Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Instant Games

“Congratulations!”

So said the grocery store manager or assistant manager or whoever it was manning the front counter. I had brought him a winning lottery ticket to redeem, and as he handed me my bounty -- a cool five bucks -- he was concluding our transaction with that one-word acknowledgment of my good fortune.

As I walked away, I realized how jarring his declaration had seemed. It failed to resonate with the usual “have-a-good-day”-style parting phrases I’d usually hear when departing the store, the goodbyes often additionally containing some form of thanks for my having shopped there. Something about the situation faintly echoed the feeling of cashing out chips after a session of poker, although there, too, it didn’t exactly fit as in that spot cashiers normally refrain from such felicitous statements, not knowing (usually) whether the customer has won or lost.

I wasn’t leaving the store, actually, as I needed to pick up a couple of items (light bulbs, milk) the cost of which would exceed my winnings. I slid the bill into my front pocket, mentally noting how I wouldn’t use it to make my purchase. I’d use a debit card instead, and hold onto the cash. My winnings.

As I passed through the aisles, I continued to meditate on my lottery experience.

I almost never play the lottery. Amid the “Mega Madness” from last spring I did end up buying two $1 tickets, one for myself and one for Vera. Neither ticket had won anything.

If you recall, that was when the prize for the multi-state Mega Millions lottery was being advertised as having ballooned up over $600 million (a record), and by the end the total was something like $656 million. Three winning tickets were ultimately sold for that one, with all three winners ultimately taking the “cash option” (i.e., getting paid all at once rather than in installments) and thus would split a total of $474 million.

So I can’t really say I’ve never played. And in this instance, I hadn’t even bought the ticket, but rather had been given it as a Christmas gift. It was a holiday-themed scratch-off game -- an “instant game” -- for which the largest possible prize was $100K and the lowest was $5. The overall odds for winning any prize were 1 in 3.97. As a poker player, I know better than to want to get my money in with those odds.

The price of the game had been $5, in fact, so I had won back the cost of the ticket. In other words, if my brother (who’d given me the ticket) had just given me five bucks as a gift, it would’ve worked out exactly the same.

Then again, by giving me the ticket he did give me something more than the cash I’d won. There was the mild anticipatory excitement that came with scratching off the little pictures of gift boxes to see if I’d won, plus another small bit of pleasure that came from actually winning even the smallest possible prize. Then came still more fun from later sharing the story of the ticket -- as mundane as it was -- with my brother and a few others.

“I won the lottery,” I had joked with Vera and others. “I am a winner!” And while the fellow at the grocery store was being sincere with his congratulations, there was something kind of tongue-in-cheek about it all, too, in his acknowledgment of my having successfully broken even on the game.

The process of cashing the ticket was a novel one for me, too, and I’m tempted to add that experience to the list of items that perhaps “enriched” the gift further for me (so to speak). Never having cashed one before, I had approached the counter with some sort of tentative, questioning address -- “Can I cash this here?” -- and was met with a nod and a swiftly-handled conversion of my piece of cardboard into a fiver.

During the brief period in between, I looked upon the other “games” available to “play,” that is, the other “instant games” people can purchase. I can’t help but use scare quotes, perhaps betraying my own, personal definition of a game as something that requires elements that in this case are not present (e.g., competition, skill or strength, etc.). There were about 15 varieties from which to choose. Looking on the North Carolina Education Lottery site, I see that in all there are more than 70 different “instant games” currently being offered, with tickets costing from $1 to $20.

There’s no legalized poker in the state, other than what’s being spread at a few tables up at Harrah’s Cherokee in the mountains. (There’s actually going to be a WSOP Circuit event there in April, a first for North Carolina.) Nor is there really much in the way of other (legal) forms of gambling, either, outside of the usual games in that casino. But the lottery is everywhere here in North Carolina. And in 42 other states and the District of Columbia, too.

And it’s so easy.

It was that latter thought that carried me through the rest of my visit to the grocery store -- the ease with which one can play the lottery, and how utterly trivial the process is by which one can win or lose money this way. I passed by the front desk as I left, moving toward the exit and into the path of the electric eye that would trigger the doors opening for me. There was a vending machine full of lottery tickets sitting just to the left of the doors, kind of resembling an oversized slot machine.

I realized the effort needed to pull that five-dollar bill from my front pocket and slide it into the inviting slot would be only slightly more than what was required of me to make the doors open. Just another small step, really.

But I resisted. I kept walking. Do I deserve congratulations? I don’t even know.

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