Illustrations: Charlie Mostow

In 1888, a wealthy baron by the name of João Batista Viana Drummond opened Rio de Janeiro’s first zoo, with a unique idea for generating extra revenue. Visitors to the zoo could buy a raffle ticket coinciding with one of 25 different zoo animals, one of which was concealed behind a curtain. At the end of the day the winning animal was revealed, and the holders of winning tickets received a generous payout.

Pretty soon the jogo do bicho, or “animal game” as it came to be known, had developed an enthusiastic following on the streets of Rio. People didn’t even have to visit the zoo to play—they could buy a ticket from any one of the enterprising, self-appointed bookies, or bicheiros, who had sprung up to capitalize on the new game’s popularity.

The jogo do bicho was lucrative, and it was technically illegal. Thanks to the attention brought by the epidemic of side betting, the government soon shut the zoo raffle down, but by this time the cat—or number 14—was well out of the bag. Homegrown versions of the jogo do bicho appeared on the streets of Rio overnight, sealing its status as a fixture of urban Brazilian life.

Today the animal behind the curtain has been replaced by a clandestine draw in an unknown location called the banca, or bank, run by the game’s invisible bosses. In contrast, jogo do bicho hustlers are easy to spot on the street corners of most large Brazilian cities, making little attempt to hide their enterprise. For the most part they are ignored, even tolerated by local police, despite rumors about the game’s growing ties to corruption and organized crime.

Amy Chazkel is an Associate Professor of History at Queens College of the City University of New York. She is the author of Laws of Chance: Brazil’s Clandestine Lottery and the Making of Urban Public Life. Her book examines the origins of the jogo do bicho, and how it operates in Brazil’s “vast gray area between the legal and illegal” that, at times, characterizes Brazilian public life today.