Chance would be a fine thing – Steve Coronella on a sure-bet lottery system

An Irishman’s Diary

When National Lottery officials were summoned before the Oireachtas Finance Committee earlier this month and asked to explain why a game of chance was so, well, chancy, I was reminded that I've reaped a weekly Lotto-related dividend for over two decades.

If Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkin – whose bluster ignited the Lotto Inquisition and who's convinced that a run of 58 unlucky draws would have "never happened in Ronan Collins's day" – wants to know my secret, here it is.

Every Wednesday and Saturday, the days on which numbers are selected in the National Lottery, I walk right past my local convenience store and pocket the €12 it would take to play an all-in two-line ticket for each draw that week. In the past 20-odd years, I reckon I’ve “won” about €25,000 as a result of my strategic penny-pinching. Not a fortune, but a heart-warming sum nonetheless.

I like to call my approach the “Anti-Lottery”.

Here are the ground rules. If you play the lottery regularly every week, using a pre-determined set of numbers, those lines are no doubt etched in your mind.

Your lucky numbers might signify important birth dates or anniversaries, and you’re probably able to recite them without a moment’s hesitation, like a child savant asked to unravel a difficult mathematical puzzle.

That was me, when I first moved to Ireland. Twice a week I played two lines of numbers that even now I can recite like my own name. I haven't played for years, but I continue to match my numbers against the winning lines after each draw. Then I breathe a massive sigh of relief when – invariably – my numbers don't come up.

The thrill is the same as if I’d actually played, but the odds are considerably greater in my favour.

If you think this system is ludicrous, consider the alternative.

Lotteries everywhere play on the common fantasy of a single enormous payday that will ease all of life’s problems. Difficult relationships will be smoothed over and career shortcomings surmounted. Simply by ticking a few boxes.

In Ireland, the allure of such a scheme is especially compelling. All lottery winnings are awarded in one tax-free, lump-sum payout. And no one’s the wiser.

In contrast, lottery officials in my native state of Massachusetts, working with federal tax authorities, skim an instant 30 per cent off any large winnings. Plus, because it's public money, your personal details are public as well – unless winners opt to establish a legal trust and empower someone else to pick up their oversize cheque.

What this illustrates is that there are strings attached to every lottery win. And the strings get more intricate and more constricting in direct proportion to the size of your windfall.

Consider the case of Dolores McNamara, the Limerick woman who in the summer of 2005 scooped a Euromillions jackpot of €115 million.

Ms McNamara comes from a modest enough background, judging from press reports at the time, and her immediate response was to take herself and a planeload of her family and friends off to Spain for a holiday. After her Spanish getaway was over, however, she had to return to "normal life". To her credit, at that time she insisted on remaining in her working-class Limerick neighbourhood. But to make that possible, according to further news accounts, a state-of-the-art security system had to be installed around her house.

So it goes without saying that the beneficiaries of large lottery windfalls come under incredible pressure and scrutiny – a detail that’s never mentioned in any Lotto ads, which prefer to focus on exotic holidays and six-storey-high water slides.

In 1991 in the US, for example, crime boss Whitey Bulger ordered the winner of a $14.3 million lottery jackpot in his native South Boston to sign the golden ticket over to him. The resulting six-figure annuity provided evidence of a legitimate income stream and helped Bulger launder his racketeering proceeds.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t refuse a bit of good fortune should it come my way – a windfall of a few thousand euro would suit me just fine. In other words, a tidy enough sum so that I might get maybe a year ahead of myself, in financial terms, while remaining tethered to the mundane demands of ordinary life.

For the moment, I’ll continue with the system that has served me well over the years, slipping past my local lottery agent each week with the quiet assurance of a man who knows he’s backing a winner.