“But the Game Never Ends When Your Whole World Depends on the Turn of a Friendly Card”

Along with the recent deaths of Natalie Cole, David Bowie, and Alan Rickman, the topic that seemed to be trending the most on Facebook and Twitter last week was the Powerball.  The prize climbed all the way to $1.2 billion, the highest ever.  My fellow workers talked about it endlessly, and they finally got around to suggesting that I buy a ticket.

I have never been a gambler.  With my previous abuse of alcohol, and my current ongoing overconsumption of caffeine, gambling is a switch that I am very wary of throwing.  There is also a genetic component to it–both my parents were alcoholics, and my mother was addicted to pain medication for much of the last 40 years of her life.

I yielded to temptation and bought a single ticket in the little store in the Nationwide Atrium where I buy Snapple and fruit or yogurt before starting the work day.  One of my fellow employees was sure that I would be the legendary person who never plays the lottery, buys a single ticket, and wins big.

Indeed, it was the first lottery ticket I had bought since Susie was an infant.  I had bought one shortly after my 18th birthday, more because I now could than out of any desire to win.

On one occasion, I returned from lunch and someone (to this day I do not know who) left a lottery scratch-off card and a quarter on my keyboard.  (I didn’t win.)

Like anyone else, I fantasized about what I would do with an uncountably high bank balance.  My job with the State of Ohio (and my seasonal job at the Columbus State bookstore) provides me with a decent living.  I am not wealthy, but neither am I sweating blood from one week to the next wondering how I am going to pay rent or keep the electricity and gas turned on here.  That said, I knew that, if nothing else, I was buying a ticket to participate in the biggest lottery drawing in American history.  And there was no way to win without buying a ticket.

As it says on Comedy Central‘s joke-sharing Website:

John, who was in financial difficulty, walked into a church and started to pray. “Listen, God,” John said. “I know I haven’t been perfect but I really need to win the lottery. I don’t have a lot of money. Please help me out.” He left the church, a week went by, and he hadn’t won the lottery, so he walked into a synagogue. “Come on, God,” he said. “I really need this money. My mom needs surgery and I have bills to pay. Please let me win the lottery.” He left the synagogue, a week went by, and he didn’t win the lottery. So, he went to a mosque and started to pray again. “You’re starting to disappoint me, God,” he said. “I’ve prayed and prayed. If you just let me win the lottery, I’ll be a better person. I don’t have to win the jackpot, just enough to get me out of debt. I’ll give some to charity, even. Just let me win the lottery.” John thought this did it, so he got up and walked outside.

The clouds opened up and a booming voice said, “John, buy a fucking lottery ticket.”

I have always been pretty much a small-L libertarian on the subject of gambling–your money, you can waste it any way you see fit.  That being said, I am well aware of the negative results that gambling brings in its wake.  A dear friend of mine from Ohio University, with whom I have remained in constant contact in the nearly 30 years since we left Athens in separate directions, constantly worries about her brother-in-law’s endless gambling, where sprees at the casino take priority over household expenses, including his daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah and plans for college.  I told her the gambler’s credo: He is sure that he can pay for all this once he gets the next big win, which is always just around the corner.

And even if that big win came, it would only be a harbinger of an even bigger win.  The title of this entry is a line from the title cut of The Alan Parsons Project’s 1980 album The Turn of a Friendly Card, the second half of which deals with the “unsmiling faces in fetters and chains on a wheel in perpetual motion.”  When I lived in Cincinnati, almost daily my bus took me through Over the Rhine, which was the city’s urban core and ghetto.  Almost every corner store sold “dream books” to help predict lottery numbers, and they sold as well as cigarettes, wine, and malt liquor.  (If I was gifted with the power to predict lottery winning numbers, I would not be as benevolent–I would hoard that talent exclusively for my own advantage.  As a popular Internet meme says, “You don’t see faith healers working in hospitals for the same reason you don’t see psychics winning the lottery.”)

I was 11 when the Ohio Lottery started in 1974, with a game called Buckeye 300.  The billboards were all over the place: “What if you won?”  I was too young to play, but I saw the tickets on sale at the grocery store and any other place where my dad bought cigarettes or candy.


One of the very first Ohio Lottery tickets.  Saw it on sale on eBay from a guy in Akron.

When I was living in the Columbus YMCA in 1986, I semi-regularly went to the Saturday night bingo games in the hot basement of the school across from Holy Family Catholic Church.  The only time I won was for about $40, but I rationalized it by knowing that my money was going to support the church’s clothes bank, food pantry, and soup kitchen.

In high school, two or three friends of mine, realizing we had little prowess at chess, became fascinated by backgammon.  (Until then, I thought the elongated triangles on the back of cardboard checkerboards were just decoration.)  We even devised ways to roll when dice weren’t available–using the stopwatches on the digital watches we wore, we would use the hundredths-of-a-second counters to determine dice rolls.  Later on, when I began criss-crossing the country going from one Unitarian Universalist youth event to another, I found many backgammon players in the groups.  To this day, I occasionally receive good-natured grief about the time I shook my cup of Coca-Cola and threw it all over the board, thinking it was a dice cup.

We all bought our own backgammon sets, and these including a doubling cube, used by gamblers to increase the stakes when playing for money.  None of us had any money, and we didn’t want to play for the lint in our pockets, so we kept upping the ante with more and more idiotic stakes.  The loser had to come to school Monday carrying a set of golf clubs.  (The worst that happened to me was having to come to school in a coat and tie, carrying a brick.)

The closest I ever came to a gambling binge was during my 1987 spring break trip to San Francisco, which meant crossing Nevada.  In the Silver State, there were one-armed bandits in every convenience store, newspaper kiosk, and mom-and-pop store where the Greyhound stopped.  I spent about $.50 at every machine I saw (when in Rome), and was about $2 ahead by the time the bus crossed the California state line.

When I was working at Medco Health Solutions, I was a steward and recording secretary for the union, and I ran unsuccessfully to go as a delegate to a union convention in Pahrump, Nev., an hour from Las Vegas.  Steph and I sat down and agreed on some ground rules regarding gambling if I was going to go.  We agreed to a $20 limit, period.  If I won a six-digit prize, or whether I didn’t win a cent, that was it.  I would keep an extra $20 bill folded in my wallet set aside for gambling, and when that was gone, so was the gambling.

Maybe there was some divine sign that I was not meant to be a gambler.  The day I bought the ticket for the paltry $98 million prize, I went to the ATM machine in Three Nationwide Plaza to withdraw cash for the ticket.  I got the cash, and bought the ticket.  Later that night, I realized I had left the card in the ATM machine.  So, I had to spend Saturday morning going to my credit union’s branch in Grove City to apply for a new card, which, after over a week, has yet to arrive in the mail.  The inconvenience of daily lunchtime trips to the credit union to withdraw walking-around cash, and the impatience of waiting for the new card to arrive (equally frustrating because Monday there will be no mail delivery, because of the Martin Luther King holiday), and the inability to order anything online, never would have come to pass if I had opted against buying the ticket.

George Orwell died in 1950, but in the pages of his novels, he has proved himself to be as much a prophet as any we read about in Sunday school.  In 1984, he has very eloquently described the people who clogged the cash register lines for this (and every) Powerball drawing:

The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made their living simply by selling systems, forecasts, and lucky amulets. Winston had nothing to do with the Lottery, which was managed by the Ministry of Plenty, but he was aware (indeed everyone in the party was aware) that the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being nonexistent persons.

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