When Hitting the Jackpot Is
One’s Most Regrettable Moment
Today, in 42 U.S. states, DC and the Virgin Islands, anyone in theory will have a shot at winning an estimated $500 million, Powerball’s biggest drawing ever. Although this is a before-taxes amount, whoever gets the numbers right is up to a life-altering event.
But before we wish you luck, know that the odds against you are at 175 million, never mind the many absurd things that are more likely to happen than you getting that winning ticket. Instead, let’s tell you two quick tales about François-Marie Arouet and Jack Whittaker.
Separated by over two centuries and the Atlantic Ocean, Arouet, who’s better known as Voltaire and would’ve reached the ripe age of 318 last week, and Whittaker, who probably wouldn’t mind if he’d never quit his day job, have one thing in common: both won a large amount of lottery money.
But whereas Voltaire died a rich, respected, feared even, and happy man, Whittaker trailed in the opposite direction, and is being pursued for unpaid bills, bad checks, and a staggering succession of heartbreaking personal losses. May these two cliche, cautionary tales be on your mind, at the long queue at the lottery place.
Not to add to this imaginary pile of cash (but doing it anyway; please don’t mind our apparent foul mood this morning), let’s also remind you that such a disproportionate amount is a result of the latest gimmick concocted by the Des Moines, Iowa-based Powerball: tickets prices doubled in January to $2, which has already given sales revenue a 35 percent boost over 2011.
Lottery officials are the first to admit that there’s only a 60% chance of having a winner in today’s drawing. If not you or someone’s Uncle Bob, then we’re rolling this party to Saturday, when some more of our hard-earned dollar bills will certainly engorge the jackpot. Oh, yes, by the way, good luck.
A FORTUNATE ENCOUNTER
Looking back at his legacy, his books, his wit, and his importance as a seminal figure in the Enlightenment Era, it’s easy to overlook the impact that meeting Charles Marie de la Condamine had on Voltaire’s life. After all, his was not the only great mind of the period, only one that managed to assert his ideas by publishing them.
But as the entertaining Brendan Mackie post on Damn Interesting shows, without his fortune, he’d most likely be conditioned to the good graces of rich patrons, as it was common at the time, and the mores of his changing times. His fierce critical thinking too would have probably be compromised by his equally need to support himself, without too many powerful enemies.
About that eventful meeting, and the material gain that represented to Voltaire, it was the result of an elaborated, thoroughly thought out process of taking advantage of a particular set of circumstances. Such conditions remained in place just long enough for him, Condamine, and a few others, to make a killing, and like a window of opportunity, closed soon after they had secured a lifetime income for themselves.
Mackie writes that in 1727, interest rates of French bonds were so low that the crown had to come up with a plan to make them attractive to buyers, so to restore its ability to raise revenue. That plan was to offer bad bond holders a lottery ticket. If the ticket was a winner, the holder could back the face value of the original bond, plus an extra sweet 500,000 livres.
THE ENLIGHTENMENT SCHEME
Since anyone could buy a ticket for every bond they owned, ‘Condamine realized that a group of people could buy up a lot of cut-price bonds, split them into tiny parcels of 1,000 livres, buy up cheap lottery tickets, and thus easily win the huge jackpot.’ Long story short, that’s what got he and Voltaire in business.
They’ve worked the system so well that soon enough they both had amassed a significant fortune, enough to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Despite the bumpy road they had to track, they did just that when the French crown finally realized that the system could be legally rigged and shut down the lottery scheme.
While Voltaire’s history is more or less well known, Condamine also put his riches to good use. Mackie tells us that he was part of an expedition that determined the real shape of the earth, went to the Amazon river, brought rubber to Europe, and helped define the meter. He also advocated quinine as a cure for malaria, which also provided ‘the tonic water for our gin and tonics.’
THE BITTER TASTE OF REVERSAL
While Voltaire and Condamine were French, Jack Whittaker is an American from Scott Depot, West Virginia, who worked hard for a living, had a family and friends who loved him, and a good name, if you’d have asked any local, state or federal authority. Then, 12 years ago next month, he won $314,900,000 off a $1 Powerball ticket, the biggest jackpot of the time, and his life took a turn to the worse.
We know what you’re thinking: here comes another buzzkill of a story, a tale that seems to be repeated ad nauseum and that, you’re pretty sure, would never ever happen to you. But Whittaker did almost everything right to keep his winnings. And the mistakes he made would probably plague even a discriminating, world-weary, highly intelligent person such as yourself.
According to Wikipedia, he first pledged 10% of his winnings to Christian charities, including ‘a multimillion dollar church in Hurricane.’ He then established the non-profit, $14 million Jack Whittaker Foundation, which provides food and clothing to low-income families. And, of course, gave the proverbial $50,000 tip to the woman who worked at the convenience store where he got his ticket.
Then, you may guess, came the bad habits: the drinking, the partying, the strippers. Yes, but apparently the worst habit of them all was the one that made him keep large amounts of cash inside his car. And possibly telling people about it. Twice he got robbed that way, and thieves made off with close to a million dollars.
DARK SIDE OF THE RAINBOW
After his granddaughter’s boyfriend died of an overdose, and then, the body of the 17-year-old girl herself was found in a garbage bag, dumped by the side of a parking lot, things only went downhill. His season in hell continues as we write this, as he’s now being sued by Caesars Atlantic City casino for bouncing $1.5 million worth of checks to cover gambling losses.
Five years after his big break, Whittaker alleged in court that thieves had cashed 12 checks of his and wiped him clean of his fortune. That only came to light because he’d stopped making payments to a woman who’d sued him. Three years ago, his own daughter was found dead and, honestly, we hope we’re the only ones who’re bringing up all this misery about this guy today.
For everybody’s sake, and for Whittaker’s own sanity, it’d be so much better if we had something positive to say about this. But the truth is, not everyone gets the winning ticket, and by that, we mean the real winner. The one that you can’t find at your convenience store, but it’s often part of that general feeling that those surrounding you truly love you.
Don’t worry, though, we’re not about to go all preachy on you at this time of the game. While we can only wish that Whittaker has somehow found the peace of mind to make sense of all that happened to him, it’s not even fair to use what we unwillingly learned about him as a cautionary tale, for our own self-serving purposes.
He may or may not have reached his limit, but from the distance, there isn’t really a moment when he did something radically different than most of us would have done anyway. Unless you include in this rationale that fateful moment, in Dec. 2002, when he decided to spare a dollar to buy a lottery ticket. For after all, today it’ll cost you $2.
As we said before, though, here’s to your good luck. And here’s hoping Whittaker gets another shot.