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Bingo Night in Switzerland

The hottest ticket in town.
(Photo: Sebastien Thibault)

(Photo: Sebastien Thibault)

One evening last November, I climbed into a red Mazda with a friend and a couple other women in their late 20s. We crawled along a suburban road in search of the packed parking lot and bright lights that marked our destination. The place was jammed, and when we reached the front door, a large man was telling everyone to back up out of the foyer. The earlier session would end soon, he explained. “It’s going to be insanity.” And so it was, at bingo night in Etoy, Switzerland.

There are bingo games—called “loto” in Switzerland, where I live—several nights a week in the fall and winter, each of them a fundraiser for groups as varied as darts clubs, ski teams, and the Lake Geneva volunteer boat rescue organization. The one I went to was to support the town’s youth club. At about 6 p.m., more than 200 people poured out of the room. They were bearing great baskets of cheeses, cases of wine, fat soft braided bread, whole hams, panniers of groceries, flats of fruit, sacks of sausages, and other winnings. We pushed our way to the front and hunkered down with sandwiches for the two-hour wait (that’s right—we had to get to bingo night two hours early) for the next games to begin. A mountain of prizes was assembled on the stage at the front of the room. The most coveted: a scooter and a trip to Florida, represented by an inflatable airplane.

There are bingo games several nights a week in Switzerland, each of them a fundraiser for groups such as the volunteer boat rescue organization.

At 8 p.m. we were called to order, and the room fell silent as we drew out our cards. The mechanics of loto would be familiar to most: Each card has three horizontal lines of boxes. Each line has five numbers on it. A man with a microphone pulls numbers out of a bag and calls them, and if you fill a line on your card, you scream out and the rest of the room sighs in disappointment as runners deliver you a bounty of saucisse aux choux and a raclette cheese. From 8 until around midnight, almost no one got up to go to the bathroom. Waitresses took people’s drink orders at the table, and we plowed through 36 rounds of the game. The woman who won the trip to Florida sat in the overflow seating in a balcony above the main room with her husband and two daughters—each of them working through a booklet of bingo cards.

I played 13 one-franc (roughly $1.12) cards (the cards ranged from one to five francs). The more you paid, the more chances you had to win, but the odds of a given card winning remained the same. My 13 cards had odds as good as anyone’s—and never got close. But two of my companions won, and at the end of the night we were cramming three giant loaves of bread, a pot of honey, a flat of fruit, two boxes of wine, a case of groceries, and two half-wheels of cheese into the trunk of my friend’s car in the pouring rain.

Winning at bingo, of course, is largely down to chance; each card starts with an enticing equality. But as the caller bellowed out numbers, I began to marvel that there could be so many between one and 100 that were not on my card. Then, when two or three numbers on my card were called in short order, I got excited that things were going my way. And that is what experts call “the psychology of the near miss”—our tendency to seize on excuses to call a loss an almost-win. Humans have a tendency to see patterns where there are none, says Mark Griffiths, a psychologist who studies gambling at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K. “We try to make something recognizable, out of something that didn’t have any pattern in the first place.”

My friend spent about $120 on bingo cards but, like me and most of the 300-odd other folks there, won nothing. As we left I had to remind myself that losing didn’t say anything about bad luck for either of us, or good luck for the two friends who did win. It was just a reminder of the cognitive bias that kept us playing late into the night, spending hundreds of francs for the chance of sausages—and for the kids.

This post originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue ofPacific Standardas “Bingo!” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.