December 21, 2011

El Gordo: Lottery-mania in Spain

I don't usually endorse playing the lottery, which is often correctly disparaged as a glorified tax on the poor and a poor investment strategy. (Though I am myself an occasional sucker for scratch-and-wins… it's the instant gratification! Stocking stuffer anyone?) So when I first got to Spain I was a little startled by all the lottery-mania. There are lottery booths everywhere, officially sanctioned lottery shops with long queues, everywhere, and even school kids who will sell you lottery tickets as part of their end-of-year fundraising campaign for school trips or such. And the buzz on the street surrounding the lottery of all lotteries, el Gordo, a.k.a. la Lotería de Navidad, come Christmas-time is incredible.

Believe me when I say that tomorrow morning, at 9:15AM on December 22nd, the entire nation of Spain will be tuned in to listen to the results of the "Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad" (Special Draw for Christmas). What needs to be said is that this lottery is different. Okay, so the odds of winning the big prize are still horrible. It's probably still a bad investment, financially. But when you situate the Xmas lottery within its historical, cultural, and social context, you discover that it has a lot more going on with it than most. Which is why I am going to break it down for you here…

Our lottery purchases this year. We bought one "décimo" from the new numbers,
and two "participaciones" from the local Falla plus one participación from our horno.

First, the history. This lottery is billed as being the oldest and largest lottery in the world. By most accounts the first Spanish Christmas lottery draw antecedent for this present-day one happened in Cádiz in Dec. 18, 1812. Which means that this lottery is almost 200 years old! The first time it was called the "Sorteo de Navidad" was with the draw on Dec. 23rd 1892. To give you an idea of how culturally important it is, the Lotería de Navidad was even held during the Spanish Civil War, though there were two separate ones held in 1938, one in Burgos (by Franco's side) and the other in Barcelona (by the Republican side). Still, it just goes to show that even civil war can't dampen the excitement that Spaniards feel about this lottery.

"La fábrica de sueños" (the factory of dreams) 2011 official ad for the Christmas Lottery

This is what an official "décimo" looks
like, which can be purchased for 20€
The key to understanding why there is so much interest lies in understanding the social pressure networks that drive participation. I'll get to that in a moment, but let me start by explaining the mechanics of the Christmas lottery… This year it has changed, though only a bit. There are 100,000 numbers sold (números 00000-99999). (Up until last year the highest number had been 89,999, but this year they've added 90,000-99,999. They've also upped the amount of prize money.) However, if you are wondering how it can be that there are only one hundred thousand numbers, yet millions of players, the key is to realize that they sell multiple copies ("una serie") for a single number. The amount of these varies year to year, but this year they are issuing up to 180 copies for each number. (They anticipate selling 90% of all numbers and series offered!) Which means to buy all of a number's series you would have to spend 36,000€! (Below I'll explain how this is something that business/offices/fundraising groups do.) The next level down for playing is to just buy one "billete" or official ticket for a number, yet even this will cost you 200€. For this reason, most individuals would buy a "décimo" (literally a "tenth", because it is a tenth of a ticket) for 20€, which is the smallest officially sold way to play the lottery. 

Yet the most popular way to play is through "participaciones" which are partial tickets printed informally by a group playing together ("jugar en peña") or by organizations or businesses. These "tickets" (which I deliberately place in quotation marks) take the form of photocopies of the original billete (to be handed around the office as vouchers) or are printed on unofficial tickets featuring the said business's name, and a stamp certifying that the ticket is a valid proportion of the possible winnings. The participaciones that are sold at local businesses are usually either 3€ or, less often 5€.

The two numbers played by our local Falla Trinitat, two participaciones, one sold at the horno,
the other at a local flower shop, which we buy every year to support Fallas in our neighborhood.
To review the terminology:
"número" - 100,000 of these, sold for a total of 3,600,000,000€
"serie" - 180 copies for each número, each valued at 36,000€
"billete" - a single ticket for the número, which costs 200€
"décimo" - a tenth of a ticket, sold for 20€
"participación" - some fraction of a serie or billete, usually sold for 3€ or 5€
Hopefully you are still following me. Here's where it gets more complicated, but also more exciting. The payoff!  Below I've made a diagram of the different prizes, split up between the standard big prizes first, followed by special prizes that supplement the draw, but also make the actual draw itself more exciting!

