Lottery Habit : Scratching for Ticket to Big Spin

Times Staff Writer

Only eight months after the state’s frenetic first days in the lottery business, as many as four out of 10 Californians have made the games a fixture in their lives, something they do as regularly as tuning in a favorite television show or sipping an after-work beer.

In contrast to the huge chunk of California adults--at least three out of four--who have tried their hand at scratching lottery tickets since the games began last Oct. 3, this smaller core of continuing players has made the games a habit.

Few Big Winners

More than half of them buy tickets week in and week out, but few have seen more than a smattering of $2 and $5 winners. Still, they play on, more often than not using their winnings to buy more tickets.


Many have developed routines that are unvarying, habits that are distinctly personal.

In Echo Park, there is a man who buys his tickets each morning, slips them in his pocket and stubbornly waits until nightfall to scratch them off. In the hours between, he creates elaborate fantasies, dreaming of the fortune he may have tucked away.

In Los Altos, there is a reading teacher who plops $1 a week into her school’s lottery pool. Two of the 30 members are designated as ticket buyers with the idea that all winnings under $100 will be reinvested and the bigger jackpots split. Should fortune call, the teachers plan to draw lots to see who will take part in the “Big Spin.”

And, in Santa Monica, there is a retired couple who buy their tickets in pairs--better, they say, for their after-dinner entertainment. In place of dessert, they dump their tickets into a paper sack and take turns drawing. The wife keeps track of wins and losses on a score card.


Player Profile

A profile of California’s lottery players was drawn from a Los Angeles Times Poll of both players and non-players, a computer-assisted analysis of sales and winning tickets from throughout the state for two games and interviews with scores of players, California Lottery officials and other lottery experts around the nation.

Among the principal findings:

- Players are more likely to be high school dropouts than college graduates. Overall, two out of three have a high school education or less.


- Players are more likely to come from the ranks of secretaries, salespeople and manual laborers than from professional and management circles; six of 10 players work in blue-collar and clerical occupations.

- Neither very rich nor trapped in poverty, the vast majority earn from $10,000 to $40,000 a year. About 54% of players fall below California’s median family income level of $29,000 a year. Only 8% earn $60,000 or more.

- Latinos are almost 50% more likely to play than other ethnic groups. Almost 60% of Latinos bought lottery tickets in a recent week, compared to 38% of white and 33% of black adults.

- Players are more likely to be men than women; 43% of men indicated that they play, while only 38% of women said they did. The vast majority are at least 30 years old.


- And, for nearly all, playing the lottery is the only gambling they do. Almost five out of six say they seldom or never play other games of chance, whether it be following a tip on a horse, spinning a roulette wheel or playing bingo at a church.

Study of Demographics

Compiled with the help of computer-prepared lists of winners and their ZIP codes that were provided by the state Lottery Commission, The Times’ demographic analysis of players was based on 1986 estimates of census data broken down by ZIP codes statewide. The Times Poll queried 2,022 adults, 1,147 of them from Southern California and 875 from the north.

As might be expected, the poll revealed lottery players to be a varied lot. Much like the eccentric handicappers found at race tracks, they have their own peculiar strategies and gimmicks for bringing them luck. For the most fatalistic among them, superstition governs how, when and where to scratch off the latex-covered tickets.


There are sweeping, single-motion scratchers, others who savor the suspense of uncovering the tickets square by square. Some pick their patterns randomly and others scratch the same sequence ticket after ticket.

There are players who buy in threes, some who buy in fours or fives. There are players who carry lucky penknives or favorite coins and others who call in pinch hitters to do their scratching for them.

There are pools of players. In offices, factories and businesses, workers are teaming up in lottery clubs of 10 and 20, banking on the notion that bigger purchases improve the odds.

But no matter what tactic they use, nearly all the lottery die-hards have the same aim. That is to win, and to win big.


Greed Keeps Them Hooked

Greed is the primary motivation that draws players into the game and keeps them hooked. Of those polled by The Times, 45% cited money as the sole reason for buying lottery tickets. Another 16% said winning and having fun were equal inducements.

“I’m not a dreamer,” said Carl Peavy, 45, a businessman from Littlerock, a town outside Palmdale. “I know what the chances are--pretty slim. But there is always the hope of hitting one of the bigger ones. I wouldn’t play if I thought I was only going to hit $2.”

