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Crisis-hit Spaniards pin hopes on world’s biggest lottery

By Sinikka Tarvainen

MADRID — Spaniards impoverished by the economic crisis are pinning their hopes on the world’s biggest lottery, which will shower prizes worth a total of $3.3 billion on Thursday.

“People are really in need of money and, at this stage, they only trust luck to come out of the crisis,” a lottery saleswoman said in the eastern city of Castellon.

The Christmas lottery, which will mark its 200th anniversary next year, is best known for its jackpot — El Gordo or “The Fat One.”

This year’s lottery will award 180 El Gordo prizes worth $5.2 million each, one million more than in 2010.

It is rare for anyone to win the entire jackpot, since few people can afford an entire ticket costing $260. Most people purchase one-tenth of a ticket for $26.

Spain’s more than 20 percent unemployment rate — the European Union’s highest — has degraded the living conditions of millions of people. Hundreds of thousands are unable to pay their mortgages, and queues in front of charity canteens are growing longer.

In such circumstances, it might seem to make little sense to spend one’s scarce money on a lottery ticket. The chances of winning anything at all are only 5.3 percent, mathematics professor Miguel Cordoba Bueno calculated.

Nevertheless, “sometimes it happens during an (economic) crisis that spending on lottery does not go down as much as spending on other things,” sociologist and lottery expert Roberto Garvia said.

Many Spaniards prefer to give up other things in order to take part in the Christmas lottery, which has become a tradition comparable to seasonal dishes or the Christmas tree.

The lottery creates more unity among family members or colleagues pooling money to buy tickets.

They then stay glued to television sets, while children from a Madrid school of orphans sing the winning numbers during the hours-long draw.

The lottery supplies the nation with fleeting images of happiness as winners shower one another with champagne.

The Christmas lottery is also known in other European countries and as far away as Asia, where people purchase tickets over the Internet.

“This year, there are more queues than ever,” said Xavier Gabriel, whose lottery shop in the northern village of Sort (“luck” in Catalan) is famous for having sold many lucky numbers.

More people are buying tickets than last year, ticket sellers say. However, they are spending less than in 2010. That will keep the state’s Christmas lottery income going down, as it has done annually since the beginning of the global crisis.

“Mathematically, the best option is not to play,” mathematician David Martin de Diego said.

That does not deter the likes of Ana, a Madrid journalist and Christmas lottery enthusiast who dreams of being able to spend “10 years without working.”

Spaniards are among the world’s keenest gamblers. In 2010, they spent more than $35 billion on lotteries, fruit machines or casinos with what some see as a mentality prone to magical thinking and risk-taking.

“Sometimes I have thought that all the superstitions concerning (lucky) lottery numbers are related to the meager scientific tradition in Spain and particularly to a lack of appreciation for mathematics,” Martin de Diego told the daily ABC.

This year’s favorite Christmas lottery numbers include the dates of the wedding of the 85-year-old Duchess of Alba; of the announcement by the Basque separatist group ETA that it was ending its 43-year armed campaign; and the date of an earthquake that killed 11 people in the southern town of Lorca.

Disaster dates can also be lucky dates, because misfortune is followed by luck, the reasoning goes.

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