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Literature

Scratching the surface

Sweeney’s Wars comes up short at making the lottery a compelling topic

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Rick Lax

Every year, Americans spend $50 billion playing the lottery. I spent $25 on Matthew Sweeney’s book The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution, but I wish I’d spent it on instant-win scratch tickets instead. Sweeney is an engaging writer, but he made several journalistic missteps and picked an ultimately dull subject: the history of the American lottery.

The Continental Congress used lottery profits to fund George Washington’s army, and Benjamin Franklin organized a lottery to fund the defense of Philadelphia against a feared French invasion. Today, states use lottery profits to fund bridges, prisons and universities. Simply put: People don’t like paying taxes, but do like playing the lottery. Especially poor people. “Games of blind chance,” writes Sweeney, “in which everyone faces the same odds, had a strong appeal among all groups, particularly the lower-income and working classes, who had a chance at upward mobility that they would otherwise have little expectation of ever seeing.”

The Details

The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution
Two stars
Matthew Sweeney
Bloomsbury USA, $25
Amazon: The Lottery Wars

It didn’t surprise me that the history of the lottery has been riddled with tales of fraud (what major government operation isn’t?); what did surprise me was that the mechanics of lotto fraud are as dull as the mechanics of accounting fraud. Except for a single incident involving baby powder-filled ping-pong balls, most lotto fraud is the same ol’ lobbyist-bribes-congressperson/congressperson-awards-contracts tale you’ve heard 10,000 times before.

Another complaint: Sweeney repeats information and doesn’t realize he’s doing it. For example, on Page 123, Sweeney writes, “Two giants virtually run the American lottery system … GTECH and Scientific Games. GTECH is the larger company … While GTECH dominates the online numbers games of daily and weekly drawings … its competitor, Scientific Games, has scratch tickets covered.” And then, just 27 pages later, Sweeney writes, “The two biggest in the United States are GTECH and Scientific Games. GTECH dominates the lotto and number-picking games … Scientific Games controls the scratch-ticket market in most states … GTECH is easily the bigger of the two.”

Yet another complaint: Sweeney allows several inconsistencies to go unaddressed. For example, on Page 9, he says that “more than half of the country buys a lottery ticket or scratch card at one time or another,” and then, just two pages later, he says, “More than half of Americans say they ‘strongly disapprove of gambling.’” I wish Sweeney had addressed whether the country is filled with hypocrites or whether Americans simply don’t consider playing the lottery to be “gambling.”

If you’re planning on attending a trivia-buff cocktail party any time soon, here are three entertaining factoids from Sweeney’s book with which you can arm yourself: 1) The government used to have blind people draw lottery numbers to stave off charges of impropriety. 2) P. T. Barnum’s grandfather, who managed a $2.50 lottery, had the most awkward nickname in the history of nicknames: “Old Two Dollars and Fifty Cents.” 3) The first Puritan lottery opponents were a father-and-son team named Increase and Cotton Mather.

Now commit those facts to memory, take the $25 you were going to spend on The Lottery Wars, drive to California and buy yourself a couple of instant-win scratch tickets. As they say in Connecticut, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

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