Prize name                        Prize amount (billete)     /     (décimo)    /  (participación, 2.40€)
1 "primer premio":           4,000,000 euros               400,000€          48,000€
  (a.k.a. "el Gordo")
1 "segundo premio":        1,250,000 euros              125,000€          15,000€
1 "tercer premio":               500,000 euros                50,000€            6,000€
2 "cuartos premios":          200,000 euros               20,000€    –        2,400€
8 "quintos premios":            60,000 euros                 6,000€              720€
1,794 "1,000 euros" prizes:        1,000 euros                    100€    –            12€
  (a.k.a. "una pedrea")
More special prizes:
• 2 prizes for numbers called just before and after el Gordo:
20,000€ / 2,000€ / 240€
• 2 prizes for numbers called just before and after el segundo premio:
12,500€ / 1,250€ / 150€
• 2 prizes for numbers called just before and after el tercer premio:
9,600€ / 960€ / 115.20€
• 297 prizes for those tickets whose number shares first three digits of
el gordo, el segundo, and el tercer premio: 1,000€ / 100€ / 12€
• 198 prizes for those tickets whose number shares first three digits of
the 2 cuarto premios: 1,000€ / 100€ / 12€
• 2997 prizes for those tickets whose number shares last two digits of
el gordo, el segundo, and el tercer premio: 1,000€ / 100€ / 12€
• 9,999 reimbursements ("el reintegro") for those tickets whose number shares last digit of el Gordo: 200€ / 20€ / 2.4€
So in total 2,520,000,000€ in prize money where a total of 15,304 numbers (which jumps to 27 million when you consider all the multiple copies in a serie) will win something. Yet maybe, so far, those of you who are lottery skeptics are still thinking, "Fine, but it's still just throwing away money." Your odds of getting anything back (including the measly reintegro) are only about 15%, and the odds of winning "el Gordo" are astronomically small: 1 in 100,000 or a 0.001% chance.

You can use this online tool provided on the Christmas Lottery's website to check
whether you've won something, in case it's too confusing trying to figure it out on your own.

The "bolas" placed on the
"alambres" of a "tabla"
What you need to understand is the _ritual_ surrounding this event. It is way more than a lottery, it's a cultural happening. On the morning of December 22nd, all cameras are tuned in to the Palacio de Congresos de Madrid where there are two lottery drums ("bombos"), one small and one very large, which are filled with "bolas" made of boxwood ("boj", a light sturdy wood). The small drum holds the balls with the prize amounts on them (a total of 1807 balls) and the large with the 100,000 balls for each possible numbers. Starting around 9AM and over the next three hours, all 1807 balls will be drawn with a corresponding number and placed on a "tabla" with wires ("alambres"), where each tabla holds around 200 "bolas" of each type (number and prize amount), nine tablas in total.

Los niños del Colegio de San Ildefonso
holding up the winning numbers in 2009
But what is the most iconic feature of the draw are "los niños del Colegio de San Ildefonso", children from a very old school and orphanage who literally sing the winning numbers as they are drawn. For each tabla four kids will stage the draw, two who stand behind the drum (ready to assist), and two in front who read (or really sing) from the bolas, one singing the prize, the other the lottery number; and then they rotate out for another set of kids, thus involving over 30 on stage and more than 60 kids in total from the Colegio. (Traditionally these kids were orphans, a.k.a huérfano, but that is not necessarily the case anymore.) So tomorrow morning you will see people listening at work to their radios or watching TV as these kids sing the many numbers and prize amounts, broken periodically by the discovery of one of the big prizes and commentary about it. (Kids from this orphanage have been singing lottery numbers since 1771!) This cadence has become a ritual harbinger of Xmas for Spaniards, and I promise you that you could sing out "mil euros" with this particular intonation and any Spaniard would immediately recognize the cultural reference. 

To give you an idea, I'm embedding a two-minute audio clip from the 2008 draw around the moment when "el Gordo" was drawn:

About 40 seconds into this audio clip you will hear them discover "el Gordo".

