Whole Lotto Love

Why Americans play Powerball.

The good songs are never the ones that get stuck in your head. Its always the stuff that youd rather forget, like playground chants, or the Macarena. Take, for example, the Illinois Lottery jingle that has been playing in my brain for the past fifteen years. The tune was memorable both for its infectious samba beat and for using the word lotto as a verb. To lotto didnt just mean to winit meant to win in a spectacularly public, sybaritic fashion. “Somebodys going to lotto, dancing to dreams come true,” the singer promised. “Somebodys going to lottomight as well be you.”

I kept thinking of this jingle, and its promise that only six little numbers stood between you and “the good life,” as I read The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution, Matthew Sweeneys omnibus history of the lottery in America. Today, lotteries are a multibillion-dollar industry, operational in forty-two states and the District of Columbia, encompassing everything from immense Powerball jackpots to low-stakes scratch games with names like Cash Blast and $1,000 Jumbo Bucks. Although Sweeneys book never quite lives up to its advance billing (the “wars” amount to little more than disputes that could erupt over any contentious policy matter), it is nevertheless a well-researched account of an all-American pastime.

The first lotteries were essentially raffles, sponsored by states, or towns, or schoolsany civic institution facing a budget shortfall. The games were immensely popular, which makes senseAmericans have never been averse to gambling on long-shot propositions. Advocating for the formation of a New Jersey lottery in 1793, Alexander Hamilton was clearly talking about the speculative spirit that birthed the nation when he wrote, “Hope is apt to supply the place of probabilityand the Imagination to be struck with glittering though precarious prospects.”

For a time, the same imagination that birthed America paid for its construction. Lotteries helped the Virginia Company support its struggling colony in Jamestown back in the seventeenth century. Lottery profits benefited the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and contributed to the construction of countless roads, schools, and other public works after independence. Even Harvard and Yale owe their provenance in part to the American passion for gambling.

But all these social benefits always rubbed up against the uneasy sense that lotteries were instruments of ruination, antithetical to the idea of America as a virtuous city on a hill, fueled by hard work and early bedtimes. “Lotteries have always been accused of supporting immorality, corruption, mismanagement, and greed,” writes Sweeney. There is truth to this, and yet there is a thin line between those failings and such cherished national virtues as ambition and enterprise. The lottery appealed to those people who, having failed to secure the American dream through effort, figured they might as well try to achieve it by chance.

In the early nineteenth century, writes Sweeney, lottery merchants were as ubiquitous as modern-day Starbucks stores. By 1826, Rhode Island residents spent $1,350,000 per year on lottery tickets; by the early 1830s, Philadelphians dropped about $30,000 per week on their lottery fixalmost $800,000 per week in todays money. As diversion veered into addiction, moralists mustered their righteousness, and, one by one, most states began to shut their lotteries down. By 1894, legally sanctioned lotteries were history.

For about seventy years thereafter, the lottery was left to unscrupulous outfits like the Mafia, which fed urban appetites for low-stakes gambling with illegal numbers rackets. These games thrived, despite repeated attempts to shut them down. In the 1960s, in part prompted by a spate of budget crises, some states decided that the lotteries werent so bad after all. In 1964, New Hampshire debuted the first new state lottery in more than one hundred years, promoting the games social benefits, such as its potential as a funding source for the states cash-strapped school system. As a vehicle for promoting social good, the lottery was a resounding failure.

Predictably, people cared less about social benefits and more about winning a lot of money without much effortthe idea that “If I just scratch a little fucking number, I might have five hundred bucks in my pockets,” as one participant put it. Its a seductive notionthat you can become rich without education, or talent, or connections, or looks. All the game requires is the wherewithal to keep buying tickets, and the blind, perhaps misplaced faith that one day your luck will change. The lottery is the secular guarantor of hope for those who would otherwise have none, and once states began selling the prospect of easy money, the modern lottery began to thrive.

Sweeney does a good job recounting the lotterys history, but his narrative loses momentum when it reaches the present day. Absent a logical chronology or theme to guide the organization of this section, the book devolves into a loose collection of anecdotes. Many of these are interesting, but theres no unifying story to connect all the threads. The Lottery Wars is a much better title than Stuff I Learned About the Lottery, but the latter may be more accurate.

By way of compensation, Sweeney lards his pages with profiles of lottery players, but this doesnt quite work, because few are richly drawn enough to give a true sense of the lotterys casualties. Instead, we get an interchangeable parade of compulsive gamblers. Only oneCurtis Sharp, who won the New York lottery in 1982 and then lost all the money
is a real character rather than an illustrative anecdote. Dubbed the “Five-Million-Dollar Man,” the gregarious Sharp was the first bona fide lotto celebrity, appearing in commercials and hobnobbing with figures like Lou Rawls and Dick Gregory. His fame lasted longer than his money did. Theres a great bit when Sharp, after losing nearly all of his winnings through riotous living, bad investments, and compulsive generosity, announces that hes investing his last dollar in some quack self-charging battery that ostensibly will make millions once its sold to the auto companies. “I didnt know, I just took a chance. I didnt know if it was good or not,” he says, stumbling for words to justify his faith in an obvious hoax. “This is just, I dont know, something just told me to get into this.”

Its a wrenching moment, but then Sweeney backs away, and never again approaches the same depth of feeling. This is a big mistake, and it ultimately dooms the book. The lottery is most interesting not because of the ways in which it can be played, or the circumstances surrounding its legislative adoption, or the technical feats behind its computerization. It is interesting because of the people who play it, and what their willful self-
delusion tells us about the mental bargains we all make in order to cope with a brutal world.

The 1980s alternative-rock band Camper Van Beethoven has a song called “When I Win the Lottery.” The narrator is a neer-do-well, the sort of person who inspires people to cross the street when they see him coming; the song mostly consists of him talking about his wretched life, and then, as if stung, quickly changing the subject and reciting all the things hell do when he finally wins the lottery. Hell buy French perfume for all of his neighbors, and “donate half my money to the city so they have to name a street or a school or a park after me.” Hes experienced enough to know that itll never happenand yet you get the feeling that without these dreams to sustain him, he would disappear. Sometimes, false hope is the only hope there is. After all, somebodys gonna lotto.

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Justin Peters

Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.