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  • Laws of Chance: Brazil’s Clandestine Lottery and the Making of Urban Public Life by Amy Chazkel
  • Zephyr Frank
Laws of Chance: Brazil’s Clandestine Lottery and the Making of Urban Public Life. By Amy Chazkel (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. xix plus 337 pp.).

Laws of Chance is that rare monograph that truly delivers on the promise of its subtitle. Amy Chazkel’s meticulously documented and cogently argued study of the ubiquitous jogo do bicho, an illicit lottery played by millions over the years, provides readers with a profound means to understanding the making of urban public life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from the 1880s through the 1920s. Constructed out of the unassuming but historically pungent archive born from the incessant attempts to control, prohibit, and extirpate the game from the fabric of everyday urban life, Chazkel’s study rises to the forefront of the new wave of social history that has succeeded in pushing well beyond the tired binaries of repression/resistance and agency/subjugation. The book also succeeds in delivering one of the most creative and convincing uses of Marxist thinking in years, particularly with its deployment of the concept of “enclosure” applied [End Page 243] to the constricting of the urban commons during Brazil’s First Republic (1889–1937). On the strength of these contributions, Chazkel’s book should reverberate beyond the confines of area specialists and inspire the exploration of similar archives and processes of enclosure in other times and places.

The argument of the book is organized around six chapters that trace and spiral around the common thread of the jogo do bicho. In the game, players generally selected one of twenty-five animals, wagering a small sum with the bicheiro (these illicit lottery ticket sellers were the most mundane of bookies, as these men (and they were mostly men) also worked in petty commerce where the lines between the licit and illicit circulation of goods and cash blurred). If the last numbers of the official state lottery happened to correspond to the chosen animal, the holder of a winning ticket stood to win twenty times the wagered sum. The first two chapters treat the origins of the game in a government-sanctioned lottery in a zoo on the periphery of the city in 1890 and the ways legal discourse and practice attempted to control and then ultimately to prohibit the animal game. These attempts at control failed to stamp out the game, but they succeeded in shifting it into a growing grey area of illegal but rampant and generally tolerated activities. In this way, the first chapters chart the making of the informal underworld in modern Rio de Janeiro through the lens of the law and law enforcement.

The heart of the book, chapters 3 through 5, takes the reader into the realm of the everyday and reveals how playing the jogo do bicho was of a piece with common practices of economic exchange (using cash as an anonymous means of exchange; the personal ties that nonetheless bound up so much everyday buying and selling) and how it reflected the tactical give-and-take in the relations between a burgeoning state bureaucracy and its agents and the mass of poor workers. In these chapters we learn who was detained for gambling offenses, under what typical circumstances. We are shown how the jogo do bicho was integrated into the fabric of commerce as taverns and small retail establishments doubled as points of sale for bicheiros; public space, where peddlers sold tickets along with sundry goods on street corners and in parks; and social networks, insofar as records of arrests provide tantalizing glimpses into the connections among buyers and sellers and their wider social world, particularly that great submerged world of everyday but forbidden practices that typified the urban demimonde in Rio around the turn of the twentieth century.

Through this analysis, Chazkel offers a convincing story of the creation and evolution of informal practices and their intersection with institutions associated with the rise of the modern state and capitalism. These relationships are posited as ambiguous and complex. Playing with money was both a game and a job—for the buyers and...


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pp. 243-245
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