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Scratch and Whiff

A non-junkie lottery player comes to grips with cardboard crack
By JIM SULLIVAN  |  July 17, 2009


I have 53 fully scratched (and completely worthless) Billion Dollar Bonanza scratch tickets sitting in my desk drawer. Each cost $20. Those glitzy, oversize cardboard rectangles with icky leftover scratch scum represent $1060 forked over to the state. I am not, however, a gambling addict, nor am I an overly civic-minded type — you know, trying really hard to support the 351 cites and towns that benefit from hapless lottery losers. My total cash outlay, or so I'd like to believe, is $0. (More on that later.)

These $20 tickets are top of the line. Cardboard crack, some people call 'em. They cost the most dough, and deliver the biggest endorphin rush with the lowest crash. Like you, I've seen those scratch-heads at the convenience-store counters and gas stations, solitary figures guarding their privacy (and maybe their shame), furiously scraping away. Not a pleasant sight. Scratch players don't have the cachet (if there is any left) of card players at casinos — James Bonds they are not.

As lotteries go, Massachusetts's is the most popular one in the country, with each adult in the Bay State spending an average of $700 annually. Scratch tickets — or "instant tickets," as Massachusetts State Lottery Executive Director Mark Cavanagh calls them — account for a whopping 70 percent of the sales. (Keno accounts for 19 percent and the numbers drawings for 11 percent.) Fiscal year 2008, the Massachusetts Lottery sold $4.5 billion worth of tickets. Of that, $935 million went to those 351 cities and towns. The arts got $78.6 million; the Massachusetts Cultural Council Appropriation got $12.2 million; and, oh, yes, the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling got $1 million. But to survive the Lottery needs more scratched-off tickets, like the ones in my desk drawer. Projections are down for fiscal 2009, because there just aren't as many takers out there these days. The lottery's traditional players are growing older (it's hardly a youth sensation). And then there's this nagging economy.

Ipsos Reid, a Canadian marketing company, just released a survey of regular players in the 42 US states (plus DC) that hold lotteries. It reveals that 38 percent of those who played over the past year have reduced their lottery purchases; eight percent have cut it out entirely.

"Many states and jurisdictions rely on the revenues from lotteries to fund key programs," notes Paul Lauzon, Ipsos's senior vice-president for lottery and gaming research, adding that "a reduction in sales translate into a reduction of services."

Massachusetts is seemingly impervious to the downward trending: while Cavanagh notes that sales are down 30 percent across the country, they're down only 5.7 percent here. Still, they're down, and the Lottery's ad budget, which was second lowest in the country, just got whacked — like everything else on Beacon Hill — and now is the lowest.

Heck, we don't need ads for encouragement — the Lottery's in our blood.

The lottery colony
A brief history: Massachusetts came to the game in the Tea Party era, when, during the Revolution, the renegade colonial government authorized lotteries to raise money for an army to fight the Brits. In 1791, a Boston paper published an ad for a "Scheme of a Lottery," which was created to sell 6000 tickets at $2 each to raise funds to pave the highway in Charlestown. Of the $12,000 to be raised, according to the ad, $10,800 went to prizes and $1200 went to paving the highway. John Hancock operated a lottery to rebuild Faneuil Hall. And out-of-stater Thomas Jefferson liked lotteries, calling them a "tax that is laid on the willing only."

Some 200 years later, in 1976, Massachusetts became the first state to introduce scratch tickets. The first $20 ticket, Billion Dollar Blockbuster, came in 2007. Billion Dollar Bonanza was introduced in the fall of 2008. It is, says Cavanagh, the "biggest ticket ever in Massachusetts and, by virtue of our place in the industry, the US — more prizes [are awarded] in those games than in any other lotteries."

Which sort of explains why I have 53 duds in my drawer. Here's how it started: each year for more than a decade, a good friend, David Bieber (disclosure: he is in the employ of the Phoenix Media/Communications Group), and I have wagered $50 worth of scratch tickets on the Super Bowl. We go with the official spread. He always lets me pick the team, as he does not give a crap about who wins and I sometimes do. (This means I bet from my heart. Stupid, I know.) We've each had good years and bad; overall we've probably split down the middle. I won the last round.

The rules of the game are: winning entitles you to two $20 tickets and one $10 ticket. The wrinkle: the loser gets 10 percent of the putative winnings (so he at least has some incentive to scratch along). There have been delusional points where we think a particular batch we bought has A Really Big Prize. That's not yet happened. When all is said and done, both winner and loser end up with the same booty: a goose egg.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, David Bieber
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