You could call it a “jackpot”, but that doesn’t quite seem to capture the scale.
580 million dollars. More than the four times the net worth of David Beckham. A chunk more than the GDP of Tonga: that’s the sum two punters – one in Arizona, the other Missouri – will split when they hand in their winning Powerball lottery tickets, presumably at some point later today. You can picture the duo now - hearts doing double-time, hands clammy, still poring over that precious, worryingly-thin ticket for the second largest draw in America’s lottery history. Scan the numbers: 05, 16, 22, 23, 29 and 6. Think on the odds: one in 175 million.
By this morning the story has moved past news that, after 16 rollovers, Powerball has at last found some winners, to the question of who exactly are these people? And how did they get so ridiculously lucky? Things we'd like to know include: Did they choose the same numbers for years? Are they skinny or fat? Was their selection the product of some nexus of probability charts? Or a reference to a dog’s birthday, or Michael Jordan’s shirt number?
The fascination with lottery winners can feel ugly at times - initial curiosity, followed by the wait for a collapse into a nasty cocaine and monster trucks habit. But fears of voyeurism shouldn’t stop us enjoying what is at heart one of the more wonderful and bizarre scenes in modern life.
No winner can react wildly enough to reflect the seismic change in their fortunes. What we're left with is a heartwarming contrast between outrageous good fortune and the limits of human expression.
Some winners cry, but, for the more stolid types, terms like “happy”, “delighted” and “over the moon” are made to do an awful lot more work than they’re used to. Remember Britain’s biggest winners (£161 million)? They celebrated their magical moment by… sitting down to a single glass of white wine.
There is a dark lining here. Valid arguments exist for shutting down the National lottery altogether – and they recur with every big win. First, it’s glaringly hypocritical for the state to try and minimise gambling and institutionalise it at the same time. Second, the only reason people build up enough hopeful steam to buy a tickets is that our brains lack the muscle to properly weigh up chance. Third, those worst affected tend to be the poorest, who become trapped in a weekly cycle of baseless hope and subsequent despondency.
Should we be more outraged? Possibly. It’s very easy for people who only flutter occasionally to dismiss lottery addiction. But at the same time, for millions, it provides a small pleasure, along the lines of a nicotine hit, and a chance for a mild speculative conversation. What would you do with the money? Or more pertly, what are your dreams?
Then there's another point: 28% of lottery money goes to charity, more than £26 billion in total.
That might ease the conscience a little. So gawp away at the winners from Arizona and Missouri: put yourself in their shoes, take a coffee-break daydream. And if you can't shake a base note of jealousy - read this, apparently winners are only happier than us in the short-term.