Friday, January 4, 2008

El Gordo: Or My Big Fat Losing Spanish Lottery Ticket

In the world of lottery tickets, there are winning tickets and losing tickets and the ticket you see on the left, dear reader, is a losing ticket. But not just any losing ticket but My Big Fat Losing Spanish Lottery Ticket. For it is - or was - my attempt at winning this season's top prize, el Gordo ("the Fat One") although it was in reality my contribution to the holder of ticket number 06381, a number which bears little resemblance to my own. Ticket holder 06381 is 3 million euros richer while I am 20 euros poorer. I could be consoled by the fact that the average Spaniard spends around 80 annually buying and contributing to the Christmas tickets purchased by friends, family, business associates and little league teams - as it is considered extremely unlucky to refuse - but I don't. I wanted to win.

To say that buying a ticket - or into a ticket - for the Christmas lottery is a obsession tradition in Spain is an understatement. The Sorteo de Navidad lottery has been around since 1812 and, based on its total prize payout - none of which came my way - is said to be the biggest lottery in the world. To my pea-sized brain, the system of generating tickets is as comprehensible as splitting at atom so allow me the indulgence of cutting & pasting that which is beyond my intellectual reach:

The Christmas Lottery is based on tickets which have 5-digit numbers, just like the regular drawing of the Spanish national lottery. Due to the enormous popularity of the game, each set of numbers on each of the tickets is sold multiple times, in several so-called "series". Moreover, since an entire ticket (called billete) is quite expensive, the tickets are usually sold as tenths (called décimos). On a private basis, or through associations and other organizations, it is also possible to buy or be given even smaller participations of one ticket.

Confused? My Big Fat Losing Spanish Lottery Ticket is - or was - a decimo, which I purchased for 20 - or 1/10th of the 200 ticket. It is quite possible that I won something but I can no more figure out the official prize breakdowns containing the winning numbers than the rules. With a selection of some 85,000 different numbers to chose from, loterias often sell tickets with the same number (or two), so it isn't unusual that holders of the winning numbers are neighbours. In 2005, the inhabitants of the Catalonian city of Vic won some 500 million euros - 500 million euros more than I did. One of the jackpot winners of last week's draw lives in Vic as well. Bastard.

For many Spaniards, el Gordo's draw - which always falls on December 22nd - marks the beginning of the Christmas season - whereas in North America, it begins around Labour Day. Since time immemorial (or to be more precise, December 12th, 1812) the numbers and corresponding prizes have been drawn from two large spherical hamster-ball-like cages. The balls can be inspected by the public in advance by submitting a letter to the lottery's president (Dear Sir, I'd like to see your balls ...) In days of yore (in and around December 12th, 1812) orphans called out the winning numbers but now pupils from the San Ildefonso school have taken over the weighty responsibility of singing out the numbers. Yes, singing. In truth, you haven't really lived until you've heard the otherworldly eerie chanting of these youngsters for the 3+ stultifying hours of the draw.

Having said that, I haven't really lived either because I only heard about 10 minutes of it - at a truck stop somewhere outside Granada where the fearsome incantations warbled from the bar's television set - but that was enough. I swear those kids had glowing eyes. And possibly tails.

I was encouraged, then urged, then finally shamed by my students into buying a ticket. How could I possibly live in Spain and not buy a ticket? they all argued. Indeed. But where to buy one? Because of past wins, certain lottery sellers enjoy long line-ups which snake around city blocks with die-hard superstitious gamblers hopeful Spaniards braving the cold and clutching 20 € bills. In 2006, a kiosk in Madrid's Puerta del Sol sold all the winning numbers and in spite of the fact that it was a 5-minute walk from my home, spoil-sport that I am, I declined to stand in line for 4 hours and instead bought My Big Fat Losing Spanish Lottery Ticket from a vendor 3 minutes from my home. Although I could have bought one from the seller 2 minutes from my home. Only pharmacies outnumber lottery kiosks in Spain and even then, I may have it backwards.

I suspect that queues in Vic were rather lengthy too.

unlike many many Spaniards, I wasn't glued, ticket in sweating hand, to the radio or the television set that fateful Saturday morning. And not just because I don't own a television set or a radio or that I was on a bus at the time. This in itself should press home the urgency of my winning el Gordo. In spite of the odds of winning - which my students assured me were in my favour - it was yet another day in a life wallpapered with losing lottery tickets. To be honest, I had held out little hope.

Not surprisingly, the day of
el Gordo's draw is also known as el día de la salud or "health day". As in "Mother of God, we just blew 120 € on lottery tickets and lost it all, but at least we have our health". Big freaking consolation. This year a priest in San Lorenzo de Zamora dreamt that the winning number would be 06380, so he purchased 30 series of that number which he then sold to his fellow townspeople. The winning number was 06381. At least the inhabitants of San Lorenzo de Zamora all have their health.

Not that I'm completely sworn off of lotteries. The El
Niño draw - the first gordo-like lottery of 2008 - will be held this Sunday and offers 770,000,000 € in prize money. Since the day coincides with the Epiphany, or the Visitation of the Three Magi to the wee one in the manger, this may be a good omen. After all, they were bearing gifts. Gifts like gold, frankincense and myrrh. And in my version of the story, those inscrutable Wise Men from the East brought euros. 770,000,000 euros to be exact.

Ticket sales for my second My Big Fat Losing Spanish Lottery Ticket end at noon tomorrow.


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