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Addicted to the Lottery: Why People Buy False Hope and Lottery Tickets

Harry Lewis scratches off a Big Money instant game. All photos by the author

Harry Lewis scratches his lottery tickets with baby strokes, always using his lucky penny. He likes to go slowly: First, he reveals his numbers, but not the prizes underneath them. Then he exposes the winning numbers—the ones he’s trying to match—at a sluggish speed to build tension. I recently watched him play Big Money, a $20 instant game he hit for $500 once this summer. Harry stopped when a three appeared.

“If it’s 36, 35, or 38, I win!” he said.

Harry’s blue eyes filled with child-like excitement. We’d met at the gas station where I work, one of Pittsburgh’s busiest, and were now sitting at a small pizza place nearby that also sells lottery tickets. Harry continued scratching and cursed when the number turned out to be 31. But then he matched 16 and scraped off the prize—$100. He waved the ticket.

“Are you a believer yet?” Harry asked. “I’m gonna get you so addicted.”

I am neither a believer nor an addict, but I’m nowhere near the lottery skeptic I used to be. When I started working at the gas station this past April, I didn’t understand how playing the lottery could be considered fun. Sure, I understood the fantasy of hitting it big, who doesn’t? But holding a ticket while waiting for numbers to be read on TV or scratching off an instant game didn’t seem particularly enjoyable.

I saw the lottery as state-run gambling with unbeatable odds, a government monopoly that raked in $70 billion nationwide in sales last year. That’s more money than Americans dished out for movie tickets, music, porn, the NFL, Major League Baseball, and video games combined. Or, as John Oliver joked on a November episode of Last Week Tonight, “Americans spent more on the lottery than they did on America.”

In Kentucky, the lottery slogan is: “Somebody’s gotta win, might as well be you.”

During my first shift, I was nervous as I was given a 30-second tutorial on operating the lottery station. Doing so demanded a fundamental understanding of the lottery, which I did not have. It’s not like I’m some rich kid who had his nose turned up: I grew up middle class in suburban Pittsburgh, and my mom bought a ticket every week. I just didn’t get it.

While I tried to master the lottery station, some customers were patient and helpful—but the majority were exasperated and rude. “God, can’t they hire someone who knows what they’re doing?” one woman exploded. Another blurted out, “They hire idiots here” when I made a mistake. The manager reminded me that cashiers need to have thick skin—people tend to be verbally abusive toward people in this line of work. But while other customers could be snippy and rude, lottery players were brutal.

One night, when I was the only person working the register, I got slammed. I was moving as fast as I could when a man yelled: “Excuse me?” I turned around and saw him leaning next to the lottery station. “Anyone gonna wait on me?” I asked the man to wait a moment, and he slapped the counter and grunted. I gave in to his tantrum and hurried over to sell him seven Mega Millions tickets. His attitude immediately changed once the tickets printed. He even smiled.

“You’re gonna win, sir. I can feel it.”

“I hope you’re right,” the man said, oblivious to my sarcasm.

That’s when I realized lottery players run on hope, and that a little feigned enthusiasm could keep them in check. For weeks afterward, I started each sale by saying, “Are you ready to win?” People lapped it up.

State lottery agencies have clearly learned this, marketing their games with corny slogans like New Jersey’s “Give your dream a chance.” In Kentucky, it’s “Somebody’s gotta win, might as well be you;” California’s ads ask people to “Imagine what a buck could do.” They’re not just selling lottery tickets—they’re selling hope.

A sign advertising lottery games in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood.

States spend millions on promoting the lottery. In 2011, Oregon’s ad budget was $26.6 million over a two year period; in Ohio, the state used to time advertisements for its Super Lotto game to coincide with the delivery of Social Security and government benefit checks. Poor people are the primary targets of these campaigns—a fact that has made some of my interactions with lottery players uneasy. Multiple customers have told that they spend around $3,000 each year on the lottery and never win. Each person said they continue to play “because it’s fun.”

I often ask people what they would do if they hit the Powerball.Every customer I’ve asked has heard of the tragedies that have befallen past lottery winners, but they all retort with stories of people they know who won huge sums of money and lived happily ever after. Virginia Dingle is one of these people. She said she used to work at Shadyside Hospital with a woman who won $1.1 million.

“And one of these days, I might be rich, too,” she added. “Who knows?”

Virginia was a cardiac catheterization lab technician for 33 years. She lasted two months in retirement before she got bored and took a job as a gym security guard at the University of Pittsburgh. I talked to Virginia one day while she swiped ID cards. She’s the most adorable security guard on campus—standing at five-foot-four, she has dark brown hair cropped short and wears thick bifocals. She likes to read steamy romance novels on the job, but that day she had a copy of the Pittsburgh Courier, the city’s century-old African-American newspaper. She refused to tell me her age, but her face brightened when I suggested mid-60s.

She also refused to tell me her numbers. “You might give me bad luck,” she said.

