American in Spain

El Gordo and the Spanish Christmas Lottery

December 22, 2008

lottery ticketToday is a big day in Spain. It's the drawing for the Spanish Christmas Lottery. For months, people have been buying tickets throughout the country in hopes of winning big this holiday season. The Christmas lottery is not like most lotteries. Each number, 00001 to 85000, has 180 "series", and each of the series is divided into 10 "décimas". Each of the tickets you can buy is a décima, and they are sold for 20€ each. That is a grand total, if all the tickets are sold, of 3,060,000,000 euros! The government takes their cool 30% (91.8 millon) cut, and 2.142 billion euros are left for prize money.

What makes the Christmas lottery so interesting, and also so difficult for the human brain to calculate the probabilities, is that the tickets for any given number are all sold in the same establishment or set of establishments. So if number 12,345 wins a prize, all that prize money goes to the patrons of one particular bar, restaurant, or gas station. On recent news coverage, they were showing people queuing in long lines early in the morning to buy tickets from various places around the country. I'm not sure why; maybe they are thought to be lucky locations? Anyway, the newscaster mentioned that the Christmas Lottery is the biggest lottery of the year, with the most participants and the worst probabilities of winning. I have not done any follow-up calculations to confirm this.

El Gordo and the other prizes

The principal prizes are as follows:

  1. One 1st Prize - 3,000,000€ (El Gordo!)
  2. One 2nd Prize - 1,000,000€
  3. One 3rd Prize - 500,000€
  4. Two 4th Prizes - 200,000€
  5. Eight 5th Prizes - 50,000€
  6. 1,774 6th prizes of 1,000€

These prizes are what is awarded to each series. So if you win first prize, that 20€_décima_ ticket you bought is worth 300,000€. There are other secondary prizes based on the adjacent numbers to and numbers sharing digits with the winning numbers as well. One thing that confuses foreigners, myself included, is that the term El Gordo (literally: The Fat One) refers to the first prize, and not the Christmas Lottery itself.

Traveling, Trading and Gifting Tickets

Because of the clustered distribution of the lottery numbers, when you travel to another town in Spain, they have completely separate numbers from the establishments in your home town. The result is that people try not to miss an opportunity to buy a ticket or two when they travel to another town, thus infinitesimally increasing their chances of winning. People also trade tickets with people they know in other towns. And when people are traveling in another town, they aren't so selfish as to buy one ticket, they often take advantage of their displacement to buy several to give to close family members back home. Personally, I'd rather be given anything worth 2€ than a 20€ lottery ticket that is most likely worthless. But that's just me.

The Drawing

Every year, on the morning of December 22, the Spanish Christmas lottery drawing is held. The entire country turns on the television or radio and listens to junior high school students "sing" each prize and number pair as they are simultaneously drawn from huge spinning metal spheres. Since you never know when El Gordo will pop out, it's hard not to listen to every single number they call out. It makes for some really monotonous television. Remember, there are 1,787 5-digit numbers and quantities to be read out, 1,774 of the quantities are 1,000€. Terribly boring and riveting at the same time.

Here is a bit of the morning's television coverage I've recorded. I think you can see how horribly monotonous it is. If you can stand it until the end, you can see the cages spin. The announcer mentions how, after the drawing, the little boxes with wires pairing the balls are double-checked, and then displayed for the public to come see that they really won or lost. I remind you that there are hours and hours of this.

The Social Aspect

What makes the Spanish Christmas Lottery so successful is the social nature of the event. Chances are very good that everyone at your job or bar where you are following the drawing has at least one ticket with the same number as you. The result is a camaraderie similar to what you get when watching a sporting match together. You share the triumph and anguish with your companions. This, I think, is the main reason why so many people play the Christmas lottery. It's all the excitement of a regular lottery, but shared with your friends and family in your community. Absolute genius on the part of the lottery creators.

Wherever "the fat one drops" (they really say that) in Spain, there are, within minutes, television crews and champagne bottles flooding the neighborhood where the winning ticket was sold. All the residents come out into the streets and spray champagne on each other and the television records and broadcasts every minute of it. Imagine if everyone on your block won a half-million dollars from the government. How would people behave? Any Las Vegas hotelier knows that the first rule of casinos is making as large a racket as possible when someone wins to induce envy in everyone else.

The Spanish Christmas Lottery has been going on in Spain since 1812 – yes, that's almost two hundred years – and they have truly mastered their game.