Powerball Madness

all's fair in love, war, and lotto

I live in Greenwich, Ct, a fairly peaceful little place on the beach with the dubious distinction of having the most country clubs per capita in the US. It's the first town over the border from New York, only an hour's commute by train or car to New York City, so plenty of people with the means choose to live there.

Unfortunately for its residents, it's also where all the New Yorkers choose to stop for Powerball tickets.

A little background: Powerball is a multi-state lottery whose tickets cost a dollar. The buyer (or a machine, if you prefer) picks five numbers - four plus one powerball number. Drawings are held every so often, and if you match up all five numbers, you win the jackpot. If you match the Powerball number, you get three bucks. Various combinations win other prizes, I believe.

The trouble with Powerball is, the jackpots tend to get huge - nobody wins for two or three drawings, and by the fourth one the pot is up to a cool two hundred million dollars. Yikes. And since only a select few states sell Powerball tickets, Connecticut being one and New York not being one, those form the non-selling states hop onto trains and into cars and flood into the selling states. Traffic builds, lines grow, and people get cranky. And, of course, because Greenwich is the first town over the border, everyone has the bright idea that they can shorten their trip by stopping as soon as they cross the border. However, since everyone has this same bright idea, the lines in Greenwich stretch to four hours long, the streets are clogged with cars, the highway is at a standstill, and Greenwichites quickly learn the foolishness of venturing outside.

If these people took a minute to think about the near future of ticket buying rather than the far future of money winning, they might realize that this would happen. They might also realize that they could save themselves hours of waiting by driving a few more exits to, say, Norwalk. It would take less time to drive the extra few miles, buy tickets, and drive home than it would to get to in the doorway of the store in Greenwich. Then again, these people are willing to stand a fifth of a day in line for a 1 in 80,000,000 chance at big money. The lottery certainly is, as the saying goes, a tax on people who are bad at math.

We were initiated into Powerball hell in early summer - May, I think - when the jackpot hit its first high. The instant flood of New Yorkers caught us off guard. They were louder and messier than we, and generally not what we were used to seeing in Greenwich, town of the happy facade. Bad as downtown traffic usually is, this was far worse. The litter was awful (and the trash cans were overflowing), the police were working overtime, and the frazzled storekeepers had to hire extra help just to run the Powerball ticket machine. At fifteen cents profit per ticket, that's not exactly a great financial move. But what choice did they have? If they didn't, they'd lose all their regular customers.

Some resourceful souls started selling maps and directions to Powerball-friendly stores slightly off the beaten path, where the lines were perhaps only an hour long. Others who worked in CT but lived in NY bought hundreds of tickets, then brought them home and sold them for $5 a piece. Hey, an 80% profit isn't a bad deal, all in all.

After the first wave, we sat back and breathed a collective sigh of releif. We could once again buy our groceries unhindered, visit the mall without hitting insane highway traffic... in short, life returned to normal.

Our respite, however, was brief. A couple months later, the fever struck again. A jackpot well over $100,000,000 brought the ticket- buyers streaming back in. The highway turned into a parking lot once again - I took to changing my clothes, eating meals, and having conversations with perfect strangers while commuting between exits seven and five. The traffic in town, however, was slightly better - perhaps people learned from the first time around, or maybe it had something to do with the state troopers waving people past the Greenwich exits. Move along, folks.

At any rate, the lines still oozed down the streets for blocks - hours worth of people just waiting. Crowding into gas stations so thick we couldn't even pull in to get gas. I used to point and laugh at people standing in line, or say things like, "You have a better chance of dying in line to buy tickets than you do of winning." I stopped doing that after one of my friends - a rather tall, male friend - nearly got beat up by a disgruntled, burly Powerballer for no discernable reason. Things were getting out of hand. We all waited impatiently for the Saturday night drawing.

Sunday morning, driving to the train station, I was relieved to see only scattered litter and yellow police tape where a line had been the night before. Excellent! Then I rounded a corner and saw a gaggle of people standing on the sidewalk. Not too many yet, but already swelling down the block and stretching the ribbons of "Police Line Do Not Cross" strung around parking meters and traffic cones. D'oh - the next drawing wasn't until Wednesday. I started counting down the days once again.

In light of these recent events, I'd like to propose a plan to alleviate some of the stresses that Powerball imposes on the whole system. Because it costs the state and local governments - and therefore, the taxpayers - so much money to deal with the Powerballers, the running of all lotteries should be turned over to those authorities. The money earned - and those things earn cash - would then benefit the citizens of the states and towns selling the tickets: the same people whose towns became overcrowded, noisy, littered with all manner of garbage, and overrun by rude people. Because of the profitability of this venture, other states and towns would be likely to subscribe to the idea. This would result in fewer people rushing to the states with large jackpots. Alternatively, states could make local citizenship a condition of winning, ensuring that no money-hungry neighbors would pack their streets and overload ticket sellers.

And to what use could this extra money be put? Toward education, of course. We could use it to teach our children basic math skills, so that they won't become the next generation of Powerball hopefuls, forever waiting on that one-in-eighty-million chance.


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this page by sparky ( kumquat37@hotmail.com )
written 08/13/98