Lottery mania in Italy

ROME — For the 86th time since January, none of the tens of millions of lottery tickets sold for Italy’s SuperEnalotto matched the six numbers needed to win the record purse, swelling the jackpot to $208.6 million Thursday and no doubt pushing Italy — and much of Europe — even deeper into the grips of an unusual kind of lottery fever.

Already the largest ever jackpot in Europe (it surpassed a $179 million prize awarded in Spain in May), the SuperEnalotto prize, which grew $4.3 million on Thursday alone, is inching toward becoming the largest jackpot anywhere when taking account of the tax-free status of Italian lottery prizes. A 2007 Megamillions payout of $390 million in the United States netted the winner $223 million after taxes. Lottery officials predict the world record will be broken by the end of the month unless anyone wins before then.

Notwithstanding the 622 million-to-one odds against winning, the enormity of the jackpot is not lost on participants. The number of tickets sold for the three-times-a-week drawings has nearly tripled compared to pre-record jackpot levels, totaling about 275 million per week. And they’re coming from everywhere: a group of 140 Germans has been taking advantage of discount airfares to fly to Milan every other day to buy tickets. Sellers near Italy’s borders with France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia have reported a surge in sales from would-be millionaires crossing their respective borders. Passengers on cruise ships docking in Italian harbors are foregoing shopping and sightseeing to wait in line to buy tickets. The Italian press has even reported that celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Naomi Campbell have been spotted filling out the SuperEnalotto forms for a chance at the grand prize. Lines to buy tickets in some urban areas have stretched for city blocks.

Everyone’s looking for an edge to win.

 “I had to turn down an invitation to a new program that wanted me to go on the air to explain which numbers were most likely to win,” said Luca Tardella, a statistics expert with Rome’s Sapienza University. “I told them that no specific number was more likely than any other number, but they refused to accept that.”

Tardella said that old-time Italian superstitions are coming into play. In these superstitions, certain information revealed in dreams is translated into specific numbers to be played. If the dream has an element of fear, for example, the player should bet on number 90. Number 47 is the one to play if a dead person speaks in the dream and number 34 is the number to bet on if the dreamer reacts stubbornly to the information revealed in the dream.


“There’s no basis for this except superstition,” he said. “People bet on their childrens’ birth dates or their wedding anniversary. Anything to create the idea that there’s a strategy at play.”

According to Michael Staskin, spokesman for Sisal, the company that operates SuperEnalotto, the surge in interest is coming from new players no doubt mesmerized by the size of the jackpot, especially given the uncertain economic situation in the world. Staskin said that the amount spent by the average player has remained consistent at about 2.70 euro ($3.83), but that the numbers of players have increased dramatically.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who have never played a lottery game before decide to play SuperEnalotto in recent weeks,” he said. “It’s become a phenomenon.” The game is easy enough. Players pay 1 euro ($1.42) for a slip that allows them to pick two sets of six numbers between 1 and 90. If either set is an exact match, the lucky player is set for life. The fact that nobody has won since January helps illustrate just how long the odds are.

“I like to explain to people that winning would be akin to picking out a single ping pong ball from more than 20 soccer fields completely covered with ping pong balls,” said Tardella, the statistician. “The odds are difficult to visualize.”

But said Maria Rossi, the co-director of the polling firm Opinioni, there’s something about a phenomenon like this one that feeds on itself.

“It’s on the news most nights, and it’s the kind of thing people talk about in coffee shops and in supermarkets,” Rossi said. “The more they hear about it, the more realistic it seems and eventually people just think ‘Why not me?’”

The next drawing is on Saturday.