“I expect to win,” echoed Charles Cato, a 63-year-old Los Angeles schoolteacher. “I mean, I can buy a six-pack or take a chance on the lottery. When I drink the beer, the beer is gone. If I buy a ticket, I might win me a million. I can buy me a lot more beer.”


It is players like these who have helped turn the California Lottery into the richest game of its kind in the world.

And it is lottery promoters who have convinced the players that their greed is not a bad thing. In a masterfully crafted sales campaign that emphasizes how the lottery benefits education, promoters have succeeded in making players feel good about buying tickets, even when they lose. Good enough to keep on playing.

To prompt Californians to spend their dollars on tickets, the promoters have been bombarding the state with a $22-million blitz of commercials, brochures and other marketing ploys in this debut year of the lottery.

The marketing message is three-pronged. Simply put, the games are fun, they are profitable and--they are good for the state.


Three Important Things

“We knew that three things were important,” explained Brad Fornaciari, vice president for Needham Harper Worldwide Inc., the firm handling advertising for the lottery. “Obviously, you had to offer the chance to win because that is what this thing is all about.

“It had to be fun and that comes in product design.

“And it also had to offer a benefit to something that people could grasp. We knew (education) was going to be an important issue to players. . . . You’ll see a proceeds message in everything we do.”


The last message--that 34% of lottery revenue is going to education--has not been lost on Californians.

More players, in fact, know how much of their $1 goes toward education than is returned in winnings, The Times data showed. Only one player in 10 recognized that 50 cents of each ticket price is paid back in prizes. But one in four knew about how much goes to the schools.

‘Schools Win, Too’

So, in coming up with what may be the lottery’s best-known slogan--"Our schools win, too"--promoters have provided players with a noble reason for gambling. And that, to borrow again from the lottery, seems to give them “a good feeling.”


“I’m not a gambler by nature,” said Sanford Taylor, 32, an unemployed photographer in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles. “I hate to see my money go that way. But this is different. This is benefiting others.”

East San Jose mechanic Joseph Cruz figures that the lottery is a “chance for people to strike it rich and at the same time help the schools.”

To show how effective the campaign has been, the lottery is expected to rake in $2 billion in sales this first year. Those revenues put the games just behind giant Hershey Foods on a list of the nation’s largest enterprises. In California, the lottery is on a par with the Walt Disney entertainment empire.

Even beyond pure economics, the data compiled about the play thus far is good news for lottery officials, who have long insisted that the very poor were not pouring their sparse dollars into the games.


Middle-Income Players

“These are middle-income, middle-education, middle-everything kind of players,” insisted lottery director Mark Michalko. “People on both ends of the spectrum don’t appear to be playing very much. The very poor don’t have the disposable income, obviously, and the very wealthy, I suspect, have other forms of entertainment.”

But the data also fan criticism by gambling foes that the lottery amounts to a regressive tax on lower-income Californians, that tax being the 34 cents of each lottery dollar that goes to public schools.

As is the case in other lottery states, California’s poor are not gambling more than middle- and upper-class wage earners, but each dollar they do spend represents a larger slice of their income.


“Most of the revenue does come from the middle class for the simple reason that the middle class is almost everybody,” said Daniel Suits, a Michigan State University economics professor who has served as a consultant for lotteries in several states.

“Poor families don’t contribute as much, but what they do contribute is a bigger percentage of their income than the wealthier family.”

According to The Times analysis, households earning $14,000 a year spend about as much on lottery tickets as those earning $30,000. In both cases, $50 to $55 was spent on lottery tickets in Games 2 and 3.

By design of the lottery, their winning anything beyond $2 or $5 on a single ticket was a real long shot. During the two games, which ran from mid-November to late January, the odds against winning $100 were 4,000 to 1. They increased dramatically for the heftier prizes, reaching as high as 2.5 million to 1 for the biggest jackpots.


Of those queried by Times pollsters, almost nine of 10 players said their total winnings did not top $25 in the first six months. More than four of 10 claimed no winnings at all.

“You have a six-times-higher chance of being hit by lightning than winning enough to make a difference--more than $1,000,” complained Vicki Abt, a sociology professor at Penn State University and co-author of “The Business of Risk.” “No self-respecting bookie would give such lousy odds.”

Notre Dame law professor G. Robert Blakey contends that it is the simplicity of the scratch-off games and the promise of easy money that lure the poor and uneducated into playing.