Virginia is the stereotypical little old lady gambler. A widow with five grandkids, she plays the slots at casinos in Pittsburgh and nearby Wheeling, West Virginia. She also bets on the ponies and the greyhounds. She told me that she’s lost more than she’s won on the lottery, and admits that she sees it as a form of gambling. But she’s adamant that she doesn’t have a problem. Swears she can stop any time. She used to play her numbers twice a day, but then cut back to just the afternoon drawing.

Virginia jumped out of her chair and dug through her jean jacket to check the tickets she’d bought that morning. She had forgotten to play one of her lucky numbers.

“I could play it tonight, but what if it comes out during the day?” she asked. “I should call my girlfriend and have her play it for me. But I don’t want to get in her debt too much. I already owe her a dollar.”

Harry, with his lucky penny and his scratch-off tickets, disagrees that the games amount to gambling. He thinks it’s just for kicks. “Going to a casino, now that’s gambling,” he said.

A billboard in the Hill District, one of Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods, promotes a scratch off lottery ticket that costs $20

Gary Miller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Lottery, which is the only state lottery to benefit senior citizens, maintains that it’s not gambling.

“We consider lottery games a form of entertainment,” he said over the phone. “There is an element of chance involved, but primarily, it’s entertainment.”

The language is significant. If the states were to admit that the lottery is gambling, then the millions spent on advertising would seem even more sinister. It would also open the government up to accusations of running a monopoly, because public sector lotteries provide people like Virginia and Harry with better odds.

But I was struck by the notion that the lottery is entertainment—I saw the lottery as the antithesis of fun. Then again, I was starting to have fun myself, performing behind a gas station counter, egging on the people who bought lottery tickets.

One day, I waved a woman’s Powerball stub in the air. “This ticket right here,” I said. “It’s gonna solve all your problems.”

The woman laughed and thanked me. She said she now felt lucky. An hour later, I stopped a man as he was ordering a Match 6 ticket. “You’re gonna win,” I said. “I can feel it!”

The man said I was the greatest cashier he’d ever met, and for days, I considered becoming a preacher. Or a car salesman. Away from the gas station, I joked with friends that lottery players are like that buddy in your crew who everyone picks on, and he keeps coming back for more. Occasionally, I’d switch from amping people up to deflating them instead. “Actually, you’re probably not gonna win,” I’d say. “The odds are insane.” Once, I even suggested that a customer invest in stocks and bonds.

The man cringed. “Where’s the fun in that?” he said.

There was that word again: fun. What was it that people got out of this? I finally broke down and decided to play, starting with Pick 3. My first ticket: 474. That night, I checked the drawing online and saw that 464 won. So close! I could’ve bought new tires!

Suddenly, I got it. I had once laughed at the TV drawings, but now I saw how they create drama and build suspense, especially for people with an attachment to the number.

I called Harry to talk about numbers. Over the phone, he told me to play the triples. “The triples are due,” he said.

Sure enough, on a Friday in mid-July, the Pick 3 was 999. Harry won.

One guy ran into the gas station rambling about how he found 19 dimes under his couch, so he played 1910.

How people come up with their numbers can be pretty interesting. Once, a woman told me she saw her and her son’s birthdays on a license plate and thought it was a sign. A lot of cops play their badge numbers. One guy ran into the gas station rambling about how he found 19 dimes under his couch, so he played 1910.

When I recounted this to Harry, he bit into his slice of pizza, shaking his head at that kind of logic. He used to keep track of what numbers were winning, which is pretty common among lottery players, but it became too frustrating.

“You have to just go with your gut,” he said. Harry’s wife, Carol, passed away in 2010, and he estimates that since her death he has won close to $20,000. “She’s up there telling me what to do.”

Harry Lewis holds up his lucky penny after winning $100 on an instant game

Harry really believes that. When he gets a gut feeling, he thinks it comes from Carol. He still wears his wedding ring, and he swears he doesn’t have a gambling problem.

“I can stop at any time,” he said.

Last summer, Harry won $1,000 playing a scratch-off game. In the morning, he took the ticket to a grocery store to cash in, and he bought three more instant games—and he claims he won $1,000 on each of those. That’s when his lucky penny was born.

But it’s not all about supernatural power and lucky charms. Harry swears he can tell a winning game by looking at the card. To prove it, he flipped over a Big Money ticket, and pointed at two small black lines around the edges. They were hardly noticeable, but according to Harry, the black lines always indicate a winner. He won $100 with that ticket.

I ordered a cheesesteak hoagie and bought a Big Money ticket myself. Harry inspected the back and pointed out the two black lines. We’d been scratching off instant games for almost two hours. He had pointed out tickets without the lines, and they were all duds. I revealed the numbers slowly, just like Harry, and I won my money back—$20.

“Hurry!” Harry said. “Go buy another one! There’s always two winners in a row.”

I handed in the winning ticket and got another Big Money game. There were black lines near the edges. It was a $40 winner.

“See!” Harry said. “Isn’t this fun?”

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People don't play the lottery because they expect to get rich. They play the lottery because it's fun to indulge in the fantasy that, one day, their lives could suddenly get easier.

