The Big Game Came to Town
When I was about ten, the State of Connecticut got into gambling in a big way. They had a lottery, licensed a series of Jai Alai frontons, and eventually dog racing parks. Not all the ideas turned out well, but people found the games intriguing, while the legislature loved spending the money.
My grandmother enjoyed playing the scratch off lottery tickets. The scratch tickets were about the most popular game the Lottery had. There were $2 prizes up to $10,000 in the early years, and every ticket that won was eligible to go into a draw for a $1 million dollar prize that they paid at $50,000 per year over 20 years, and later $1000 per week for life.
My grandmother would sometimes let me scratch her tickets and there were several winners among my scratchings. Two, five, ten… it was just enough to keep her playing. At one point they added a free ticket as the lowest prize level, so you could buy a few tickets and often win a little here and there and keep yourself in tickets if you went right back into the store and cashed your winners for more tickets.
Most often my grandmother would get more than five scratches for five dollars. If she won ten or twenty dollars she would likely take the cash. But for every winner she would carefully fill in the back and turn it in hoping to win the big prize.
Truth be told, my grandmother played the lottery a little too much as time went on. There were just enough marketing gimmicks to make it seem like just a few more tickets and you would find that big winner. And I think the genius of the marketing was the Big Draw where someone would win the million dollar prize.
They televised the Big Draw on the local TV station out of Hartford. They would have a semifinal round where they selected about twenty people to come to a special event and one of the twenty would win the big prize, but all the semifinalists got on TV and received a consolation prize of cash, I think.
They held the semifinalist draw at various places around the state. I don’t know what device was used to pick a name, but they would do it in front of a town crowd at local venues all over the state, as part of the marketing scheme. It was brilliant.
One day, the Big Game came to Old Saybrook. In the dark old lobby in front of Grant’s in our little shopping center, the lottery commission set up a small stage and picked a name or names for the semifinals. My grandmother had to go, hoping to be the one to get the big news.
People packed into the alcove for the event and the overflow crowd spilled into The House of Cards and out onto the sidewalk in front of the shopping center. And right in the middle of the crowd, maybe twenty feet from the stage, my grandmother and I stood in high hopes that would soon (after a painful anticipation) be dashed to pieces yet again.
I don’t know how many names they chose or how long it took, but neither she nor anyone we knew got the call. Out of the dozens of tickets my grandmother had in every draw, she never got the call. She never won a prize over $100 in all of her years of playing. And I’m she ever broke even. As it is for 99.9% of all players, the lottery is an expense. Entertainment. A source of revenue. A regressive tax on the poor.