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Jewish World ReviewOct. 27, 1999 /17 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Lotto, the Recession, and You --
THE MARKET has been teetery lately, its dependence on the Ponzi scheme that is the Internet finally clear. If recession comes, living with its effects will be a new experience for most people under 45. So let me warn you of the moral dangers facing you, based on my sad experience. If you are a reader, you may be like me: you make a decent living by your brains; and yet your brains make you a bit too sensitive for this world, more imaginative than is good for you. It is a person like you who is most vulnerable to the deadly combination of the recession and LOTTO.

How can LOTTO hurt you, you wonder: You do not spend half your disposable income on tickets. But test yourself: do you fantasize that all your problems would be solved if you won? That your wife would respect you, your children adore you, men stand up and grin sheepishly when you came into the room, hoping that you will offer them money? How often have you gone over in your head the depressing calculation that were you to win one of the smaller awards, that after your debts were paid and your children=s education paid for; you would actually be almost as broke as you are today? Do you think of what numbers to play, and make small adjustments: Awhat about my first dog's birthday? What about adding my wife's birthday and eliminating that of one of the smaller children?

What is happening to you happened to me. And while Lotto fantasy can be harmless enough when times are good, it can be deadly when the sky turns darker. Pretend you can remember 1991. You need your wits, you need your confidence, you need your sense of desperation. You need to be able to drive yourself to the limit, pummel your poor tired brain, scheme and dream and push. Everything you have in you may, just barely, be enough to get you through. But the thought, simply the thought of the lotto prize that awaits you can be enough to drain you of just that last bit of imagination and courage you need to survive. Particularly if you are a bit dreamy, a fantastic, the idea of a prize awaiting you if you only get it the number right is enough to stop you dead in your tracks at the very moment you need to run even harder.

Let's think calmly about you and the Lottery. The first fact is this: have you ever read about anyone like you ever having won the Lottery? No, of course not. The Lottery is won exclusively by out-of-work men, single moms, the disabled, retirees, racial minorities, or people living in odd corners of that vast country called Upstate. Now you can't escape the good fortune that has enabled you to be middle class, but you can make sure not to buy your ticket where chaps like you would normally be found. Near your home or at a place convenient to your office is hopeless. You may not wish to go as far as I do -- I never buy a ticket in the borough of Manhattan, except at a secret place I've found under a menacing bridge (forming the background of the movie Sorry, Wrong Number) which is haunted by a mentally-ill man who threatens my life when I pass by him into the store. If he's not there I sit out the game. Otherwise I wait until I am in one of the winning boroughs -- Brooklyn, Staten Island, The Bronx. Avoid the obviously twee suburbs like Brooklyn Heights or Hackensack. Buy wisely, in the Hudson or Mohawk valleys, and you may just sneak by -- Woodstock no, Ghent yes. Don't think you're getting away with it by going to the North Fork. Publicity is the cruel god that picks the winners in this game; and you can't be yourself -- SUV-driving, school-fee-paying, happily married and well educated -- and win.

Second: Give up picking numbers. If you are going to win, you'll win. Only ever buy a Aquick pick, where the machine selects the numbers. You've probably noticed already that the winning numbers are in no sequence you could ever possibly have conceived of. This pattern will continue until long after you are dead. Give up the birthdays, the lucky numbers, the school study numbers. Take what the lady gives you, put it away, -- don't even look at it.

Third: be rational about probability. The chances of winning are so small that buying five tickets offers you hardly any more chance of winning than buying one. Buying two or three tickets, and doubling or tripling an infinitesimal small number -- your chance of winning -- results in another infinitesimally small number. So buy just one. However many you buy, you'll never increase your odds of winning by a greater percentage than you just have by buying a single ticket instead of none at all. Don't be disturbed by all of the winners so far having bought multiple tickets. Common sense will tell you that virtually everyone who plays at all buys multiple tickets, and therefore virtually every winner will have done so. Any one ticket has just as great a chance of winning as another-stop at one.

Finally, the most important rule to observe but the most difficult to adhere to: Only play when the prize is at a minimum. Think how many people are lured in when the prize rises above 10 or 20 million. If you limit your greed, you may be rewarded--go for a prize that no one but you (and me) want.

Fortune is particular about who wins the big ones: when you join in the frenzy for a particularly big prize, well, you're just throwing your money away.

Sam Schulman Archives

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


©1999, Sam Schulman