“The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for staying alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seem capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made a living simply by selling systems, forecasts and lucky amulets.”
That was George Orwell’s take on lotteries in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and, to some extent, lottery detractors today still have that rather sniffy view of players. Still, despite the UK national lottery, which will be 25 years old on Tuesday, frequently being dubbed a “tax on the stupid”, it proves that multimillion-to-one shots do happen.
And unlike in Orwell’s dystopian world, there are actual big winners. But just watch the old footage of Noel Edmonds presenting the first draw, on BBC1 on 19 November 1994: against every known law of probability, he told worse gags then than now.
Of course, the lottery is a terrible mathematical wager if you insist in viewing it purely on the likelihood of a return on your investment. But an investment is not what people buy when they purchase a ticket.
Humans have found a way to have a punt for millennia – and it’s rarely because we believe they are nailed-on to become richer. We may have a tendency to overestimate our chances of scooping the jackpot, but we do know we almost certainly won’t win.
Lottery players buy tickets for reasons other than the tiny possibility that their numbers might come up: the opportunity to daydream about suddenly being seriously loaded, without having to make real choices; or, as with the many raffles that run around the country each week, a chance to give money to a worthy project, while also having a bit of fun (the national lottery says that in 25 years it has raised £40bn for good causes).
But no, we must view the rationale for partaking in this pastime solely through a mathematical lens: instead of wasting your hard-earned on a 45 million-to-one shot, the smart thing to do is invest it – in something where you have a better chance of a return.
Like lottery players, investors hand over their funds and dream about it making them rich. The fact that the chances of success trump those on the lottery, means private investors can convince themselves that their bets are sure to pay off. They misread the odds, just as they accuse lottery players of doing. They often invest large sums whose loss, if the punt goes wrong, might change their life in a way they never envisaged.
It’s easy to make jokes about how terrible the lottery odds are, claim that operator Camelot is the real jackpot winner and point to the fines imposed on it by the regulator, or even show concern that the game is actually a state-sponsored encouragement to gamble. It can even be argued that more, smaller, prizes should be spread more widely.
All of that is perfectly reasonable. But those who smugly point out that the lotto is a poor financial investment, when few players ever view it in those terms, should try contrasting the lottery player happily spending a few pounds each week with the highly intelligent private investor, joylessly handing money to some smooth fund manager, who is guaranteed to take large fees but not to make them rich. Then ask: who is dafter?
As the lottery slogan used to have it, it could be you.