“Why would a rich person play the lottery?” asked Blakey, who was a consultant to an exhaustive 1976 federal government study of gambling in America. “They’ve already won the lottery of birth.


“In the lower classes, the chances are they’re never going to have that car, they’re never going to have a house. They’re never going to have a chance, no matter how hard they work. . . . Their only way is to play the lottery. They need it.”

Odds Are No Secret

In answer to criticism that the lottery appeals mostly to players from society’s lower rungs, lottery officials say that the games are voluntary and the odds are no secret. Each game brochure lists the number of possible winners in each prize category.

“It’s absolutely a voluntary activity,” Michalko said. “We’re in competition with any other form of entertainment . . . baseball games and movies to ice cream cones.”


As might be expected, substantially more players than non-players approve of the games and how Michalko and other lottery officials are running them. Approval was highest among Latinos, with 75% applauding the games. In contrast, 68% of whites and 69% of blacks said they approve.

The high approval rate reflects the level of play among the state’s Latinos. The Times research indicates that lottery participation rises in neighborhoods with the heaviest Latino concentrations.

In Game 2, for example, members of Latino households were 75% more likely to play than members of white households across the state. White households averaged two winning tickets during the game, while Latino households tallied 3.5 winning tickets.

Statewide, Latino households averaged almost $73 on tickets during Games 2 and 3. Although the Times survey indicated that play among both black and white Californians was far lighter, the survey of lottery winners showed that black households overall spent considerably more than white ones.


During the two games, the average black household spent more than $62 on tickets while white households averaged less than $45.

Cultural Factors Seen

To explain the heavy play among Latinos, Rudy Acuna, professor of Chicano studies at California State University at Northridge, said: “Poverty is one factor, but the other factors are almost cultural. There’s a different attitude toward games of chance. . . . They (Latinos) are very sporting. Gambling is not something looked down upon as a Puritan ethic. This type of escapism is maybe built into . . . the culture.”

The majority of the state’s Latinos have “been socialized for a longer period of time--generations--about the existence of a national lottery,” explained Jorge Bustamonte, president of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana-based research institute.


The Mexican national lottery, known as El Premio Gordo, sells tickets on street corners throughout the country and has been doing so for decades.

“It’s a source of money the people are familiar with, attracted to,” Bustamonte said. “They wouldn’t have any hang-ups in terms of moral questions.”

Not only do Latinos play in higher numbers, they play more often.

Five Tickets a Week


Almost a third of Latinos who play the lottery buy at least five tickets a week and 15% buy nine or more. In contrast, only 19% of white or 17% of black players buy five or more. Overall, 9% of regular lottery players buy at least nine a week.

Like others who play, the vast majority of Latino players buy their lottery tickets near their homes or where they shop.

They buy tickets when they do their marketing, or at the corner doughnut shop, or when they stop for gasoline. For many, buying lottery tickets has replaced tucking away that $1 or $5 bill returned in change.

Edythe Segarra, a sergeant’s wife at Vandenberg Air Force Base, recounted how her husband has taken to automatically adding $1 to each grocery store check he writes.


“He’ll play if he’s got that extra buck or even if he has to write a check,” she said. “It’s more fantasizing than anything else. We all hope, we all have dreams for the big one. Whatever we can get, I’d be satisfied. Even $5,000 would be a down payment for a house.”

Few players, the Segarras among them, spare the time or take the trouble to tally their wins and losses to see if their play is a good bet. Most seem to prefer not knowing.

Walls Covered With Tickets

“I’ve read where some people have taken their lottery tickets and covered their walls with them,” said Geri Thomson, 59, a widowed nurse from Mar Vista. “Every time I go to the market, I buy $10 worth. In the beginning, I would play much heavier, $25 a week.


“I voted for it and I still play because there is always that chance. It’s a dream. It takes us out of our mundane life with the chance that maybe we’ll get a million, live in luxury, buy anything we want and not have to go to work.”

Nonetheless, Thomson lamented, “I could not stand counting up all the money I’ve spent.”

But those who do keep tabs seem undeterred if the balance sheet shows a loss.

“We’re not anywhere near even, maybe 1 to 3,” laughed Theda Erickson of Santa Monica, who plays regularly with her retired husband, Stan. “My husband hasn’t been well for years and he’s having a great time.


