Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Let's Get Rich

It’s the American dream, and it’s achievable. All it takes is . . . the correct lottery number. Americans annually spend about $430 per household on lotteries. And why not? It’s a chance to get rich without all the bother of hard work. Wouldn’t it be great to win a few hundred million dollars? You bet it would. As an unemployed immigrant from Costa Rica was recently quoted in USA Today regarding her frequent attempts to win the lottery, “Maybe I buy homes for my children.”

Yes, maybe. Maybe not. She unfortunately faces about the same odds as I do. And I don’t buy lottery tickets, preferring instead to put my money into the home of my children.

I stopped for munchies one morning when the Powerball jackpot was up above 100 million. The guy in front of me bought three lottery tickets and a fifth of vodka. The next day I saw on the news that that fellow had won the lottery, but tragically he was out dancing in the rain to celebrate and was struck by lightening and was nearly vaporized.

Just kidding. He didn’t win the lottery. But he could have. And so can you. Maybe.

It’s lottery fever almost everywhere. Before New Mexico joined in the national gaming craze, I knew a woman who regularly drove to Colorado to purchase lottery tickets. I suspect that she bought several to make the trip worthwhile. She returned home clutching her tickets-of-hope, but she never struck it rich. Why isn’t she a millionaire? I personally know several millionaires, but why have none of my many acquaintances achieved financial independence by playing the lottery? I think one key is not to succumb to impatience, as again we quote the unemployed immigrant from Costa Rica who observed, “I play for a long time, and never I win.”

The state of New Mexico, concerned that our scarce New Mexico money was going to Colorado and elsewhere, and eying the potential tax dollars that were at stake, joined the Powerball Lottery pool and also added state lotteries and allowed Indian gaming. I can’t drive anywhere now without passing scores of places offering a chance to get rich. Even the local hardware store sells rolls of lottery tickets along with the traditional sort of vice-grips. Is this okay? Hey! The lottery funds education, so it’s obviously worthwhile. And after all it’s just a game. So play, even if you’re unemployed. Play generously and support education. Play frequently and be a regular gamester.

Chaucer, in his medieval writings, noted that “gamester” was an appellation given to a person of weak moral character, a profligate who wasted both time and money. But no one heeded Chaucer’s wisdom because he used archaic words and his spelling was atrocious.

Today, we don’t denigrate gamesters, we encourage them. Radio and television personalities promote the lottery and make celebrities of those few who make off with the big bag, airing naught of the lives of those many who invested heavily but came home empty, both in wallet and in spirit. But remember, it’s okay because a small fraction of the proceeds ends up in the amorphous state budget, ostensibly earmarked for education, a boon for unprincipled politicians, if you’ll pardon the redundancy.

If gambling is a game it ought to be fun. I’ve been in casinos. If it’s fun, those playing ought to look like they’re having fun instead of looking like guppies. Fun? I’m no authority because I stopped gambling after I tried it once and felt stupid after losing twenty bucks playing slots. I don’t buy lottery tickets, and thus my odds of winning are zero, which I would argue is so numerically close to the odds of playing the game as to be indistinguishable.

In contrast to zero, slot machines boast odds of about 90%, which is significantly closer to 100%. So go stand at a slot machine and plop in $1,000. On average you’ll win about $900. Yahoooooo! Fun! The balance is taken by the house, which always wins. Just look around. Do you have white tigers, gaudy chandeliers, and gold nuggets in your living room? The house, if it is well behaved, gives a generous portion of the take to the state to pay for roads and policemen, and let’s not forget education. So we can have hours of fun away from our children AND educate our children.

Perhaps after tiring of the amusing, but increasingly obnoxious electronic noises emanating from the slot machine, you’ll want to try another casino game. Try roulette. A roulette wheel has 36 numbers placed about an inch apart, and you win money by betting on one or more of the 36 numbers spinning before your eyes. Your average roulette gamester will lose money, but there are strategies that provide better odds than placing all your money on just one of the 36 numbers. Let’s assume, however that you want the biggest payoff possible, so you go ahead and bet all your money on one number. Odds of one in 36 equates to only a 2.8 % chance of winning. Them’s not very good odds, but you don’t win big without betting against the low odds. Your goal is to get RICH. Few people accomplish this by playing roulette. To get really rich you’ll have to play for lower odds and higher prizes. So buy a lottery number.

Is this possible, this getting rich by guessing numbers? Try this simple experiment. Go to the best math teacher in your school and have him or her secretly write down a number from 1 through 15,840. The latter happens to be the number of inches around the football field track. Tell the teacher that you’re going to pay an imaginary dollar each time you fail to guess the secret number, and at the end of six-hundred imaginary dollars, if you’ve failed to guess a correct number you’ll buy the teacher a steak dinner. If you do guess one of the selected numbers within six hundred attempts, the teacher will buy you a steak dinner. Any good math teacher will eagerly take you up on this, especially after delegating the task of doing the experiment to a computer program. One of you will get a free steak dinner. It will be the teacher. Trust me. (Some math teachers, underpaid and aware of your habitual desire to fund education, will try to convince you to play this game for real money. Don’t do it. What the state smilingly promotes, if done by an individual involves jail time.)

The problem is that a steak dinner isn’t really what you’re after. You want to be set up for life. You want millions of dollars. So, picture a roulette wheel with numbers placed an inch apart, but there are 176,000,000 numbers. This roulette wheel is slightly larger than the distance around the football field track. In fact, it would extend from Chicago to New Orleans. The wheel would completely cover Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas. It would cover most of Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana and half of Georgia. It would cover small chunks of Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Texas.

This, my friends, is a game with the same odds of when you buy a lottery ticket for the nation’s most lucrative lottery, the Mega Millions Jackpot. It’s a stupid game, but go ahead, buy a ticket for an inch-long number on the wheel . . . hmmm . . . Why not pick an inch one hundred and thirteen inches southeast of the 64th fence post north of Hank Partridge’s barn on Highway 31 north of Lapaz, Indiana. Now walk for about thirty days and buy a second inch-long number in the corner of the Dairy Queen parking lot in Woodville, South Carolina. They only cost a dollar each. Buy ten numbers . . . maybe a hundred. Walk over to Tatum, Texas and buy a few inches worth. Cough up a thousand dollars, and buy about thirty yards of numbers scattered amongst the sixteen states and several hundred miles of the Gulf of Mexico along the roulette wheel’s edge. Now step back for a minute and let the wheel spin for a few revolutions. Yeeehaaaa! After spinning at a fairly alarming circumferential velocity it slows and stops at . . an inch of ground in Mel Gromner’s three-hundred acre corn field about 120 miles south of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Dang! You should have guessed that spot. Too bad. You can always spend a thousand dollars again tomorrow. Be patient. You missed the big prize, but happily the giant roulette wheel will occasionally toss you a few bucks to tease you, like the periodic clink-clink from the slot machine. Small prizes are built into the lottery system to add a little fun. You might luck out and snag a few hundred dollars. You may know someone who won several thousand. That’s nice. But what are the odds you’ll win the big one, a hundred million dollars or more, the only real reason you’re playing? Is it sinking in? The odds are really good that a few of the thousand dollars you spend will help fund our children’s education. Maybe they’ll learn statistics, but what are the odds of that happening when we fund education by promoting stupidity.


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