Posts Tagged ‘gambling’

This week, we go back 60 years to the month, to find my grandpa breaking the law and probably getting fleeced at the same time.

Can’t beat that combo, can you?

From my grandfather's personal journal.

From my grandfather’s personal journal.

I have only the dimmest memory of ever hearing of the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake (yes, singular — Sweepstake).

Like Conelrad or the Chicago Cardinals, it’s a name from a generation or two before my own. I was apparently 13 when the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake ceased to exist, and I don’t recall taking any notice.

As its name indicates, the Sweepstake was a legal lottery in Ireland, established in 1930. It was promoted as a way to raise money for hospitals, with uniformed nurses — or women in nurses’ uniforms, anyway — drawing the winning tickets.

As the Interwebs explain it, winning tickets were then assigned to horses running in major races in Ireland. So it sounds like a contestant’s chances of hitting the jackpot depended not only on nurses, but horses as well.

It worked for some people: According to news reports, the lottery paid out $500 million in prize money over its half-century or so of life.

But those for whom the Sweepstake worked best were neither the nurses nor the ticket-buyers.

Reportedly, much of the money raised went into the pockets of the people who ran the lottery, with a relatively small percentage — I’ve seen 10 percent quoted — going to health care.

(Some sources say the people who profited re-invested in Irish business, creating jobs in other areas. That’s as may be, but that’s not what the people who bought tickets thought they were supporting.)

The Sweepstake also walked a questionable legal line. It targeted ticket-buyers in England and the United States, more affluent countries where substantial numbers of Irish expats lived — but where lotteries were generally illegal. The Wiki page on the Sweepstake characterizes those sales as a “black market,” and says the U.S. Postal Service destroyed lottery materials being mailed back to Ireland.

So I’ll never know whether the ticket bought jointly by the engineers at Time Inc.’s facility in Stamford even made it back to the auld sod. Since I know of no family legends regarding the Irish Sweeps, it seems safe to assume my grandpa and his cohorts did not win.

My grandpa’s penchant for playing the lottery has been a recurring theme here over the past few years, starting with this post.

And, lotteries like the one described in that post would help kill the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake. As state governments in the U.S. began to legalize lotteries, Americans abandoned the faraway temptations of the Irish Sweeps for closer, safer options at home.

(Which they still didn’t win.)

Bonus multimedia content: This 52-minute Irish TV program is a pretty fascinating history of the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake. Check it out, even in part.


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A little thematic music for all the mega-millions who didn’t win MegaMillions.

This week finds my grandfather doing something that seems at odds with his Teutonic personality:

Taking a mathematically indefensible risk.

Feb. 15, 1972.

The interwebs confirm that, indeed, Connecticut inaugurated its lottery the day after Valentine’s Day, 1972.

(Click the above link and scroll down to see the vintage Connecticut Lottery logo. I love it. Dig how it combines a venerable state symbol — the Charter Oak — with filthy lucre. I want a T-shirt with that logo on it. And a set of sideburns to match. And a Plymouth Fury.)

The initial prize that lured my grandpa and thousands of other players was a rousing $5,000, or about $27,000 in 2011 money. Those who won the $5,000 were eligible to win additional sums of up to $75,000 in a later drawing.

That doesn’t seem like much of a payout in these days of $640 million MegaMillions or $200 million Powerball jackpots.

It wasn’t that much by 1972 standards either. According to the New York Times archives, New York’s state lottery was already giving away $1 million top prizes, and New Jersey’s lottery stepped up to that level a week after Connecticut started selling tickets.

Still, according to the Times, ticket sellers in Connecticut did a brisk business. The official first tickets — 10 of them — were sold to a retired Bristol baker who had won $1 million in the New York lottery.

The next two were sold to Gov. Thomas Meskill, who expected the lottery program to add $4.6 million to the state’s coffers by June 30. (For the first week of the lottery, the state printed 3.5 million tickets — an ambitious total, since Connecticut had only about 3 million residents at the time.)

At some point during that first day of sales, one ticket was sold to a retired draftsman in the Springdale neighborhood of Stamford. This unassuming transaction probably took place at the newsstand where my grandpa picked up his daily papers, though that’s just a guess on my part.

I am guessing that my grandfather was lured into buying a ticket by sheer novelty, as I do not imagine him as much of a gambler at heart.

Though, who knows? The appeal of easy money is universal. Maybe my grandpa, however straitlaced he seemed, gave in to the allure and let his mind temporarily indulge itself. Perhaps he dreamed of a newer house with room for a big painting studio, or of the biggest, longest, plushest Ford that money could buy.

(I may be giving my grandpa too much credit. Perhaps he had a gambler’s soul deep underneath the upright German exterior. But I never heard him talk about gambling. And he did not pass the gambling habit to my dad, as gambling was not part of my household culture growing up. So I am presuming that the gambler’s urge is not native to the Blumenau family, and that my grandpa had no more than a casual interest in the lottery.)

I am charmed by the idea that my grandfather was willing to buy one ticket — but only one. Heck, even Charlie Bucket bought two candy bars en route to getting a Golden Ticket. My grandpa’s resistance was worn down, but only so far.

The cost of a ticket might have been why my grandfather stopped at one. The 50 cents it cost to buy a lottery ticket in February 1972 would have the same buying power as $2.71 today. As I’ve mentioned, my grandfather was fairly recently retired at that time, and maybe he didn’t feel comfortable shelling out for a fistful of chances.

So, did my grandpa hit the right five digits? I think you know the answer, but I’ll provide it anyway:

Feb. 24, 1972.

Twenty-one people had their number picked in that first drawing. None of them were my grandpa. At least none of them were the governor, either. That would have been kinda weak.

Fast-forward 40 years, and the Connecticut Lottery seems to have fulfilled the financial dreams of Gov. Meskill and its other founding supporters. It racked up almost $1 billion in sales and returned $285 million to the state’s general fund in fiscal 2010. That’s a good chunk of change when you consider that Connecticut gamblers can also take their cash to casinos, an option they didn’t have in 1972.

No doubt there are many in the state who now buy a ticket regularly, and who have made their daily flirtation with Big Money an ingrained part of their lives.

But I’m sure the lottery also draws a solid share of support from people like my grandfather — people who don’t buy every day, but still occasionally hear the siren song of easy money just a few simple numbers away.

I work with a few of those people here in Pennsylvania, and last Friday they took up a collection for a group purchase of MegaMillions tickets. Suffice it to say we are all back at work this morning.

As I think of my grandfather springing for a shiny-new Connecticut Lottery ticket with similarly high hopes, I tell myself I am at least in good company.

March 30, 2012.

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