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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Newest Game in Town? Bingo!

For some, the game of bingo conjures up images of blue-haired ladies playing in dank church basements, cheesy announcers with bleach-blonde assistants, or mega-games with mega-prizes for mega-busloads of mega-obnoxious tourists.


But at least one Moscow businessman is betting that his high-tech, computerized bingo hall will become the latest post-Soviet craze.


Igor Khnykov, 36, said his bingo hall inside the Georgian Cultural Center at 42 Stary Arbat is the first of its kind in Moscow, and perhaps Russia.


"The game of bingo is simply a democratic game. It is accessible for anyone and everyone. People can drop in, play until very content and spend their leisure time. The admission is free and [they can play] over some tea," he said. "It's very popular."


On a recent Tuesday afternoon, about two dozen players, wrapped in coats and huddled over tall glasses of tea to keep warm, tried their luck in the frigid 250-person hall.


A fortyish-looking woman wearing a floral-print scarf around her shoulders dropped in twice to play a few games. Natasha didn't want to give her last name, explaining ruefully that she wasn't exactly on break from the nearby store where she worked, but she did say with enthusiasm that bingo is a "very good game, very good."


"I play whether or not I win, but I have won all different amounts," said Natasha, who drops in several afternoons a week.


The hall's location on the Arbat pedestrian mall makes it accessible to passers-by of all ages, from 18-year-olds to pensioners.


Sporting a ponytail, leather jacket and pierced earring, Mikhail Yasinsky, 19, of Moscow, is someone who might be more at home on a nightclub dance floor than in a bingo hall. Yasinsky said he first discovered bingo in Argentina when he was visiting his relatives there. Now back in Moscow, Yasinsky often plays here, where in one game he won the ruble equivalent of $300.


To play, people simply plunk down 5,000 rubles (about $1) per game card and then use a magic marker to cross out the numbers. As the numbers are read off in rapid succession, they appear on what looks like a digital scoreboard at the front of the room and on closed-circuit television screens. Casually dressed young men and women bring the players new cards and their prize money, then belt out a surprisingly loud chorus of "Bingo!" for the more shy winners when the time comes.


The curators at the Georgian Cultural Center, in which the bingo hall is located, decry the "progress" that brought bingo into an uncomfortably close proximity, saying the sound of the numbers being called out ruins the atmosphere.


"It's very bad," curator Tiniko Nikochayevna said several times, sadly shaking her head.


In Soviet times, Khnykov's version of bingo was unknown, but a similar game called lotto was widespread and popular. But as casinos, the lottery and other gambling games emerged after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, what Khnykov calls a "more modern, more interesting" version of bingo was bound to follow.


When Muscovites first discover the hall, Khnykov said, its employees have to explain how bingo is played. But players quickly master the game, often buying up to six or seven cards to play simultaneously.


Playing more cards increases players' chances of winning the usual prize of 20,000 to 40,000 rubles or the grand prize -- as yet unclaimed -- that is parked in one corner of the hall: a shiny, four-door Moskvich hatchback, "just ready for the winner to drive out the door," Khnykov said.