Thursday, October 25, 2018

Or if you have to play the lottery, don't play Mega Millions

The Lottery, Sèvres Manufactory, circ. 1757 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

      When I finished yesterday's column on the Mega Millions lottery, it was 1408 words—twice as long as could fit into the newspaper. A few things I thought worth saying ended up on the cutting room floor (and a good thing too; I'd hate to think it was all superfluous tap-dancing and thumb-twidding).
     The part I want to take an extra day to pass along regards the Mega Millions game, and its 302-million-to-one chance of success. There are other lotteries, lots of them, most with far, far, far better odds. If you really just have to throw your money away so you can hope for things, and the idea is you want to win, you should throw your money away on those. You still won't win, but at least you'll have a better chance.
     Since mere argument is ineffective, I tried backing it up with this:
     Think of it this way: If I offered you one of two games, a chance to pick a number between 1 and 1000 with a prize of $1,000, or to roll a die and win $10 if a six comes up, it would be foolish to pick the former game, based on the bigger prize you won't be getting, and not the latter, with its far, far better 1 in 6 odds. You're still probably going to lose either game, so go for the one you have the best chance of winning.
     But people don't think that way, in part because the media doesn't challenge them to. We ignore that not only does the vast, vast, vast vast vast majority lose, but that winning is also overrated. We see the lucky souls clutching the giant check, and then they disappear into the blasted lives.
     Lots of conversation about this—people love the lottery, and I don't want them to think I'm some anti-lottery fanatic. I just think the lottery is stupid and, though as a rule I don't like to meddle in another person's fantasy, with the vast engine of the media banging garbage cans over its head and huzzahing for the lottery, I feel morally obligated to cough the truth into my fist a few times, just for appearance's sake.
     A common argument is that the lottery offers hope that money worries would be at an end. That's a particularly pernicious fantasy, and I replied to a person on Facebook with this metaphor: it's as if you have one cow, and are insisting that if only you had another thousand cows, well then your concerns over cattle would be at an end. Just the opposite. They would only be beginning.
     To this line of thinking, I was accused of being an elitist. Blessed with a good job (though not a particularly secure one) I can't relate to those who struggle to pay rent and buy food. Though those are the very people least in a position to spend money on the lottery. If your plans for dinner involves hitting the Mega Millions on your way to the supermarket well, buddy, plan on being hungry.
     The truth of the matter, I think, the the final word, was offered up by this reader, who observed the following, which I will leave with you. Thanks to everybody for the interesting conversations:
     Neil, you are not a gambler are you? Any degenerate gambler will tell you that the end game is not the win or loss, it’s the action and anticipation. The most exciting moment to any gambler is the moment before the card turns over, the dice stop, the ball falls on a number or the wheels stop spinning. That is the thrill and the reason people keep coming back and the reason some get addicted. Same with the lottery, that $2 or $20 is not about actually winning, but the action of the winning numbers coming up and the fantasy about what you could do if by some miracle you did win. It’s a much needed distraction from every day life and is harmless as long as you don’t start betting the rent or grocery money.


  1. The proposition of $10 for rolling a 6 is a better value than $1000 for picking the correct number between 1 and 1000, but not by that much. On average, rolling a 6 is worth $1.67 while picking the lucky number is worth $1.00. If you increase the prize for picking the number to $2000, then I'd prefer to pick a number than to roll the die.

    Additionally, if I win the die roll, I can buy a frugal lunch, but if I pick the lucky number then I can buy a new iPhone. If I can only play once, why not shoot for the moon? All that said, I've never purchased a lottery ticket and don't plan to start now.

  2. "...the end game is not the win or loss, it’s the action..."

    That's the whole megillah right there...the action. Every gambler I've known or heard about or read about was hooked on the thrill that came from the "action"...not the winning or the losing. They even use that very word: "Where's the action? I'm looking for some action." when seeking out a game or a chance to lay down a bet.

    And then there's the "anticipation" when the cards are dealt, the horses leave the gate, the dice are thrown, the numbers come up, the wheel turns. It's a rush that is very enjoyable and quite ritualized, similar to the way a smoker enjoys taking out a cigarette and tapping it on the Zippo and flicking it before inhaling that first puff, the magic drag-in of the smoke. Any kind of smoke.
    A very long time ago, a weedhead told me :"It's not just the high, it's the ritual that counts."

    Gambling, or "gaming" as the industry has re-named it, can produce the same ritualized effect, that "harmless distraction" that often becomes anything but.

  3. I don't think your point of view is elitist. I think its more a case of primus inter pares .
    being a reformed alcoholic and drug addict , I've encountered many reformed people who also see staying away from gambling as part of their sober living. makes sense to me though I do play poker , with a bunch of drunk pot smokers.

    I wouldn't like to be thought of as stupid and wouldn't call people stupid, or say what they choose to do is stupid. even if I thought it was. I've come to see that just because I don't agree with something it doesn't mean I'm smarter than the person I disagree with. like my wife always says :stupid ends the conversation

  4. If the moment before the dice stop is the most exciting for a degenerate gambler, then I am not such a person. For me the best time is when the dealer or croupier pushes my winnings in front of me. A big winning streak at a craps table is more fun than your team winning a world championship. That could become addictive. But losing a weeks pay at Blackjack leads to remorse, and a feeling that the experience was not worth what it costs. This realization keeps sane people away from the tables, and used on a wake-up to a killing hangover, can stop one from continued contributions to the Busch family retirement fund. An occasional lottery buy is a cheap thrill, and I would wager that the percentage of players who seriously think they will win is the same as the odds of winning.

  5. As an elitist (aspirational only), I regard the lottery as an unseemly way for the State to garner revenue. What next? drugs, alcohol, sex? As it is, the State, Federal and local, perpetuates the myth that all its citizens are equal, that each has the same opportunity to succeed, irrespective of race, gender, national origin, or whom they know, a lie as believable as most of Donald Trump's bloviations.



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