“I keep track of the losing tickets--we have an envelope for them--and put down the winners and see how we’re standing. . . . He comes up a winner and I come up a loser.”

Winnings Reinvested

In a very real sense, the lottery profits on small winners like the Ericksons. More than seven in 10 of them automatically buy more tickets with their winnings.

“What good is $2?” asked schoolteacher Cato, who said he is an everyday player. “Why not just get two more tickets and increase your chances? If I win $5, I’ve got five more chances of winning.”


It is players like Cato that lottery officials are counting on to keep buying the scratch-off tickets when the second phase of the games, lotto, is added in the fall.

Basically a legitimized version of the street-popular illegal numbers games, lotto requires players to pick numbers in hopes of matching winning combinations. Since jackpots build along with the number of people who bet each week, lottery officials predict that grand prizes could reach near $100 million.

With that kind of pot, officials say, lotto will draw a new kind of core player, one with higher earning power, more years in school and a more prestigious job.

But the prospect of the huge payoff also is expected to attract some scratch-off players as well, resulting in a decline in the instant-winner ticket sales in the coming months.


‘We Know That’

“Our level of participation in the instant game will decline, we know that,” Michalko said. “And it will decline more as we bring in the new game . . . to a core group, I would guess, of 30% to 35% of the population.”

Count disabled mechanic James Lambert among them.

“There’s a lady who sells the tickets. She’s always telling me, ‘You still trying to win that $100,000?’ ” the 57-year-old San Diego man chuckled.


Lambert, who has been a twice-a-week player since he queued up that first day to buy tickets, says he figures that putting his spare dollars into the lottery is “a good gamble for the money.” He’s had a number of $2 and $5 winners.

“Yeah, I figure it’s one of the greatest things that ever happened when they put that thing on the ballot,” he said.

“I’m going to keep trying. I’m no quitter.”

The Times Poll, directed by I. A. Lewis, interviewed 2,022 adults by telephone from March 22 through March 27. The margin of error is 3% in either direction. Among those questioned were 760 lottery players. The margin of error on those interviews is 5% in either direction.


The Times computerized analysis was directed by Richard O’Reilly, technical resources coordinator, with the assistance of Patricia LoVerme, manager of marketing research at The Times; Ted Liebman, marketing research special projects coordinator, and statistical consultant Jay Sumner.


40% of those responding to the Los Angeles Times Poll said they play the lottery. Only those identifying themselves as players were asked about ticket-buying habits; their responses will not necessarily total 100%.



% of % of All % Who Number of tickets boug Total Players Category Play 1 or more 5 or more 15% 21% Latinos 57% 81% 32% 7% 6% Blacks 33% 76% 18% 73% 69% Whites 38% 77% 19% 29% 33% No High School 46% 83% 30% 32% 34% High School 43% 76% 22% 36% 30% Beyond High School 34% 75% 14% 27% 27% 18-29 years old 40% 79% 21% 22% 21% 30-44 40% 74% 17% 32% 37% 45-64 47% 82% 25% 17% 13% Over 65 30% 74% 23% 53% 44% Protestant 35% 76% 19% 32% 46% Catholic 58% 81% 31% 12% 8% Other 24% 74% 18% 32% 28% Management 35% 74% 19% 36% 34% White Collar 38% 77% 15% 32% 38% Blue Collar 46% 83% 29% 10% 9% Under $10,000 33% 74% 16% 21% 23% $10-20,000 43% 76% 23% 20% 22% $20-30,000 43% 81% 23% 18% 20% $30-40,000 45% 79% 27% 10% 8% $40-50,000 32% 80% 17% 13% 12% Over $50,000 35% 78% 18% 29% 28% Democratic 38% 77% 20% 21% 21% Republican 40% 80% 19% 27% 28% Independent 41% 77% 22% 48% 52% Men 43% 82% 28% 52% 48% Women 38% 74% 16% 53% 58% Married 43% 80% 24% 26% 24% Was Married 37% 76% 20% 21% 18% Never Married 35% 76% 16%

% ofht each week Total 9 or more 15% 15% 7% 7% 73% 7% 29% 15% 32% 7% 36% 6% 27% 8% 22% 7% 32% 12% 17% 5% 53% 8% 32% 16% 12% 5% 32% 7% 36% 4% 32% 14% 10% 8% 21% 10% 20% 9% 18% 6% 10% 6% 13% 8% 29% 6% 21% 10% 27% 8% 48% 14% 52% 4% 53% 8% 26% 12% 21% 6%


