Fever for fat one

April 24, 1998

The National Lottery has made awards worth Pounds 76 million to higher education projects. The THES lists winners to date, examines how grants have been won and looks at the overseas experience

Spain's famous enthusiasm for lotteries, fed by state draws dating back to 1812, peaks each Christmas with the annual draw for a massive prize - last year worth about Pounds 180 million - popularly known as El Gordo (the fat one). Last year, Pounds 724 million in prizes was handed out in a televised three-hour event in which winning numbers were drawn by children from a Madrid orphanage.

The national preoccupation with El Gordo can be measured by the estimate that each Spaniard bets on the draw an average of more than Pounds 30, which will buy about a dozen tickets,and that past winners have included King Juan Carlos, who picked up Pounds 86 in the 1992 draw. The big prize is divided among about 100 winning tickets.

People often club together in syndicates to bet. This has led to collective wins such as the Pounds 15 million scooped by the patrons of a Valencia bar in 1996 and spectacular fallings out between winners - including a kidnapping and murder in the town of Granollers in the early 1980s and an incident in 1986 when a bar manager sold his regulars 1/50th shares in his ticket, but actually sold about 250 shares, and ended up in jail for fraud, and his own protection, when it won Pounds 1.3 million.

Kiosks where winning tickets have been sold proudly display the dates and numbers for years afterwards.

The Christmas draw is merely the largest of the national weekly draws conducted with rather less hoopla by the National Organisation for Lotteries and State Betting (ONLAE). ONLAE's income from the lottery, scratchcards, football pools and other sources in 1996 was about Pounds 3.5 billion, of which Pounds 2.3 billion went in prizes. The bulk of the remainder went into state coffers, but beneficiaries in 1996 included the Red Cross (Pounds 11 million), infrastructure projects in the Sierra Nevada (Pounds 3.5 million) and cancer charities (Pounds 4 million).

Charitable impulses are catered for by draws held by the national organisation for the blind, ONCE, whose sellers and kiosks can be found on almost any main street. The bulk of proceeds goes into ONCE's work for the blind, but the charity is also the sponsor of one of Europe's top cycling teams. An ONCE ticket created havoc earlier this year when the winner died before he could claim his winnings, the ticket went missing and relatives' attempts to have the body exhumed were only halted when it became clear that someone had cashed the prize.

Colombia, too, operates weekly lotteries, which are run by each of the 32 departments that make up the country. Each year, they combine for a Spanish-style Christmas draw that offers a top prize of about Pounds 900,000.

Thirty per cent of the income from the lottery goes in prizes, with a further 30 per cent going to education and health projects. Education expenditure is channelled into primary and secondary schools.

Considerably lower key than its Spanish equivalent, the Christmas draw has still attracted its share of anecdote and legend.

One group of villagers is reported to have chosen its winning number after cutting open a fish and finding the number in its stomach, while drug traffickers are known to have purchased winning tickets as a means of laundering profits.

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