Inside America’s lottery addiction

The nation was recently in a frenzy over a $1 billion Powerball jackpot. But are lotteries just a tax in disguise? Here’s everything you need to know:

What are the chances you’ll win?
Infinitesimally small. Ticket holders in the multistate Powerball lottery, for example, have a 1 in 292,201,338 chance of winning the jackpot. That’s like putting into a hat the names of nearly everyone in the U.S. and hoping your name is pulled out. Yet the fantasy of getting rich quick is too tempting for many of us to resist. About half of Americans have played the lottery at least once. With a growing array of prize draws, electronic games, and scratch cards available, sales in the 43 state lotteries totaled $70 billion in 2014, or $300 per every American adult — more than was spent on video games, movie tickets, books, and sporting events combined. But there is a huge disparity in how much people spend. Fifty-four percent of ticket sales come from 5 percent of players, who tend to be poor and uneducated. “The hope of getting out of poverty encourages people to continue to buy tickets,” says Emily Haisley, an expert in financial decision making. “Buying lottery tickets exacerbates the very poverty that purchasers are hoping to escape.”

Where does the lottery money go?
In most states about 60 percent of ticket revenue goes to the jackpot, and the winners generally must surrender more than 40 percent of the prize money to federal, state, and local income taxes. Of the remaining revenues, the lottery company takes a small share; so, too, do the ticket retailers. The rest — typically about 25 to 30 percent — goes into the state’s coffers. State officials like to tell the public that lottery revenues are plowed into education, but the reality is that state governments use lottery proceeds not to increase what they spend on schools and teachers, but as an additional funding source for their overall budgets. The money that would have been spent on education had there been no lottery cash is simply spent on other things. In fact, the few states that don’t have lotteries spend on average 10 percent more of their budgets on education. That’s why critics say the lottery is “a shell game” and a “tax on stupidity” — and a regressive tax at that.

Why is it regressive?
Because the poor and less educated spend a much larger proportion of their income on tickets than the rich. A 1999 Duke University study found that people with household incomes below $25,000 spend an average of $583 a year on the lottery, compared with just $289 for those who make more than $100,000 a year. The education divide is even more pronounced: College dropouts spend about $700; people with degrees only $178. While the lotteries spend millions promoting their games as harmless entertainment and encouraging people to imagine themselves quitting their jobs and buying mansions — “Hey, you never know,” reads the New York lottery’s tagline — studies show that poorer players are 25 percent more likely than richer players to consider a ticket a genuine investment, and to vastly overestimate their chance of winning. Ticket sales in 25 state lotteries spiked during the recent recession. “They’re playing this to try and get back to some status,” says Cornell University economist David Just. “[They] see this as their best chance of doing so.”

Are the winners happy?
Not always. Winners are often unprepared for the challenges that follow getting a big windfall, and can find themselves swamped by friends and relatives demanding loans or gifts, and financial “advisers” offering bad investment opportunities. “I had to endure the greed and the need that people have, trying to get you to release your money to them,” said Sandra Hayes, who was one of several people splitting a $224 million prize in Missouri. Several studies suggest that lottery winners are disproportionately likely to wind up bankrupt. In some cases, winners’ lives are completely ruined by their sudden wealth. West Virginia businessman Jack Whittaker was already a millionaire when he won $315 million in 2002; in the years that followed, he was robbed several times, split from his wife, and lost his granddaughter to a drug overdose. “I wish we had torn the ticket up,” he said.

What do defenders of the lotteries say?
They argue that a voluntary payment cannot be considered a tax, and that lotteries offer players a chance to escape the humdrum reality of everyday life. “It’s a cheap way to buy a license to fantasize,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. But critics charge that while governments usually spend money trying to stop people from escaping reality in self-destructive ways — advising against excessive alcohol consumption, for example — they actively encourage the poor to spend precious money on lotteries. Ultimately, though, lottery income has become such an integral part of states’ budgets that lawmakers would consider it political suicide to do anything that would reduce that revenue stream. “The problem with lotteries,” says state tax expert David Brunori, “is that politicians don’t view them as a tax, they view them as victimless sources of revenue.”

Tips on playing Powerball
If you can’t resist playing the lottery despite the long odds, the only way to increase your chance of winning is to buy more tickets. But there’s a cheaper way of maximizing the chance you won’t have to share the jackpot if you do get lucky. The first trick is not to pick numbers between 1 and 31, as many players choose those to reflect important dates like birthdays and anniversaries. You’re just as likely to win with higher numbers. For the same reason, avoid obvious combinations, like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Check your ticket thoroughly: An incredible $2 billion worth of prizes went unclaimed last year, including 114 worth $1 million or more. Finally, although all but six of the 44 Powerball states require winners to publicly identify themselves, you can get around that by creating a limited liability company to collect the winnings. Most important of all: Time your ticket purchase to maximize the amount of time you spend dreaming of what you’d do with tens of millions of dollars. “To get your money’s worth,” advises economist Alex Tabarrok, “buy early [in the Powerball cycle] to extend the pleasure of anticipation.”

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