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He's an Odds-On Favorite to Never Win Lottery

October 26, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

I gamble whenever possible.

In high school in Ft. Wayne, Ind., poker was our favorite pastime after sports and girls. In flight training, I used to bet with the guy sitting next to me in chapel whether the next hymn would be an odd or even number. In college, my roommate and I ran a football card operation briefly--until two men wearing snap brim hats pulled up in front of our rooming house in a black sedan and suggested we cease and desist or we might get our legs broken.

Probably the most fortuitous thing that has happened to me in recent years is the escalating air fare to Las Vegas that has limited my trips there to two or three a year.

With a weakness like this, it would seem to follow that I am sorely tempted to put the mortgage money at risk by plunging it into the California Lottery.

But actually I'm not tempted. I seldom play the lottery--and never the Lotto game--and don't read those periodic newspaper stories about the janitor in Garden Grove or the waitress in Anaheim who won $50 million or some such staggering sum by correctly guessing six random numbers. I demand two things when I gamble: a game that requires some small element of skill and a game in which the odds give me at least a fighting chance of winning. Since neither of these conditions prevail in the California Lottery, I don't play it.

But that doesn't stop me from being fascinated by the psychological manipulation that goes on to pull more players into the game. And the most recent ploy has puzzled as much as it has intrigued me. I'm talking about the decision on the part of the people who run the California Lottery to increase the bank of numbers to be drawn from their Lotto game. This has the simultaneous effect of reducing even further the almost astronomical odds against the players while increasing the jackpot prize because it won't be claimed as often.

From my perspective, it would seem that the best way to increase the number of players would be to shrink the bank of numbers and divide the prize pool into smaller but much more numerous prizes, thus materially increasing the chance of winning. But the people who buy Lotto tickets apparently don't think that way. And sales figures strongly support this assumption.

When the Lotto jackpot hit $55 million recently, two men brought four $5,000 cashier's checks into a liquor store and spent the whole day punching 20,000 tickets. They lost. Ticket retailers in Orange County reported that sales were from five to 15 times the normal amount because of the record jackpot. Thousands of workers went without lunch to stand in line and buy tickets. One of them was quoted in The Times saying: "Where can you go in this world and possibly come away with $50 million. This might be my lucky day."

The odds are about 14 million to 1 that it won't.

The question that baffles me is: Why is it that when the Lotto odds go up, the number of players increases? And in our society today, when such a question arises, you go to a shrink. So I did.

I asked this question of Dr. Edward R. Kaufman, a practicing psychiatrist in Orange County and professor of psychiatry at the UCI Medical School who specializes in addictive behavior. Kaufman points out, first of all, that people addicted to gambling are usually addicted to other things as well--and that this addictive behavior probably doesn't apply to most of the people who buy lottery and Lotto tickets each month.

"The average lottery player," he said, "is probably relatively poor and hoping to pull down the big money. The small bettor figures, 'What the hell, it's only a buck.' So he gives them his buck or two or three 52 times a year. He doesn't look at the odds. To him, the size of the jackpot is all that's important.

"People like that, you offer to bet them 10,000 to 1 for a million dollars and 2 to 1 for five bucks, they'll take the long odds every time. How else can they get rich? Their fantasy is 50 million bucks, not $500."

Kaufman didn't, however, preclude real gamblers from going for the big Lotto killing. He said that the man who bought 20,000 tickets "sounds like a true compulsive gambler, out of control." And he described a patient who, after prolonged treatment, "has given up all his compulsions--drugs, drinking, even his weekly poker game. But the one thing he hasn't given up is the lottery.

"He thinks he has control. The compulsion is dormant but he satisfies it for the moment with the lottery. But once he allows this kind of thinking, there's a great danger he'll be headed right back where he was. Gamblers gamble for the high and for the fantasy. And most people look at the big money and not at the odds. This is part of the self-destructiveness of gamblers."

Now don't get me wrong. I have no objection to winning $50 million. It would probably blight my life, but I'm willing to give it a shot. It's one of those life conundrums that I'd be perfectly willing to risk. But even for a buck, I can't bring myself to think this way. It isn't that I could put the buck to better use someplace else; that's not why I'm holding back. It's just that I react badly to scams, and 14-million-to-1 odds is a colossal scam.

So I'll play blackjack in Vegas and pick a few football point spreads here and there and play poker whenever anyone invites me--as long as they don't play one-eyed jacks and red queens wild. I'll never make $50 million that way, but I'll also never have to go to sleep at night trying to remember a half-dozen sets of numbers that aren't going to win anyway.

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