Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?

Yup! Powerball will be at 1.3 billion dollars by Wednesday’s drawing. At least 1.3 billion dollars. I’ve always thought of the two contrary truths of big lotteries like this one:

  1. The fact that it’s a nationwide lottery with an insane, even unprecedented level of frenzied participation, and yet it still can take months and months for even a single person to pick the right numbers, proves how impossible the odds are;
  2. And yet, well…someone does eventually win.

But if you could win any one lottery, would you really choose to win $1.3 billion?

That’s definitely a dollar amount where winning would become terrifying. If you were to win a lesser amount that was life-changing, but still well below what even a dope you or me could squander away, you could choose to remain anonymous and make it stick. The only people who’d know would be your closest friends. And only the observant ones. “Hmm. Andy never used to order guac on his burrito. That’s, like, a $2.50 upcharge” would be the first loose thread that would unravel my thick cloak of lies.

But if you were the lone (it’s possible) winner of a $1.3 billion jackpot? Oh, ****. You’d need to go straight into hiding before anyone identified you. And the media would be working very very hard to identify you. So: close all of the curtains, lock every door and window, leave your car in the driveway, and check into a hotel in a different city. And take public transportation, in case an Uber driver might fink you out.

I’m feeling a little stressed out just thinking about it. My losing ticket from Saturday’s drawing is in my wallet. It’s a piece of paper a few inches on a side. Imagine that it’s worth $1.4 billion. Is there any article of value that’s worth that much per gram? I’m betting “no,” unless a lock of Jesus Christ’s hair is ever found and verified. How the hell do you transport it safely to that place where men and women in suits turn it into a pile of electrons in a secure database that tells every computer in the world that Mr. Ihnatko is allowed to have whatever he wants, the instant he wants it, and served off the back of any human being he wishes to use as a living piece of furniture?

And until that transaction, yeesh. Stay invisible. Let those hundreds of Coen Brothers-style losers, idiots, and genuine tough guys hack apart your front door with an axe and tear the place apart, because obviously you would have left the winning ticket, unsigned, on your kitchen table. Throw away the hat and the coat you wore when you bought it, because until the prize has been officially claimed, every man or woman wearing a Boston Bruins cap and a leather jacket like the one in the jittery security video that your local gas station happily sold to TMZ is going to get tackled in the street by the aforementioned group of people.

It is a legitimately interesting question. What’s the smartest way to claim the prize? The safest thing would be to race to lottery headquarters and claim the money while you’re still a step ahead of rabid packs of press and ne’er-do-wells. Fine, but then isn’t your name part of the public record? Isn’t it better to form a new LLC and use it as the official claimant?

Good plan! But who’s going to help you do that, and do you understand the paperwork you’re signing? Are you sure that you didn’t initial something that gives your lawyer the power to buy you out of your own company for half a pack of Mike and Ikes?

Oy!

Of course, the troubles don’t end once you’ve claimed the money. Having that much money is like being Superman. You have the power to save anybody. But if you try to save everybody, well, that’s impossible, and will probably shorten your own life. It’s easy to say no to the fan group who wants $7.4 million dollars to fund a new season of “Heroes” (which you never liked in the first place). But what do you say to the parent who needs $180,000 for life-saving surgery for their kid?

I also imagine that it’d be a good idea to maintain a “decoy” house in addition to your actual home. You’d stock it with mid-priced furniture and electronics, and replenish it every time it gets broken into. Meanwhile, your actual home is hidden behind three shell corporations. Plus a couple of moats with interesting creatures swimming around in it (thanks to the Weyland-Yutani-style genetic engineering lab you’re underwriting).

Nonetheless, I think all of the hassles would be worth it, if winning I can (a) pay off all of my nieces and nephews’ student loans, and (b) own a private aircraft hangar with a 1:1 scale replica of the Millennium Falcon in it.

Also? It’d be fun to be Superman. Rather, it’d be fun to be Clark Kent and nobody knows you’re Superman. We’re sometimes saddled with terrible secrets (“Your cat didn’t run away. She got caught in a raccoon trap I set in my backyard. There was already a raccoon in it. They obviously didn’t get along…”). Wouldn’t it be fun to keep a terrific secret? The kind of secret that only gets blown at the reading of your will, when your cousin shows up expecting that you maybe left her your grandmother’s bible but then she walk out of there with that plus a five-cabin catamaran? 

So, sure, I’m going to buy another ticket for Wednesday’s drawing. I joked on Twitter that the $1.3 billion jackpot was my one lifetime opportunity to truly say “There’s a nonzero chance that I will some day have more money than Oprah.” Then someone pointed out that (according to Forbes) the woman has a net worth of about $3.1 billion.

Okay…more money than Jerry Seinfeld?

There we go. $820,000,000. That’s still enough for “Hamilton” tickets.

I don’t approve of state-run gambling. I hate the fact that so much of it is designed specifically to exploit a certain percentage of people whose brains happen to be wired up badly and can be tricked into an infinite loop of electronic betting. I double-hate that governments become dependent on gambling revenues to fund education, instead of using that contribution as a bonus on top of a sensible operational budget that schools will get regardless. It means that we can’t give kids a public education unless we allow casinos to do pretty much whatever they like, and we keep tuning state lottery games to get better and better at lulling players into a fugue state.

Okay, rant over. I don’t gamble, personally, because God has made His/Her/Its feelings quite clear to me about that. The first time I gambled, it was at a Las Vegas night during my freshman year of college. I lost four dollars on four plays in a blink of an eye. Just: one, two, three, four…done. I recall a crystal-clear awareness that I had given this person four dollars, I had received nothing in return, not even entertainment…and I now felt like an idiot.

Years later, I was speaking at a conference center that was part of a casino. I wandered into the blackjack room. On a whim, I think I played one hand, on a five dollar chip. The dealer dealt himself a blackjack. Just like that. I don’t think I got the chance to say “Hit” or “Stay” even once.

“Thy will be done,” I thought, and I kept my second $5 chip as a souvenir.

Despite all of that, I have a rule: when a multi-state lottery jackpot can credibly be expressed as a fraction of a billion dollars…sure, I’m in for a $2 ticket. I’m getting something of value: the fun of knowing that there’s an astronomically far-fetched, but nonzero, chance of having a life-altering amount of money by this time next week.

Guac on every burrito, going to a drive-in screening of the original Star Wars trilogy in a working X-34 landspeeder…it sounds pretty sweet all around, despite the hassles of nonstop home breakins, lawsuits from con artists, and kidnap/ransoms.

4 thoughts on “Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?”

  1. The other issue is how are you gonna handle what’s left when you are old, I’m married with no kids, small family … I’d have at least 400 millions left before I go , sure, you can donate it, but It would be extremely hard to do it efficiently and in a way that I can really trust.. Just give me 20 millions and I’m done

  2. The last time this jackpot got ridiculous, I participated in one of the dumber things in my life, a lottery pool. A bunch of lawyers clubbed together to buy tickets. We all knew the probabilities. I was in for $20 because I kept thinking, “if they win, and I’m the only one left in this office when they all quit, I’ll regret it my entire life.”

    You haven’t seen us on the news. We lost, like (almost) everyone. I could afford to lose it. I wonder how much of betting psychology is about not losing, versus winning. Risk aversion is a real thing, and it could drive risky behaviors with the right incentives. If only I’d gotten a PhD in Econ, I could test these theories.

    Anyhoo, keep up the great work, and are blog comments eligible for IA reader feedback?

  3. If I won the lottery, I would give a million dollars to everyone who commented on this blog post.

    Plus, no more waiting for New Year’s to buy new fonts!

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