Day 649: Looking For That Lucky Number

originally published October 10, 2013

For the record, should anyone feel to compelled to keep such statements in some sort of record, I do not believe I will ever win the lottery. I say this with the utmost confidence and a wry awareness that the universe has gone out of its way to prove me wrong on an incalculable number of occasions in the past. Why not this one? Come on… daddy needs a new fur-lined stapler.

Playing the lotto takes a decidedly different mind-set than any other form of traditional gambling. You aren’t asserting your confidence in a sports franchise’s chances of success on Sunday, nor are you seeking a favorable roll of the dice or turn of a card. No, the odds of victory in this scenario are so astronomical, it’s laughable. To invest $1 or $10 or whatever in a lotto ticket is akin to deciding that you have that amount of money to throw away.

And yet we continue to play, millions of us every week. It’s that wispy dream of an endlessly overstuffed wallet; even those of us with enough sense to know that a few million in the bank will not absolve us of all future problems still want to experience that hypothesis first-hand. And so we crumple up a few bucks and turn to the magic numbers of the lottery.

There is evidence of keno (known today as the most boring game in Vegas) being played in China during the Han Dynasty, most likely as a way for the government to pay for that gigantic wall. Augustus Caesar gathered some trinkets that he deemed too valuable for a garage sale and gave them away as prizes in a Roman lottery that aimed to pay for repairs in the grand City of Rome.

This was an easy investment for a town, state or empire: let the people pay for what you need, in exchange for some prize of lesser value. Except that gambling tends to be frowned upon by most major religions, and major religion is what has fuelled the human legislative fire throughout most of history. It took a certain sacrifice of traditional values for a ruling class to fudge this line and offer up a game of chance for its people.

Some regions were more willing than others to take this plunge. The Low Countries (the area around Belgium and the Netherlands today) took the lead by instituting sanctioned lotteries as early as the 15th century.

King Francis I of France learned about the Italian lotteries in his travels and in 1539 brought the idea back home. The problem with Francis’s scheme was that he’d priced the tickets too high. The wealthy social classes didn’t want the poor schmucks winning valuable cash and prizes, thus elevating them above their allotted rank in society. But they were the only ones who could afford a ticket. This is what’s known in economic circles as poor planning.

Queen Elizabeth I instituted a lottery between 1566 and 1569, a scroll for which is pictured above (sort of the 16th century version of “Look at this studio, filled with fabulous prizes!”). She was looking to raise money for the “reparation of the havens and strength of the Realme, and towardes such other publique good workes.” The British monarchy eventually realized they could cover their costs simply by not spending so much money on superfluous ‘e’s.

Actually, every ticket in Elizabeth’s lottery won a prize. In this sense the money raised was more of a no-interest loan to help fix up the country. The English operated their State Lottery between 1694 and 1826 when parliament opted to tear the institution down. The National Lottery wouldn’t start up again in full force until John Major’s government got it rolling in 1994.

British citizens also participated in a King James-sanctioned lottery to raise money to help establish settlers in Jamestown, Virginia. American history is full of lottery stories, from Ben Franklin’s lottery to raise money to buy cannons to defend Philadelphia to the lotteries that were used to found Columbia University and Princeton.

The ugly side (or beautiful side, if you know the right people) of the lottery is how easy it can be to manipulate the results. For a daily or weekly lottery fix eighty years ago, you’d have to venture to the darker side of the law. To the numbers racket run out of Little Italy in New York for example, which was run by such upstanding citizens as Dutch Schultz, Joseph Bonanno and Vito Genovese. The first proper, state-run lottery didn’t show up until New Hampshire set the trend in 1964. Even today, only 44 states and territories sell lottery tickets through government channels.

Those who don’t necessarily object to the gambling aspect of the lottery see it as a secret tax. In a sense they’re right, except that it’s completely voluntary. Nobody has to buy a ticket. Still, a properly-run lottery is no scam. Those self-help books that boast a proven ‘system’ for winning the lottery, those things are most certainly scams. You can learn to be a better poker player; you can’t learn to be a better lotto player.

It is remarkably hard to look at those rising jackpots and not feel at least a little bit tempted to scrape a few bucks out of one’s wallet. Think of the Mega Millions draw in March of 2012 in which three ticket-holders split the largest jackpot of all time: $656 million. Or that astoundingly fortunate woman in Zephyrhills, Florida, who was the sole winner of the $590.5 million Powerball last May. Who wouldn’t want to experiment with how much that could change a person’s life?

And in Canada we don’t even have to pay taxes on lottery winnings. It’s a good system.

Except for those damn odds. To pull off a win in our Lotto 6/49, which requires six correct number choices between 1 and 49, you’re looking at a 1 in 13,983,816 miracle. For the Mega Millions prize in the US, you need to match five numbers between 1 and 56, as well as a sixth between 1 and 46. Odds of cracking that jackpot are 1 in 175,711,536.

And the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field are 3720 to 1, but Han Solo pulled it off. So we keep finding the cash to toss into the dream-fountain of extraordinary wealth. Does that make us fools? Perhaps. But one of us fools could be fantabulously wealthy before the weekend’s out.

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