Know When To Fold ‘Em

November 2, 2007

Since I live in a city with a population greater than five people there’s a local lottery. It’s a really cool thing. Every once in a while the jackpot will go up to some ridiculous number like three-hundred and fifty-eight bazillion dollars, and I’ll think, "Hey, imagine what I could do if I won that!" And then I remember that I didn’t buy a ticket. That’s the trouble with these games: there’s always some technicality. Someone also always reminds me that, after taxes, I won’t really have won three-hundred and fifty-eight bazillion dollars, but I don’t mind. I could still do a lot with a hundred bucks.

But I digress. Up until recently the lottery system was pretty low-tech: there were a bunch of ping-pong balls in plastic containers and air was pumped into the containers that made the balls jump around like a bunch of nine-year olds on Halloween. It was kind of fun to watch. An announcer in a tuxedo would stand next to them and say things like, "Okay, here’s the next number, is that a nine or a six? Let me put my glasses on. Oh, it’s twenty-seven." Then they got rid of the ping-pong balls and the containers and the announcer and replaced the whole thing with a computer program. According to the lottery people this changed saved them over five million dollars, which tells me they were paying the announcer way too much. Did he get a new tuxedo every night? And where were they buying their ping-pong balls? The funny thing is they were saving even more than that when they discovered there was a glitch in the computer system that prevented certain number combinations from coming up. I’m pretty sure they spent the five-million dollars they were saving on a thorough check of the program because there was one character missing in one line that fouled up the whole thing. But, hey, them’s the breaks.

It’s gambling, which means there are risks involved. If I’m playing blackjack and discover that the dealer’s shoe is missing the deuce of spades, that’ll teach me not to mortgage my house just to keep playing. The really funny thing is the lottery administrators are now talking about trying to restore peoples’ faith in the lottery. Did anyone have faith in the lottery to begin with? Maybe I’m hanging out with the wrong people, but most people I know have faith in religion or justice or ping-pong balls, things that are abstract and intangible, things we generally can’t be certain about but which we hope will work in our favor. If they want to restore faith in the lottery system maybe they could go back to the low-tech system and give that poor announcer guy his job back. He’s probably out wandering the streets right now in a frayed tuxedo carrying a sign that says, "Will narrate for food." If they insist on continuing to use a computer they should hook all the tickets up to the computer system so if you choose a number combination the system won’t generate a little window will pop up that says, "Your ticket has encountered an error and needs to close. Do you want to send a report?" I get those windows on my computer all the time, and I used to say "Yes" but then I realized that my chances of ever getting the problem fixed were about the same as my chances of winning the lottery.

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