Gamblers don't always lose, as we can see watching the contestants on the World Series of Poker. In a game of bluff and counterbluff, you can win with seven high — but lose with four of a kind. That's up to you, because there's skill involved.
But winning today's $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot has nothing to do with luck or skill. Powerball is an ingenious, government-run scam, one that may never be eclipsed in audacity or profitability.
Compared to the architects of Powerball, Bernie Madoff is a small-time con artist. Madoff scammed a few hundred rich people, while Powerball fleeces tens of millions. If you've ever bought a ticket, justifying the purchase by saying, "Well, someone has to win and it won't be me unless I'm in the game," congratulations! You just joined me and millions of other suckers in falling for the con game.
New York club owner Texas Guinan (the Chelsea Handler of her time) famously said, "Never give a sucker an even break." That simple philosophy created Powerball, a numbers game descended from the mob-sponsored games that flourished in American cities until the 1970s.
Like the Colorado Lottery's Pick Three games, bettors on numbers run by the mob chose three numbers. The last three digits of "the handle" usually determined the winning numbers — the amount racetrack bettors placed on raceday at Belmont Park or another major racetrack. The tax-free payoff on a $1 bet: $600.
State lotteries have long since replaced the mob, offering legality, convenience and lower payouts. Your $1 bet can win $500, not so generous when you figure that the odds of winning are 1,000 to 1.
The odds are much better in Cripple Creek, especially on video poker. A typical quarter machine will return a little over 97 percent, but by looking carefully at the payout tables you'll find a few machines in each casino with payout ratios as high as 99.54 percent. If you have a reasonable bankroll and can play long enough to hit a royal flush, you'll come out ahead — and if not, you'll at least lose slowly.
But Powerball, despite its billion-dollar allure, offers terrible odds. Your chance of winning today's mega-jackpot: 1 in 292,201,338.00. That's not significantly different from your odds of finding the winning ticket blowing down Tejon Street this afternoon.
When the game was created in 1992, the odds of winning the big one were 1 in 54,979,154. Those were awful odds, but the game's canny promoters soon realized that the suckers loved big jackpots. Unlike serious gamblers, they didn't care about odds — they just wanted, as the song says, to "dream a little dream of me." So the odds were tweaked eight different times, raising them higher and higher, corraling millions of new marks.
The most recent tweak, in October 2015, raised the odds from 1 in 175,223,510 to their current level. The change was designed to create the billion-dollar golden fleece of jackpots, one that would turn every sentient American into a sucker.
Sure, it's fun. But at the risk of being a party pooper, is running a gigantic gambling scam an appropriate role for government? Historically, governments have regarded gambling and gamblers with suspicion, and sought to advance the values of hard work and thrift.
Forget all that stuff. As Colorado Lottery boss Laura Solano wrote in a Friday email, "Wow!! A $900M grand prize tonight. Please let there be a Colorado winner!!"
As Ms. Solano well understands, there will definitely be a Colorado winner — the state government. The bigger the payout, the more play ... and the house always wins.
Today's lottery Dons, like the mafia bosses who preceded them, are happy to reinforce and exploit our greed and ignorance.
But so what? Gambling is in our blood. Each of us is the product of one lucky sperm among millions. Our lives are shaped by chance and coincidence, our fates random and unpredictable. A few bucks for a chance to dream our dreams, and take the yellow brick road to riches ... why not?
Get real, people! There is no yellow brick road, there is no billion-dollar jackpot, there are no riches — because I'm going to win.
As Shel Silverstein once said, maybe someday the rest of you can go to Detroit.