And then there is the social significance, or as one British newspaper nicely put it, "It's the taking part that counts." As I was saying, there will be office pools for each number, schools will use this lottery-selling for fundraising, and it's even one of several ways that Valencia Casals raise money for their March Fallas. These groups sell a participación for 3€, where 2.40€ is toward the purchase of a proportion of the possible winnings, but .60€ is a donation to the cause in question. Needless to say, participating in all the numbers circulating in your neighborhood or place of employment is like buying your neighbor's kid's Girl Scout Cookies, even if you're on a diet you just can't say no.

Last year's official Christmas Lottery ad, which played upon classic fairytales, was also quite elegant.

The result is that el Gordo is one of the few lotteries that is actually economically redistributive… rich people play it, too, which means that it is not a poor man's tax. And the social pressure to play works (although let's face it, people also play because they want to win!). Based on past participation, the average Spaniard will probably buy around 71.28€ in tickets. (Though there is regional variation… Loterías y Apuestas del Estado, the official lottery organ, predicts La Rioja people will buy the most (106€ worth), followed closely by Castilla y León (102€); whereas Ceuta (17.10€) and Melilla (16.92€) the least, with Canarias (42.56€) and Baleares (40.55€) also far below.) We "only" bought 29€ in tickets this year, mostly wanting to support our much beloved horno and local falla; but my mother-in-law regularly buys a ton because she's a school teacher, and thus embedded in a lot of social networks all peddling selling their number.

And when you watch the news the night of December 22nd, you understand why everyone participates. It's great! You get images of bars in small towns, or some business somewhere in Spain, where everyone shows up happy because they all pooled in on some lucky number. (To get a feel for it, watch this RTVE news clip from 2010.) Those interviewed will be crying, not only because they won, but also because all their closest friends and family, or their favorite bartender or baker (both important neighborhood institutions!) also won the winning prize. They'll invariably interview the lottery office or stand that sold the lucky ticket (such a boon for them), whose stand will most certainly display that fact next year and will also certainly have more customers in the future. And there will be all the commentary about the many superstitions and debates over why el Gordo does or does not fall more frequently in one region or another… Commentary over whether the prizes were "bien repartidos" (well distributed) throughout Spain. (In 2007 and 2010, for example, there was, whereas in 2009 the big prize fell all in Madrid.) Much like "el Clásico" between Barça and Real Madrid soccer teams, el Gordo is one of the much watched and much lived recurring events that becomes _the_ big happening in Spain for a few days, the thing everyone is talking about.

Nope, she didn't win el Gordo. She sold it. But this propietaria of an official lottery shop
 has good reason to be happy. She can display these signs, which will ensure
she has regular traffic from superstitious customers in the years to come

Cava is a must for celebrating your lottery win. Here is bar owner and winner of
"el Gordo" in 2010, seen surrounded by his customers in a modest town of Barcelona,
many of whom are also winners since they purchased tickets from him.

And then by Christmas Eve it all quiets down again. The winners are settling into their new wealth, while the rest of us are distracted from our bad luck this year by all the gifts we are now eager to open. But wait! Then there is _another_ major lottery: el Niño… the special lottery held on January 6th, i.e. "el Día de los Reyes Magos". And, while by no means as big an affair as el Gordo, is widely followed, too. And even once the special lottery season has passed, and people are steeped in "rebajas" season shopping, there are the many other routine lotteries that Spaniards can't seem to get enough of. And on it goes.

So Spain is a lottery-crazed country. While I pass on most of the other ones, this lottery, el Gordo, is special.


An American Spaniard said...

At 9:57AM, during the "tabla dos", they sung el Gordo: 58,268. Someone is very happy in Huesca.

Tumbit said...

Did you have any luck ? I understand that Valencia was the luckiest region by some way - although my 3 decimas came nowhere close.

An American Spaniard said...

No luck whatsoever, not even a reintegro. Valencia did do alright this year, and it was nice to hear about the lottery being "bien repartido" all throughout Spain. It was fun to see Manises (winner of el segundo) in the news... it's home to some of my favorite azulejos and ceramics artisans. I hope none of them retire!

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