(Editor’s Note: Second of a two-part series).
The next time you’re at Super John’s or the Big Y staring at those glossy scratch tickets and thinking you could win millions, play it out. You hand the cashier $20 and choose the teal-and-silver colored ticket, $10K for Life. Scattered about the state are six tickets worth $8.3 million. The odds one of ‘em is yours are 1-in-4.2 million.
All told there are 4.95 million other winning tickets, and 3.5 million return your money (so you can buy another). That leaves 16.75 million tickets that are flat-out losers.
Let’s say you just want a $5 winner. The odds of that happening with $10K for Life are 100-to-1. The odds of winning $4 on a $1 scratch ticket called “$500 a Week for Life” are 500-to-1.
Are you sure you don’t need that money for something more tangible like food on the table?
Yet nobody knows what riches lay under the silver coating of a Massachusetts State Lottery ticket just like nobody knows what gristle lies under the yellow mustard of a Fenway frank. And so we fork over the dough and take our chances.
The Commonwealth began cashing in on the lottery on April 6, 1972. The first drawing was at Faneuil Hall, where Deborah Ann O’Brien, Miss Massachusetts, drew the first of six winning numbers that were 3-0-2-4-2-4. The Associated Press called it “the state’s newest and most glamorous revenue raising device.”
Today there are 102 bars, package stores, gas stations, supermarkets and convenience stores in Franklin County and Athol where anyone over 18 can play the Lottery. It’s a nuisance to some, an obsession to others.
“A waste of time, not worth it,” said Super John’s proprietor Gary Patel, who was standing close to an array of 55 different types of scratch ticket that cost between $1 and $20. New Hampshire has a $30 ticket. Texas has a $50 ticket. “You can have the same dream for $1 that you can have for $20, $30 or $50,” said University of Houston math professor Gerald Busald. “You’re not going to win.”
There are exceptions. In April the Boston Globe reported that a group of brainstorming MIT students had discovered that $100,000 covered every possible betting combination in the Cash WinFall game. They pooled their money, waited for big jackpots and netted $8 million at the expense of ordinary bettors who were unaware the pool was being bought out.
Officials at the Mass. State Lottery knew its Cash Winfall game had been compromised, but did nothing to stop it because the MIT group and two subsequent betting rings were making the state lots of money—about $16 million. Last January, the Lottery’s website announced it was ending Cash Winfall, saying “it had provided millions of winning experiences and much excitement.”
In 1991, Boston gangster Whitey Bulger came out of hiding to claim a one-sixth share of a $14.3 million lottery ticket. Whitey showed up at lottery headquarters wearing a Red Sox cap and sunglasses, got his money and went back into hiding.
More recently former state treasurer Tim Cahill was indicted for using money from the lottery’s ad budget to help finance his bid for governor in 2010. The charges include procurement fraud and ethics violations.
Scratch tickets account for 70 percent of the state’s lottery sales. “They test the colors, they test the logos. Some of the most sophisticated marketing goes into the ticket-selling process,” said Les Bernal, executive director of the advocacy group Stop Predatory Gambling.
Last year the Lottery turned a $984 million profit (and saved $16 million in winning tickets that went unclaimed.) “We are considered the most successful lottery in the country based on sales and payouts,” said a Lottery spokesperson that didn’t want to be identified.
Scratch tickets, roulette and other games of chance are particularly alluring because they affect the same pleasure center as drugs like crack cocaine. “When people call the hotline, it’s mostly scratch ticket problems. Second are the slots at casinos in Connecticut and Rhode Island,” said Marlene Warner, executive director of the Mass. Council on Compulsive Gambling.
“I wanted instant gratification,” said Ted during a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Springfield. “I didn’t buy a scratch ticket to get the money in five days. I was scratching to get the money now. I had enough problem waiting for the Keno numbers to come up.”
The Lottery is always willing to accommodate such needs. “They’ve sped up the game of Keno,” said Bernal. “It’s a lot cheaper to get the same guy to lose money quicker than it is finding a new bettors.”
GA members also spoke of storeowners who were willing to front them money to continue buying scratch tickets. “That,” said the Lottery spokesperson, “is not a matter of the rules and regulations of the Mass. State Lottery. It is outside our purview.”
The Lottery does have a hot line number, and callers are referred to Warner’s agency. The Lottery gives it a million dollars a year to counsel problem gamblers, an amount roughly one tenth of one percent of its profit. “What scares me is how government is not taking problem gambling as seriously as it should,” said Joanna Franklin, the director of the Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling. “They see it as an also-ran, they’re not taking enough responsibility.”
Which is why Bernal created his website (stoppredatorygambling.org). “The lottery is one of the biggest public policy failures in the last 40 years, a program based on pushing citizens into deeper personal debt.”
Through the freedom of public information act, Bernal accessed Lottery research that revealed one-third of the state’s residents don’t play the lottery, one-third plays occasionally, and the final third plays regularly. And, said Bernal, “Ten percent of the regulars account for 80 percent of all sales. “We don’t tax the one percent because it’s easier to get the poor people to lose their money.”
Bernal lives in Lawrence and is a former chief of staff of the Massachusetts senate. “Alcohol is brutal but the local bar won’t put a lien on your house. Gambling man? You lose everything. You steal. One of our challenges is to move beyond the anonymous culture and get people to tell their stories. The state has a committee studying how it can do the lottery online. It wants to open a casino in every home, business, and dorm room that has an Internet account.”
Try as he might, Bernal knows the Lottery won’t go away. He’ll never get hot dogs out of the ballparks or scratch tickets out of the stores. “People used to believe that education was the way to build wealth. Now you’ve got people thinking it’s the lottery.”
So step right up folks, cheap thrills and the chance of a lifetime for one small dollar.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.