lottery ticketsBy Robert Gillis
Published in The Foxboro Reporter and in the Boston City paper 3/2007

It’s early morning and I had scored the impossible in Boston: On-street parking, not ten feet away from my doctor’s office. With no time on the meter, I ran across the street to pick up a Coke and lots of quarters. I raced to the counter, where the man ahead of me was rubbing a coin across a strip of scratch tickets, while explaining his lottery order to the clerk.

“Two of the #5. First three any, first three exact. Quick-pick for megabucks.”

I hate being in a hurry, behind someone placing a lengthy lottery order. But thankfully, “lottery guy” didn’t delay me too long, and I was able to feed the meter and thwart the omnipresent meter maid drones.

The very next day at a store, I saw another man, sitting in his car, scratching a long strip of lottery tickets. In a gas station ten minutes later, another line for the lottery.

Two days later, another store. Man wins $40. He immediately cashes the winnings and buys eighteen $2 tickets and three $5 tickets.

Way back when, about thirty years ago actually, Massachusetts started a legal lottery. The first was simply called “The Game” and featured a little card with six numbers. It costs 50 cents.

Over the years, we’ve seen daily numbers, and then Sunday drawings, Megabucks, Mass Millions, Big Game, Mass Cash, and more variations of scratch tickets than anyone could ever count.

Mark my words, despite all the protests, I guarantee there will be legal casinos in Massachusetts within the next ten years. With the success and phenomenal profit of nearby Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, it’s inevitable.

The lottery is a seemingly nationwide obsession. POWERBALL is the lead story on every newscast when the Jackpot gets really big.

Although I did win $1000 in Keno a few years back, I’m not much of a gambler myself. Besides an occasional scratch ticket and Keno game, I don’t really buy lottery tickets. I’ve made exactly one trip each to Atlantic City, Las Vegas and Foxwoods. In each case, I found watching the other players squander thousands of dollars far more interesting than easily losing my own money in a few minutes.

Now, this is not as essay about the evils of gambling or a suggestion the lottery being abolished. People can spend their money as they please. Gambling can be fun. For many, it’s a source of entertainment.

My concern is that so much money — an incredibly large amount of money — is wasted on lottery tickets. For many people, this is money they just don’t have. People work so hard for their money these days, and most lottery purchases I observe are bulk purchases. Not a ticket of two, but ten tickets. $30 worth of daily and weekly drawings. Handfuls of $5 scratch tickets.

In addition to the examples mentioned above, a clerk at a Mansfield gas station recently told me that a regular customer spends $60 on lottery tickets every time he comes into the store. He doesn’t appear wealthy. I know someone who is also not a wealthy woman, who drops over a thousand dollars every time she goes to Foxwoods. And she goes a lot. She wins sometimes, yes, but never makes the big win or even makes up all she spent.

I just don’t understand why seemingly rational people would shell out so much money on something so unlikely. Did you know that you have a far better chance of being struck by lightning than winning the Megabucks? The chances you will be struck by lighting are 1 in 600,000. The chances you will select all the winning numbers in the Big Money game? 1 in 76,275,360. (That’s one in seventy-six MILLION!) Mass millions? 1 in 13,983,816. Megabucks? 1 in 5,245,786.

Of course, there are benefits to having the lottery. Here in Massachusetts, a good percentage of lottery money benefits the communities. This money is disbursed by the Department of Revenue. Cities and towns may use their share of the revenue as they see fit.

In addition, having a lottery machine is a big plus for stores — people who come in to buy a lottery ticket also buy other products. We even had a million-dollar winner right here in Foxboro. That’s great for business.

But for me, I just see so much waste. So many people spending so much money they don’t have on a chance … just a chance … that THIS ticket might me the big winner … The ticket “out of here” to greener pastures. So much hope and dreams placed on something with such impossible odds. So much money spent on an empty promise. Yes, a few people win. But it’s a very small percentage compared to the number playing the game.

So, the lottery can be fun, and it’s good for businesses and towns. But maybe one day in the future, historians will write about this era and our seeming obsession with lotteries, and wonder why we ever spent so much hard-earned money on such a risky investment. They might decide we were a little foolish. I’d be inclined to agree with them.

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