The French Lottery: My Take on Getting Taken
- Published on Tuesday, 05 February 2013 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
It’s Easy to Win: Just
Fill in the Right Blanks
Playing the lottery can be an enriching experience. Not for your bank balance, but, if you adopt my principles, for your mental and moral equilibrium.
When I was a young man, my father took me aside one day and gave me some advice that has served me well throughout my life. “Son,” he said, “Usually there are two or three little metal hooks in the back that fit into these tiny eyelets, so you reach around and kind of squeeze the ends of the strap together and then when the hooks come loose, you relax your grip a bit so that... Oh never mind. Listen, kid: never gamble any more money than you can afford to lose.”
I never did figure out what he was babbling about in that first part, but I took his advice to heart about gambling. These days, I figure I can afford to lose €4 a week, and that’s what I spend on lottery tickets.
Like many countries around the world, France has a national lottery, called, in one of those transcendental flashes of inspiration that set humankind apart from the lower beasts, the Loterie Nationale, or “Loto” for short.
The tickets are sold mostly through tabacs, the cafés that also sell cigarettes. This is for convenience, so that customers who want to gamble with their lives as well as their livelihoods can do both under one roof.
As with most lotteries, the procedure for playing is so simple any idiot can do it. And many do, which is pretty much what the organizers had in mind. It can be summed up in four steps:
Step 1: Pick five numbers from 1 to 49
I don’t know why, but a great many lotteries use numbers from 1 to just below 50. I suppose the idea is to make the range of possibilities large enough so that it’s more or less impossible to win but small enough so that it’s more or less possible.
Step 2: Pick another number between 1 and 10
In one popular U.S. lottery this is called the “powerball.” In France, the extra number evokes a ball as well, but indirectly: it’s called the numéro de chance, which most people think means “lucky number” but is actually an abbreviation of numéro de chance d’une boule de neige en enfer.
Step 3: Pay €2 for each number combination played
The price varies depending on whether you want to play one, two or all three of the weekly drawings, only for the current week or for up to five weeks, whether you want to bet on a “Super Loto” special jackpot and whether you want to pay extra for a “Joker” game.
The latter is based on a seven-digit random number and gives you, for a bet of up to €8, a one in 10 million chance of winning half a million euros. That, apparently, is the joke.
Got your ticket all filled out? Good! You may now proceed to...
Step 4: Lose
What did you expect? If you’re going to play the lottery, you have to recognize the fact that your chances of matching all five numbers in the main grid plus the “lucky” number are exceedingly slim.
In fact, “slim” isn’t even the right term here. Nor “emaciated.” Even “skeletal” would be overly optimistic.
The odds of winning any given drawing are about one in 20 million, which, according to various unverifiable sources, are also the odds of being killed in a variety of ways that would move your obituary closer to page one, including by terrorist attack, plane crash, falling tree branch and a rare pancreatic disease called glucagonoma.
Allegedly, these are also the odds, after you’re good and dead, of your being named a saint. This may be true, but in my case, at least, the lottery is a much safer bet.
And then, even if you win, you lose. That is, the jackpot is not even vaguely proportionate to your chances of winning it. The basic payout is €2 million — one-20th the amount that would accurately reflect the odds and the minimum wager.
Furthermore, if no one wins the top prize in a given drawing, the next jackpot is increased by a relatively measly €1 million. In other words, the only party that makes any serious money out of the Loterie Nationale is the Loterie Nationale.
Now, smart readers, I know what you’re thinking: if the lottery is such a pathetic sucker’s game, why do I play?
The answer is that I have a system that makes it worthwhile and which, solely in the interest of the public good, I will now reveal. In a nice piece of symmetry, it also consists of four steps:
Step 1: As Dad said, bet a small and losable amount of money
And as I said, for me this is €4 per week, which I usually put on two numbers in the Wednesday drawing. If I win it back by hitting one of the lesser, low-paying combinations, I play again the following Saturday.
Some weeks I actually come out a little bit ahead, and once I won €600, which meant that I broke even for three years. But most of the time, it’s money pissed away, out the window. So to speak.
Step 2: Pick a majority of numbers above 31
This is to save you from having to share the jackpot, should you happen to hit it, with all the unimaginative clods who pick their five numbers by playing their birthday, their dog’s birthday and their SAT math score.
Step 3: Try to play during periods when money is coming in
Like butterflies, the moon and my former fiancée’s concept of fidelity, money goes through phases. If you play the lottery when the tide of cash is trickling in rather than flooding out, you can at least imagine that you have a slightly better chance of winning.
Ridiculous, I admit, but if you’re going to spend your hard-won income on a 20-million-to-one bet, why not just go ahead and believe in baldfaced bushwa while you’re at it?
Now then, before going on, make sure that you have observed my instructions to the letter. You have to follow the exact procedure in order for this to work.
All set? OK, it’s time to move on to...
Step 4: Lose
I said “worthwhile,” not “lucrative.” It goes without saying that you’re still going to lose like Custer. But I’ve said it anyway, mainly because it brings me to my main point...
The purpose of playing the lottery is not to win money. The purpose of playing the lottery is to daydream about what a nice, magnanimous, generous, beneficent, all-around wonderful person you’re going to be when, by which I mean if, you win.
For a €2 bet, what you win is the right to imagine yourself feeding the hungry, building orphanages, buying Bentleys and butt-lifts for all of your friends and donating the pivotal half-million to medical research that enables the discovery of a cure for glucagonoma. For two little two-color coins, that’s a bargain.
The way I see it, playing the lottery isn’t supposed to be wealth-building but character-building. It is, after all, a game. Games are supposed to be fun, and the daydreaming makes it more fun. Which is why I am going to conclude this article with two fun facts about the lottery.
Fun Fact No. 1
In compliance with the very first decision handed down by the United States Supreme Court, whenever the topic of lotteries comes up, someone is legally obligated to mention that “you have a better chance of being struck by lightning than of winning the jackpot.”
It is true that lightning strikes more than one person out of every 20 million, but this is not an accurate comparison. In France about 10 people are put six feet under by thunder every year, but there have been 10 top-prize lottery winners in just the past two months.
The fault in the logic is this: the way you play one “game,” so to speak, in the getting-hit-by-lightning sweepstakes is by living one complete life on Earth, whereas the way you play one game in a lottery is by buying a ticket, which you can do a thousand times a week if you feel like it.
Although if you can afford a thousand tickets a week, you don’t need to be playing the lottery. You need to be buying me a Bentley.
Fun fact No. 2
Claude Monet was a lottery winner. No kidding. He won 100,000 francs in the Loterie Nationale in 1891. This was the equivalent of about €10,000, which was enough back then to allow him to quit his job as a messenger and sit in front of an easel all day staring at water lilies, cathedrals and haystacks until they looked all blurry — although most art historians attribute his unique, visionary rendering of light and color to the fact that he was struck by lightning the following year.
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Reader Daniela Bak writes: "Every time I stand in line to buy a lottery ticket, I remember at one point that I have as much chance of winning with the sequence of numbers '1,2,3,4 and 5' as I have with my very carefully selected ones... So I leave the line and put the €2 in the bowl of the musician playing his balafon in the metro. My favorite publicity slogan, though, is '100% des gagnants ont tenté leur chance.' Brilliant. Thank you for making me discover the Claude Monet fun fact. At last I can understand what created that blurry effect! Loved the 'chute' too :-))"
David Jaggard replies: "Thanks Daniela. There actually was a drawing a while back in which the winning combination was 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. Anyway, with my system it's not so much winning as 'winning.'"
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