19 December 2011

When the Fat Man Sings

The Spanish are avid gamblers.  They will bet on anything from backstreet cock-fights to Premier League football, and spend more of their income on betting than almost any other country - around 15%, an average of €480 per person, totalling €1.9 billion a year.  Nothing as trivial as an international financial crisis puts them off.  Maybe it's some sort of Catholic fatalism; it is often observed that Spaniards believe their destiny is shaped by luck rather than by careful planning (although the Germans spend almost as much, which would seem to quash that theory).

While some forms of gambling are outside the law, the State is in control of the most popular form, the Lotería Nacional. Tickets are sold at face value at official outlets of Loterias y Apuestas del Estado (ours is on the Calle Real), or via street-vendors who get 10% commission.  A recent proposal to privatise part of the operation was abandoned after the government realised that the €7 billion windfall they would have got from the sale would be a poor deal compared to the almost €3 billion a year it brings into the Treasury. You don´t kill a cash-cow like that for a nice bit of steak.

Other lotteries are organised by ONCE, the Spanish organisation for the blind and partially sighted. The ticket is known as a cupón, and there are daily draws as well as scratch cards (Rasca y Gana) for instant gratification. The cupones are sold by sight-impaired or otherwise handicapped vendors, for whom it provides a regular income, either on the street or at official kiosks. If you stop for a copa at any of the bars in Alcalá you will soon see one of the town´s three regular vendors.

But the world´s biggest lottery is the Sorteo de Navidad, known as El Gordo (the fat one).  It is held on 22 December each year, and people sit glued to the TV all morning watching the bolas tumbling from from giant golden cages, and listening to the winning numbers being sung out by the children of the San Ildifonso school in Madrid.

El Gordo was first held on 18 December 1812, in Cádiz. The first prize was 8,000 pesos fuertes and the tickets cost 40 reales. These days, tickets go on sale at the beginning of September and are sold out well before Christmas. They cost €200 and are split into décimos, or tenths. Bars, clubs, places of work, charities and many other groups will buy tickets and sell décimos or even smaller units, adding a small commission for their local Good Cause. We bought our décimo this year at Dominguitos bar for €23, of which €3 goes towards kit for Alcalá´s various junior football clubs.

Seventy percent of the takings (an estimated €3.3 billion) will be paid out in prizes, with around 8% going on administration costs and the rest to the Treasury. This year the top prize will be €4 million, i.e. €400,000 per décimo. There are thousands of smaller prices and the odds of winning something are one in six.

Buying a lottery ticket in Madrid, 1929

El Gordo has its own website and there are several villages in Spain that regularly sell winning tickets. One is the tiny Pyrenean village of Sort (meaning ‘luck’ in Catalan), where coachloads of hopeful ticket-buyers flock every autumn.

Winning numbers are published in newspapers on 23 December and posted in lottery offices for three months following the draw. Winners must claim their money as they aren’t notified automatically (unclaimed cash goes back to the State). If you win a big prize you can take your ticket to a Spanish bank, which gives you a receipt and collects your winnings on your behalf.

And if you don't make it lucky in El Gordo, Spain’s second-largest lottery, El Niño (named after the baby Jesus) takes place two weeks later on 5th January ....

¡Buena suerte!

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