All Genoa Goes Crazy Over New Betting Game

Ernest Hemingway

Toronto Daily Star/May 9, 1922

Genoa.—There is an old gambling adage that runs, “Never bet on any­thing that talks,” and sooner or later that adage will penetrate into Italy, and Tennis Tamburello, the latest Italian gambling craze, will be ruined.

Meanwhile more money is changing hands in the Tennis Tamburello courts in the basements of Genoa than in the roulette and baccarat casinos along the Ligurian Riviera. But the worst of the shady racetracks of the American continent are paradises of justice and honor besides the Tennis Tamburello dives.

A large square canvas with twenty-five numbered squares hangs at one end of the room. At the other end is a rectangular bookmaker’s stand where bets are accepted. Seven men in white duck trousers, white shirts, slightly soiled and varicolored sashes around their waists, sit around on chairs back of a curtain. A bell rings and they come out, one at a time, and very solemnly bat a tennis ball bounced at them by another man in soiled white ducks up against the canvas screen at the end of the room.

The batsman hits the ball with a tambourine and either lofts it in a slow loop, or hits it out on a line at the canvas screen. The score made by the batsman depends on which one of the numbered squares he hits. For instance number one comes out and slams the ball that is bounced at him against the canvas. It hits square number six. Batsman number one, a short, heavy-set little Italian who walks springily on his toes, now goes back behind the screen and number two comes out. He hits square number eighteen. So it goes.

Bets are made on any one of six batsmen. You may bet on a man to hit the highest number or the lowest number. The odds are six to one, any way you bet. But there are seven horses in the race and you can only bet on six of them. When the seventh batsman wins, the money belongs to the house.

Italian nightlife has gone mad over the game. It gives all the excitement of horse-race gambling without having to go out to a racetrack, and all the population of Genoa that begin their day when most people are finishing theirs crowd around the Tamburello court to bark their favorites as they come out from behind the dusty curtain to exercise their tambourine arms. When the police want anyone they make a trip to one of the Tennis Tamburello dives, where they are pretty sure to find either the man they are after or all his intimate friends. The game attracts the same night-living part of a city that you find at the six-day bike races in New York and Paris after one o’clock in the morning until the sweep-out hour of 7 a.m.

It is the big-money-playing element, the men in evening clothes and champagne breaths who are out to see the town, that makes the harvest for the Tennis Tamburello; just as it is the regular five-lire bettors of the night­life who make up the game’s regular supporters.

When there is any amount of big money being played on any one batter, there is a scarcely perceptible pause between the bell that calls the men to the post and closes the betting wickets, and the appearance of the first batter. That pause gives time for instructions, and it is something better than 100 to 1 that the batter who is being heavily backed will not win.

Number twenty-five, painted red, is in the center of the canvas and it is a pretty poor Tennis Tambulleer who could not drive his ball away from the center if he had whispered instructions not to win. The lower right-hand side is where the low numbers are, and night after night you can watch a heavily backed batsman drive the ball into the lower right-hand corner with the ease and grace of young Jack Schaeffer making a simple billiard shot. That is where the old adage comes in. That is also where the money goes out.

(Source: Dateline: Toronto. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985)

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