Cochino
    8. Muerto, León, Calabaza, Mesa, y Tigre
    9. Elefante, Entierro, Lira, Cubo, Esqueleto y Buey
    10. Pescado Grande, Paseo, Malla, Cazuela, Dinero y Lancha
    11. Gallo, Lluvia, Fósforo, Taller, Fabrica y Caballo
    12. Mujer Santa, Viaje, Toallas, Cometa, Dama y Perro Grande
    13. Pavo Real, Niño, Anafe, Souteneur, y Elefante
    14. Gato Tigre, Matrimonio, Arreste, Sartén y Cementerio
    15. Perro, Visita, Cuchara, Gallo y Ratón
    16. Toro, Plancha, Vestido, Incendio pequeño, Funerales y Avispa
    17. Luna, Mujer buena, Hule, Camisón, Armas y Fumar opio
    18. Pescado Chiquito, Iglesia, Sirena, Palma, Pescado y Gato amarillo
    19. Lombriz, Campesino, Tropa, Mesa Grande, Armadura y Jutía
    20. Gato Fino, Cañón, Camiseta, Orinal, Libro y Mujer
    21. Maja, Reloj de bolsillo, Chaleco, Cotorra, Cigarro y Gallo
    22. Sapo, Estrella, Lirio, Chimenea, Sol, Jicotea
    23. Vapor, Submarino, Monte, Escalera, Barco y Aguila
    24. Paloma, Musica, Carpintero, Cocina y Pescado Grande
    25. Pierdra Fina, Casa, Sol, Monja, Rana
    26. Anguila, Calle, Medico, Brillante, y Nube de Oro
    27. Avispa, Campana, Cuchara Grande, Canario, Baúl y Mono
    28. Chivo, Bandera, Político, Uvas, y Perro Chico
    29. Ratón, Nube, Venado y Águila
    30. Camarón, Arco Iris, Almanaque, Buey, Cangrejo y Chivo
    31. Venado, Escuela, Zapatos y Pato
    32. Cochino, Enemigo, Mulo, Demonio y Maja
    33. Tiñosa, Baraja, Santa, Jesucristo, Bofetón y Camarón
    34. Mono, Familia, Negro, Capataz y Paloma
    35. Araña, Novia, Bombillos, Mosquito y Mariposa
    36. Cachimba, Teatro, Bodega, Opio, Coloso y Pajarito
    37. Gallina Prieta, Gitana, Hormiga, Carretera y Piedra Fina
    38. Dinero, Macao, Carro, Goleta, Guantes y Barril
    39. Conejo, Culebra, Rayo, Baile y Tintorero
    40. Cura, Sangre, Bombero, Muchacho Maldita, Cantina y Estatua
    41. Lagartija, Prisión, Pato Chico, Jubo, Capuchino y Clarín
    42. Pato, País Lejano, Carnero, España, Abismo y Liga
    43. Alacrán, Amigo, Vaca, Puerta, Presidiario y Jorobado
    44. Año del Cuero, Infierno, Año Malo, Temporal, Tormenta y Plancha
    45. Tiburón, Presidente, Traje, Tranvía, Escuela y Estrella
    46. Guagua, Humo, Hambre, Hurón, Baile y Chino
    47. Pájaro, Mala Noticia, Mucha Sangre, Escolta, Gallo y Rosa
    48. Cucaracha, Abanico, Barbería y Cubo
    49. Borracho, Riqueza, Figurín, Percha, Tesoro y Fantasma
    50. Policía, Alegría, Florero, Alcalde, Pícaro y Árbol
    51. Soldado, Sed, Oro, Sereno, Anteojos y Presillas
    52. Bicicleta, Coche, Borracho, Abogado, Rina y Libreta
    53. Luz Eléctrica, Prenda, Tragedia, Diamante, Beso y Alguacil
    54. Flores, Gallina, Blanca, Sueño, Timbre, Cañón y Rosas
    55. Canjegro, Baile, Iglesia Grande, Los Isleños, Caerse y Sellos
