Tuesday, April 12, 2011

My “Take” on Lotteries

For most of the 20th century, there were no state lotteries. Only in the last few decades did cash-strapped states decide to promote gambling, and take away the “numbers racket” from the organized crime gangs. There had been a social stigma against gambling, whether based on religion or the simple mathematics of the odds. I grew up in a world where good people didn't gamble.

My first exposure to blatant underworld gambling was at college, where if you wanted to bet on sports games, there was a guy on campus who would sell you a “parlay card.” I never bothered with it, in part because I never felt like I had that much disposable income (as some of you know, I have a reputation for being “frugal”).

One lesson I did learn at college was to be careful about making bets. I once foolishly bet $20 that a friend of mine wouldn't drink a glass of cafeteria slop that had been poured together as a group of us idly chatted after dinner. The mixture was so gross I was certain he would not be able to get it down (and keep it down). As it turned out, he managed to do it, and then wanted his money. I had to “man up” and fork over the bet. That bet cost me dearly, but taught me a life lesson that has lasted far beyond that one night.

By the early '80s when I was in Morgantown getting my MPA/JD at WVU, Pennsylvania had a state lottery, and the TV stations covered their nightly drawings. Indeed, in 1980 there was an infamous attempt to rig the Pennsylvania Lottery by injecting white paint into all but the #6 and #4 ping-pong balls. Those in the know played all the combinations of those numbers, and it resulted in the biggest payout ever—thus raising suspicions and leading to the discovery of the conspiracy. Ironically, the winning number that night was the “Mark of the Beast”--666. [The first movie date that Anna and I had together was for the 2000 film “Lucky Numbers” starring John Travolta, based on this incident.]

In 1981, I remember driving with a girlfriend (who was from PA) across the state line from Morgantown to Point Marion for the sole purpose of buying my first lottery ticket for the nightly three digit drawing. With her help, I was going to sample the forbidden fruit of gambling on a lottery! I had carefully selected the three numbers which I considered my luckiest. In the back of my head, I thought there was a chance I could win with some beginner's luck. Of course, I didn't win (and never have since).

The West Virginia Legislature around the same time was beginning to consider a lottery as well, which required the people of the state to amend the Constitution. I did a paper for my State and Local Government class about this issue. I had the good fortune of meeting Kate Long (some of you probably know her voice from WV Public Radio commentaries, MountainStage, etc.), a wonderful person--who no doubt doesn't remember me--working for the WV Citizens Action Group at the time. As I recall, she provided me lots of data showing that a small state like West Virginia may not be able to support a profitable lottery, especially with our Bible Belt propensities. Lotteries end up being a regressive tax on the lower classes. My paper and my vote went against starting a lottery, but it happened.

One of the keys to the WV Lottery becoming profitable was the advent of multi-state combined contests. Our state was an original member of the Powerball consortium--without its big jackpots, we may have had problems breaking even with the original concept. Of course, this shows how there are sometimes new developments that cannot always be foreseen when deciding how to vote on an issue.

I have on rare occasions purchased lottery tickets since that initial foray into Pennsylvania in 1981, but they have been few and far between. Despite how fantastic the jackpot sounds, the odds are clearly against the player (just like in a casino, another place where I don't waste my money). There are a lot of people who play the lottery on a regular basis who clearly should not be wasting their limited resources in the hopes of winning big.

Here's my take on lotteries: if you get some enjoyment from it, AND CAN AFFORD IT, then I appreciate your donation to our state (and indeed, that is how it should be considered—a donation to the state coffers). If you are not well off (and especially if you are on welfare, food stamps, etc.), then I'd suggest not wasting your money (but hey, who am I to tell you not to waste your money?). Heck, in my mind, if have any debts at all, then why should you be voluntarily forking over your hard-earned money to the state when you could be paying yourself? Take care of yourself first—and hoping for a lottery payoff is not the way to do it. I've heard the odds of getting struck by lightning are greater than winning the lottery.

I have always remembered the magic three numbers I picked for my first “Pick 3” lottery chance in 1981 whenever I hear the nightly lottery report. In the past 30 years, I've only heard my numbers hit a time or two (and had no real remorse for not playing), but virtually every night they are not winners. The payoff from the simple Daily 3 would never have made up for the cost if I had really played those numbers every day, instead of just playing them in my mind.

For those of you who dream of hitting a big Powerball jackpot, please realize how many big winners have found it to be as much a curse as a blessing. Rather than turning their life around, winning often turns it upside down. West Virginia's Jack Whittaker is a prime example, but others have also found it to be more difficult than they had imagined. If by chance I ever play a Powerball and win it, I will be working to donate the majority of it as quickly as I can. But I don't plan on facing this problem, because there is an extremely low probability that I will buy a ticket (especially for a big jackpot, since it seems to me that the increased number of players means you may need to split the pot) and an even lower probability that I will win. One of the lotteries had an ad campaign that claimed “you gotta play to win.” However, not playing is how I come out ahead.

1 comment:

  1. After writing this essay, I found a great website that provides a sobering look at just how low your chances are of simply breaking even on Powerball. I "played" for ten years (costing $1040) and only won back a grand total of $71. Try it for yourself at http://www.cockeyed.com/citizen/poker/lottery_simulator100.php