Prized draws

America has gone Mega Millions crazy, with panic buying of lottery tickets and the attention of the world’s media. But the USA is not the only place to have massive jackpots or generous lotteries.

El Gordo and El Niño

If a Spanish friend asks whether you will be taking part in the ‘fat one’ or the ‘child’, they are hopefully referring to the Spanish state lottery. El Gordo and El Niño are the two biggest draws in the lottery, and take place just before Christmas and just after New Year respectively.

No other lottery quite matches these two draws for their combination of massive payouts, a two hundred year history and a wealth of curious traditions surrounding the draw. It is a national obsession, with a participation rate of 98% frequently quoted in the Spanish press (but a more realistic figure being around 75% of the population). In 2011, and despite (or, perhaps, because of) being in the grip of a financial crisis, Spaniards spent an average of €57 each on tickets.

With a prize pot of  over €2 billion, el Gordo distributes thousands of prizes each year – with just under 400 prizes of over  €1 million. The state is the biggest winner, taking 30% of the ticket sales and pocketing around €1 billion.

But perhaps the most curious feature of the lottery is the draw. The format has been the same since 1812 and hasn’t been affected by the development of radio and television. Each of the numbers is given its own small wooden ball and, along with tens of thousands of others, is placed in a giant sphere.

Each of the prizes is also given a ball, and 1,787 of these are placed in the smaller sphere. A number ball and a prize ball are plucked from the spheres at the same time, and those tickets bearing the winning number all win the corresponding prize. This alone would set it apart from most draws, but this is perhaps the sanest aspect of the whole circus.

The draw takes place in the grand hall of the Lotería Nacional in Madrid. Each of the winning numbers and prizes is sung by a pair of children from the  San Ildefonso School. All of this is broadcast on national television and radio, and, because of the sheer number of prize balls to get through, lasts up to three hours.

Euro Millions

The UK’s National Lottery’s highest ever jackpot was £42,008,610. This is not to be sniffed at, but pales into insignificance when compared to the highest ever Euro Millions jackpot. On 12 July 2011, the Euro Millions jackpot was a whopping £161,653,000.

Euro Millions was launched in 2004 as a transnational lottery between France’s Française des Jeux, Spain’s Loterías y Apuestas del Estado and the United Kingdom’s Camelot. It soon grew and now covers 12 European countries.

China Welfare Lottery’s Union Lotto

Whilst not as generous as the other lotteries profiled in this article, China’s Union Lotto is interesting for generating millionaires in an officially communist country. A record jackpot of 514 million yuan (US$79.8 million) was announced in July 2011.

Ticket holders need to pick a total of seven numbers from two separate pools of balls. One set of balls is red, the other blue, giving the lottery its unofficial nickname of the ‘two colour game’.

Tickets only cost two yuan each (about 30 cents or 20p), meaning that a flutter on the lottery is within reach of even the rural poor in China. Big winners will certainly feel lucky, but will also have to pay a fifth of their winnings to the state under windfall tax provisions.

Mega Millions

With a jackpot prize of $640 million, the USA’s Mega Millions lottery has grabbed plenty of media and popular attention. This vast, multi-state lottery now covers 42 states and the District of Colombia. This week’s top prize has resulted in a splurge of both spending on tickets and coverage in the media.

Mega Millions is a consortium of state lotteries, meaning that the receipts are spent on a variety of causes. Many states earmark their lottery funds for education, whilst others specify that it has to go to local authorities to be spent however they see fit.

Mega Millions started life as the Big Game in 1996 and became Mega Millions in 2002. It became a truly American lottery in 2010 when it expanded to cover 42 states. Ironically, one of the few states not taking part in this gambling frenzy is Nevada – home of Las Vegas. As a result, many Nevadans crossed the borders to buy tickets, leading to long queues in places such as Primm Valley, California.

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