Category For Fun Equally For Money Latinos 31% 17% 50% Blacks 23% 9% 68% Whites 39% 16% 42% No High School 27% 15% 57% High School 39% 17% 42% Beyond High School 44% 15% 38% Management 37% 16% 45% White Collar 44% 13% 41% Blue Collar 31% 19% 49% Under $10,000 28% 19% 53% $10-20,000 30% 17% 51% $20-30,000 39% 16% 45% $30-40,000 41% 19% 38% $40-50,000 42% 11% 43% Over $50,000 48% 13% 37%



The Times used a computer to compare the number of winners of Games 2 and 3 ($100 or more) in each zip code in the state with the demographic profile of that zip code, supplied by Claritas Co. Then, using total ticket sales, total winning tickets in each prize category, and odds of winning each prize, the computer calculated the average household winnings and ticket purchases by demographic category.

Group Winnings Spent White $22.18 $44.32 Black 31.22 62.38 Hispanic 36.53 72.99 Some high school 31.43 62.80 High school 29.54 59.03 Some college 23.98 47.91 College degree 15.27 30.51 Craft, machinery 35.79 71.51 Clerical and sales 24.39 48.73 Professional, 15.28 30.53 technical Executive, 17.82 35.60 managerial State Average $26.70 $53.35



These rankings resulted from an analysis of average household lottery winnings and ticket purchases grouped by median household income for Games 2 and 3 combined.

Income Number of Avg. Won Avg. Spent Group Households per household per household Under $10,000 459,355 3.58 7.16 $10,000-$20,000 2,460,232 25.88 51.71 $20,000-$30,000 4,922,019 27.50 54.96 $30,000-$40,000 2,087,319 27.22 54.38 $40,000-$50,000 393,557 22.13 44.23 $50,000-$60,000 86,633 18.23 36.43 $60,000-up 47,500 $13.55 $27.07


A Times computer analysis of winners in Games 2 and 3 resulted in this ranking of California counties showing frequency of lottery play by household.


County Avg. Won Avg. Spent Per Hshld Per Hshld STANISLAUS $38.72 $77.37 AMADOR 38.43 76.79 GLENN 36.72 73.36 SOLANO 36.47 72.87 COLUSA 36.45 72.84 SAN JOAQUIN 36.22 72.38 CALAVERAS 35.60 71.13 SAN BENITO 35.45 70.83 ALPINE 34.64 69.20 YUBA 32.69 65.32 MONTEREY 31.70 63.34 VENTURA 31.45 62.84 TUOLUMNE 31.02 61.98 SUTTER 30.53 61.01 SAN MATEO 30.25 60.45 NAPA 29.72 59.38 KINGS 29.41 58.77 SANTA CLARA 29.40 58.74 ALAMEDA 29.05 58.05 KERN 28.87 57.69 TULARE 28.87 57.68 CONTRA COSTA 28.56 57.07 PLACER 28.08 56.10 SACRAMENTO 27.59 55.13 FRESNO 27.28 54.50 MADERA 27.26 54.47 SIERRA 27.12 54.19 TEHAMA 26.95 53.85 MERCED 26.82 53.59 YOLO 26.79 53.53 IMPERIAL 26.08 52.11 LOS ANGELES 26.04 52.04 RIVERSIDE 25.99 51.93 SANTA BARBARA 25.85 51.66 ORANGE 25.66 51.28 SAN FRANCISCO 25.34 50.64 MARIPOSA 25.22 50.39 EL DORADO 25.22 50.39 LAKE 25.08 50.12 SAN BERNARDINO 24.99 49.93 SHASTA 24.24 48.43 SONOMA 24.00 47.95 HUMBOLDT 23.83 47.62 MENDOCINO 23.73 47.42 TRINITY 23.68 47.31 SANTA CRUZ 23.47 46.89 PLUMAS 23.16 46.28 SAN DIEGO 22.64 45.24 SAN LUIS OBISPO 22.07 44.10 INYO 20.15 40.25 LASSEN 19.88 39.73 SISKIYOU 19.53 39.02 MARIN 18.40 36.76 DEL NORTE 18.37 36.76