    56. Reina Escorpión, Pato Grande, Merengue, Piedra y Cara
    57. Cama, Ángeles, Telegrama y Puerta
    58. Adulterio, Retrato, Cuchillo, Cangrejo, Ferretero y Batea
    59. Loco, Fonografo, Langosta, Anillo y Arannna Grande
    60. Sol Oscuro, Payaso, Cómico, Tempestad y Avecillas
    61. Cañonazo, Piedra Grande, Revolver, Boticario, Pintor y Saco
    62. Matrimonio, Nieve, Lámpara, Visión, Academia y Carretilla
    63. Asesino, Cuernos, Espada, Bandidos, Caracol y Escalera
    64. Muerto grande, Tiro de Rifle, Maromero, Relajo, Vahos y Fiera
    65. Cárcel, Comida, Bruja, Ventana y Trueno
    66. Divorcio, Tarros, Mascara, Estrella, Mudada y Carnaval
    67. Puñalada, Reloj, Autoridad, Fonda, aborto y Zapato
    68. Cementerio Grande, Globo, Cuchillo Grande, Templo, Bolos y Dinero
    69. Pozo, Fiera, Loma, Vagos y Polvorín
    70. Teléfono, Coco, Tiro, Barril, Arco Iris y Bala
    71. Rió, Sombrero, Perro Mediano, Pantera y Fusil
    72. Ferrocarril, Buey Viejo, Serrucho, Collar, Cetro y Relámpago
    73. Parque, Navaja, Manzanas, Maleta, Ajedrez y Cigarrillo
    74. Papalote, Coronel, Serpiente, Cólera y Tarima
    75. Cine, Corbata, Viento, Guitarra, Flores y Quiosco
    76. Bailarina, Humo en Cantidad, Caja de Hierro, Violín, Iluminaciones y Represa
    77. Banderas, Guerra, Colegio, Billetes de Banco y Ánfora
    78. Obispo, Tigre, Sarcófago, Rey, Apetito y Lunares
    79. Coche, Lagarto, Abogado, Tren de Carga o de Viajeros y Dulces
    80. Medico, Buena Noticia, Luna Llena, Paraguas, Barba y Trompo
    81. Teatro, Barco, Navaja Grande, Ingeniero, Cuerda y Actriz
    82. Madre, León, Batea, Pleito, Estrella y Muelle
    83. Tragedia, Procesión, Limosnero, Bastón y Madera
    84. Ciego, Sastre, Bohío, Banquero, Cofre y Marcha Atrás
    85. Reloj, Madrid, Águila, Espejo y Guano
    86. Convento, Marino, Ardilla, Tijera, Desnudar y Palma
    87. Nueva Cork, Baúl, Paloma, Fuego y Plátanos
    88. Espejuelos, Gusano, Vaso, Hojas y Aduanero
    89. Lotería, Agua, Mona Vieja, Cometa, Melón y Tesorero
    90. Viejo, Espejo Grande, Caramelo, Temporal, Asesino
    91. Tranvía, Pájaro Negro, Limosnero, Alpargatas, Bolsas y Bolchevique
    92. Globo muy Alto, Suicido, Cuba, Anarquista, Gato y León Grande
    93. Revolución, Sortija de Valor, General, Andarín, Joyas y Libertad
    94. Machete, Mariposa Grande, Leontina Perfume, Habana y Flores
    95. Guerra, Perro Grande, Alacrán Grande, Espada, Matanzas y Revolución
    96. Desafió, Periódico, Pícaro, Zapatos Nuevos, Roca y Mujer Santa
    97. Mosquito Grande, Mono Grande, Sinsonte, Grillo Grande, Correr y Limosnero
    98. Piano, Entierro Grande, Traicion, Visita Regia, Fonografo y Ortofonica
    99. Serrucho, Gallo Grande, Temporal muy Grande, Carbonero y Lluvia
    100. Inodoro, Dios, Escoba, Automóvil

