What's in a number? If it's 53, murder, suicide and ruin


Rome Letter/Paddy Agnew: Franco Grassi sounds the sort of person who liked to tie up loose ends. Last Sunday week he took the family dog down the road to a local kennel club, close to his home in Signa, outside Florence, asking them to look after it for him for a while.

On that same Sunday night, after his wife, Patricia, and their 27-year-old son, Giacomo, had both gone to bed, he unplugged the house phone and took the batteries out of all the family mobile phones. Then, notwithstanding the late hour, he unlocked the door of the house, leaving it ajar.

His preparations concluded, 56-year-old Franco then took out his 44 Magnum Smith and Wesson and shot his wife, then his son and finally himself. The triple deaths were discovered only last Wednesday when colleagues, worried that Giacomo had failed to turn up for work for three days and unable to contact him, had gone round to his house.

Franco Grassi and his family are but the latest known victims of Fever 53, a betting epidemic that has seen hundreds of thousands of Italians bet on the possibility of the number 53 coming up in Lotto, the national lottery.

Lotto has a twice-weekly draw of five numbers (1-90) linked to 10 Italian cities (Bari, Cagliari, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Roma, Turin and Verona). As luck, or ill-luck, would have it, the number 53 last came up in the Venice draw of May 2003, or 178 draws ago.

That statistic alone has seen 53 become so popular a bet that €3.2 billion has been wagered (and lost) on it in the last 18 months.

The longer 53 fails to show up, the more frenetic becomes the urge to bet on it, based on the statistically questionable belief that, sooner or later, it has to come up again.

Just five days before the Grassi family tragedy, Fever 53 had struck in Carrara on the Tuscan coast. That Tuesday morning 58-year-old housewife Maria had taken the bus to the end of the line at Marinella, close to the beach. There she took off her overcoat, leaving it hanging on a winter-abandoned deck chair, and walked into the sea. She was still wearing her high heels. Her body was discovered later that day.

When Maria's husband came home from work, he found the morning's shopping in a plastic supermarket bag on the kitchen table. There was also a note from his wife: "Forgive me. I can't take it any more, I'm destroyed by remorse, I've run up so many debts at the Lotto".

Lotto receipts showed that Maria, like Franco Grassi, had gambled (and lost) consistently on 53. Gambling fever has had a less tragic but still potentially devastating effect on many other Italian families.

In the last week Italian media have been full of stories of how families have been ruined by the obsessive gambling habit of one family member. There was the housewife from Frosinone who wagered a total of €53,000 on 53 and then had to resort to loan sharks to get herself and her family out of trouble. There was the woman from Rossignano Solvay, near Livorno, who gambled €50,000 on 53, using two dud cheques, and had to leave town in a hurry.

Or there was the bank clerk from Oltrepo Pavese who got the sack last week after it was discovered that he had "borrowed" nearly €1 million from clients' current accounts, all of it to bet on the accursed 53.

The epidemic has become so serious that last week the consumer group Codacons called on the government to throw "water on the fire" and block bets on 53. Thus far the government has not moved either to block the 53 or in some other way limit gambling on Lotto. The government's reluctance is understandable given that the state-run Lotto on average pays out only 43 per cent of its introits.

Understandable, too, when you consider that in the first 11 months of last year Italians spent a total of €23 billion on betting games (Lotto, Superenalotto, Tris, Totip et al), of which Lotto is by far the most popular. €23 billion, too, represents not only a remarkable 2 per cent of Italian GDP but also a 38 per cent increase on the same period in 2003.

Even the authoratitive figure of Cardinal Ennio Antonelli of Florence has called for moderation, arguing that people should "not exacerbate the obsession with gambling". Yet, neither Church nor government can seriously hope to curb a habit that has been around in these parts for some while given that a Genoa version of Lotto dates back to 1576. Maybe the cursed 53 could do us all a favour and just turn up.