A couple weeks ago, I submitted an exerpt to an online business and finance magazine for an article about America’s supposed love affair with lottery gambling. This was during the period when the Powerball was up to 8 billion dollars or some ludicrous total like that. I never heard back from the reporter, so I assume my material was not used. Why waste good stuff? Here is what I submitted:
Glen Wiggy, probability and statistics instructor, and author of “1536 Free Waters and Other Blackjack Endeavors—Finding Profit and Humor in Card-Counting,” offers a lighter side explanation to why American’s love a huge lottery jackpot. The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are the same whether the jackpot is $5 million, $50 million or $500 million. However, the bigger the jackpot, the bigger the fantasy value. Americans line up in droves to purchase a shot at a half-billion dollar jackpot for three reasons:
(1) It is cheap. A Powerball ticket costs $1 or $2 tops. That is the same amount of cash that most people spend on an afternoon soda each day to pep them up for those last few horrid hours of work. Even folks delinquent on multiple credit card payments can find $1 in change somewhere to buy a small chance at glamorous fortune.
(2) Despite the overwhelming odds, winning the grand prize in lotto is a possibility. Unlike the fantasies of marrying Jennifer Aniston, partnering with Oprah on her surprise, comeback, daytime talk show, or being the first man to walk on Mars, picking the winning Powerball numbers is a distinct possibility. Everyone knows that—everyone has seen the poor sheet metal worker holding that big-ass check on national TV. They’ll say, “If it can happen to him, it can happen to me.”
(3) Buying a lotto ticket lets adults return to playing make believe. When you’re a kid, you can dream of doing anything or being anybody. In fact, daydreaming and playing make believe are considered normal childlike behaviors. When you’re an adult, however, playing make believe is prohibited. If you tell your cube mates at work, “When I grow up, I’m gonna win the Super Bowl as quarterback for the Cleveland Browns!” they will make you see a special doctor. Also, lotto jackpot fantasies are acceptable to discuss in mixed company, unlike those naughty fantasies that you tell your wife that will never, ever come true.
Big jackpots also make story-tellers out of all of us. All lotto fantasy stories begin the same way, “If I won the lottery I would…” Some of the fantasies are grand gestures, “If I won the lottery, I would give half to charity, then pay off the mortgages for my parents and thirteen brothers and sisters.” Other lotto fantasies are less ambitious, “If I won the lottery, I would buy everyone on the block breakfast burritos—the good ones, with chucks of fried potatoes.” Many people who aspire to win millions are pragmatic, “The first things I would do are hide the ticket and hire a lawyer.” Others claim that they would never quit their day job after striking it rich. I’m more of a realist. The first thing that I would do after winning the half-billion dollar Powerball lottery is change my soiled underwear.