    • Oye! what a list! Much more complete than the handwritten page given to me by my cook friend where each number only has one symbol. This is a great resource Caney, thanks but you seem to be using La Bolita/Charada interchangeably, but I thought they were related but different. Thoughts? thanks for reading and writing in

  6. Caney

    Les cuento el entramado de la ilegal ‘bolita’ o lotería cubana. Suele estar conformada por un ‘banquero’ con mucho dinero, capaz de aceptar altas apuestas.

    Cada banco tiene varios ‘listeros’, dedicados a recoger el dinero de los jugadores. También hay un ‘colector’, encargado de observar en las diferentes listas las cantidades de dinero apostadas. Por ejemplo, si nota que un número está demasiado recargado de plata, lo transfiere a otro banquero. Una manera de prevenir un buen golpe. En el argot de la ‘bolita’ se le conoce como ‘botar números’.

    Los ‘banqueros’ suelen tener un hombre de confianza ducho en matemáticas y argucias financieras. “Un buen ‘banco’ debe estar atento para amortiguar los daños en caso de que determinados números estén sobrecargados de dinero. Esto es como manejar una empresa a pequeña escala”.

    En la ‘bolita’ criolla, los números se toman de la lotería de Miami. Valen los tres primeros dígitos. Al inicial se le llama ‘fijo’. Los otros dos son los ‘corridos’. Los ‘bancos’ también aceptan apuestas a los ‘terminales’, una cadena de números.

    Diariamente, a las 7 de la tarde, el ‘banquero’ escucha en su radio los números cantados desde la Florida. Luego hace un repaso a las listas de apuestas y observa cuánto dinero ganó o perdió. “El 80% de las ocasiones se gana. Aunque a veces te dan un palo fuerte y pierdes bastante. Por eso en este giro es fundamental tener dinero guardado”, reitera.

    Por cada peso jugado, el ‘banco’ de Reinaldo paga 80 pesos si aciertas el ‘ fijo’. Y 30 pesos por el número ‘corrido’. Si adivinas un ‘parlé’ puedes ganar 900 pesos. Otros bancos pagan 90 pesos por el fijo y mil pesos por el ‘parlé’.

    Existen varios tipos de apuestas. Está la gente pobre y de pocos recursos, que juegan calderilla, monedas sueltas. Pero suelen hacerlo a diario “algo muy importante para un banco”, Y los ‘ricos’, quienes no juegan menos de 200 pesos a un número. Sea un simple barrendero, una ama de casa o un exitoso ladrón de cuello blanco, es desmedida la pasión de los cubanos por la clandestina ‘bolita’.

    Por las noches, la gente, ansiosa, se interesa por saber qué números salieron. Una década atrás, se solía hacer con cierta cautela. Un vecino le gritaba al otro “oye, dime el teléfono”, en alusión a los seis dígitos de la lotería, entonces la misma cantidad de los números telefónicos, y éste cantaba las cifras.

    La peculiar forma de comunicarse pasaba inadvertida para un extraño o un policía. Ahora no hay tantas reservas. Amaro, un hombre que entre la bolita y el ron bota su dinero, cada noche en la pared de una tienda en la Calzada 10 de Octubre, apunta con tiza los números que salieron.

    En la isla, sin SMS ni Twitter, la gente se las arregla para dar a conocer asuntos que le interesan. Como la ‘bolita’.

    Cada día, aumentan los cubanos que sueñan ‘pinchar’ un número, a ver si su suerte cambia. Hacen planes y estudian meticulosamente métodos cabalísticos de juegos. Por lo general pierden su dinero. Pero vuelven a insistir. Se aferran a una ilusión. El que casi siempre gana dinero es el ‘banquero’ . Y mucho.

    http://www.desdelahabana.net/juegos-prohibidos-en-cuba-la-bolita-5-y-final/

    • thanks for this Caney! Its not entirely correct/up to date according to my on the ground research (there are now morning and night numbers and not only coming from Miami, Im pretty sure and SMS has arrived, at least in HAvana/10 de Octubre) but I appreciate the info

  7. Caney

    The article is from June 2011. I heard it was the Venezuelan one, but I’m sure you’re more uptdated! Saludos.

  8. Havana is very nice place for Tourists. Culture of Havana is very impressive .Thanks for sharing Post

  9. Cubanito47

    In my last trip to Cojimar, I met one of the three Catholic nuns that do volunteer work in Cuba.
    When I was telling the story to one of the Cojimeros, he told me ” those nuns have cost a lot of money to us.”
    “Why is that?’ I asked.
    His reply “Imagine seeing three nuns walking by the malecon of Cojimar … everyone bet the 5 and we lost!!”

    • JA! Así es. Last week, my neighbor gave me a couple of ceramic frogs (better than it sounds), then my satellite radio changed stations on its own – in another room altogether – to station 22. When I checked my bolita list, wouldn’t you know? #22 is frog. So I bet the sucker. Lost. Of course.

      When I commented to a friend about the sequence of events he said: the radio changing on its own? That meant you were supposed to play fantasma (ghost), not frog. Live and learn – what life’s all about.

      Thanks for writing in

  10. acanuck.

    The other betting passion is baseball. In all parques across the country you will find a group of guys yelling, stomping around, and arms waving at each other. Don’t worry they are not angry. This is the baseball betting crew.

    • Not only baseball but also pigeon races, cock (and dog) fighting and more I imagine. Ive never seen actually betting at the esquina caliente (the baseball “arguments” in parks around the country).

  11. acanuck

    Yes the pigeon crew is just down the street from us. They have a roost and trucks full of pigeons arrive for races.

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