Win? You're more likely to be murdered: If luck doesn't work there are other ways to play the Irish national lottery. James Quilter reports

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EACH WEDNESDAY and Saturday evening at 8pm a million people switch on the television to watch 39 numbered ping-pong balls bounce around in a machine. The machine will extract six of them, and as people look down at their tickets the chances are that one of those people will realise they are rich.

The monster is on its way to Britain in the new year, as Richard Branson reminded us this week in announcing his intention to bid for the licence to run the National Lottery. But it has been alive and well here in Ireland for the past five years. Almost 60 per cent of the adult population plays each week. For them, the regular purchase of a Lotto ticket is as important as paying the gas bill. Maybe more so.

There are more than two million possible combinations. You have to pick six numbers out of 39. It's all about those magic numbers. Win? You're more likely to be murdered. Yet, on buying a Lotto ticket, this cynicism washes away. You look at your ticket with its six numbers and all other numbers disappear. Enter the demon whispering in your ear: 'You could win . . . .'

Then at 8.05pm you'll cast the ticket away, having just witnessed the machine dish out six numbers light years from your own. All over the country people are saying: 'That's a strange bunch of numbers.'

The majority of winners are regular buyers of tickets. There are some fanatics who put Lotto tickets above food for their children. What is more, they all have a system - all serious players have a system.

Telephone numbers, birthdays, anniversaries have all been converted into winning combinations. Some even hold their own mini lotteries to choose their numbers; once they get them they stick with them for life.

Earlier this year Mary Durke, a pensioner from Galway, won pounds 3m. Her system? Symbolic numbers picked from the Bible. Another winner does his numbers with a pen dipped in holy water from Lourdes. Isn't gambling a sin?

But there is only one true system of winning: to purchase every possible combination. In 1992 a self-proclaimed lottery expert, Stefan Klinceweiz, did just that.

Klinceweiz was behind a pub syndicate which had previously pulled off a jackpot win. He also produced a magazine devoted to systems for winning the lottery, imaginatively entitled Lottery Fortunes. Yet this was a far bigger operation, costing around pounds 900,000. Klinceweiz spent six months in preparation, filling out 1.9 million different combinations of numbers on lottery slips. At the point when he decided to go for it, he knew he only had three days in which to feed all these slips through the processing equipment at local shops and newsagents. Things became chaotic towards the end. To compound his difficulties, the National Lottery got wind of what was happening and began to close down the processing machines.

In the end, with only 90 per cent of all the possible combinations covered, he ran a serious risk of missing the main jackpot. Though he did actually win, he was forced to share the pounds 1.6m prize with two other winners who had bought standard pounds 1 tickets. The syndicate just cleared the million mark, thanks to bonus wins.

Shortly after that the National Lottery raised the choice of numbers from 36 to 39. This seems to have stopped Stefan Klinceweiz.

Most people don't seem to change when they win. One pounds 2m winner said that what he was most looking forward to was buying a new accordion. Two Dublin brothers who recently collected pounds 450,000 said they were unable to stay for publicity shots as they had to collect their pounds 8 smokeless fuel grants.

Certainly, if you are buying a ticket, use your own numbers and money. There have been too many court cases over who has ownership of a winning ticket, the buyer or whoever picked the numbers. The most celebrated example of this was a Sligo woman who successfully sued her former husband for a share of the winnings. His decision to leave her had coincided with his pounds 500,000 win.

My own Lotto system? I just pick the numbers but leave out the ticket-buying. Then I sit back and think of the money saved each Wednesday and Saturday night when I don't win.

Beatrix Campbell returns next week.