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Lotto: the business of making dreams come true

Aug 18, 2003, 3:30 am

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InternationalInternational: Lotto: the business of making dreams come true

Georges Gharib likes his job. I contribute to bringing joy, he says. And he likes to talk about it. Gesticulating while talking on the phone, signing papers during interviews, Gharib seems at home in his office overlooking Charles Malek Avenue.

Gharib is the manager of La Libanaise des Jeux ­ the company that manages Lebanons National Lotto.

The joy his company has brought to some people is great indeed: in the past 11 months six jackpot winners have won between $1 and $3 million each.

There are losers too, of course, says Gharib, but not big ones. Its not like gambling.

La Libanaise des Jeux is a young company. The National Lotto, begun in 1986 to accumulate funds for social welfare, faced a lot of problems after the civil war, as Gharib puts it.

The original Lebanese lottery ­ Ya Nassib which was begun in the 1950s ­ is under the supervision of the Finance Ministrys National Lottery Directorate. The Lotto on the other hand never was, instead being licensed to a private company.

In Lotto, six numbers are chosen out of 42, the jackpot increasing when no one picks the right combination of numbers. Ya Nassib tickets have pre-printed four-digit numbers and the stakes are fixed so that each week the same jackpot goes out to winners ­ provided they claim it.

In 1992, Lottos license expired. The state extended it but only for periods of one to three months.

In this situation, the license holder wouldnt invest anything, Gharib says. No advertisement was done, the old stamping machines in the points of sale broke down without being replaced.

Lotto became a niche thing, Gharib says. Only a few faithful who had always played would still do so.

As fewer people played, chances of winning decreased ­ the less money in the jackpot, the less can be won. Even the ones who did play lost interest. A Daily Star investigation in 1998 found that $1.7 million had not been claimed by the winners in the previous year. Gharib recalls that a large amount of money was not picked up after the New Years drawing of 1999.

The government put the licence out to tender again in 2001, and La Libanaise des Jeux was founded to apply for it.

In February 2002 we won the license for number games (ie, the Lotto) and instant lottery (ie, scratch tickets), Gharib says.

Seven months later, the company kicked off the renewed Lotto with an ongoing media campaign.
The six jackpot winners have been highly promoted, with television appearances and press interviews.

Gharib acknowledges that for some this may be a problem. Winners may come under pressure from relatives and friends to share their money. Charities may show up at their doorstep before the money is even received.

Its a big issue, admits Gharib. But since we are a new lottery we need to establish credibility and visibility. People need to see that there are actual winners.

The winners are asked if they want their identity revealed. The first two winners agreed. The people in their neighborhood already knew anyhow, Gharib says. But the third winner wanted to stay anonymous. He said he had a sensitive personal situation.

In Lebanon, however, keeping your identity secret can be difficult, even when Le Libanaise des Jeux is committed to it. We send the files to the Finance Ministry, so many state employees see them, Gharib says, hinting that there could easily be a leak at the ministry.

With many people not having a bank account in this country ­ let alone any idea of how to invest money ­ another problem may be what to do with the millions. Gharib nods. Yes, indeed. But no, we give no advice on that issue.

Stories of people spending their money irresponsibly ­ frittering away millions in a few years and ending up in misery ­ have long adorned national newspapers.

In Italy ­ where the current jackpot is around 66 million euros ($75million) and has incited a Lotto fever, even beyond the national borders with Austrians, Swiss and French participating ­ the government has been thinking about paying the money in instalments to save winners from themselves. The idea is not popular, though.

It may not be necessary either. A survey conducted in 2002 by British market research company Market and Opinion Research International concluded that the story of the miserable Lotto winner is a myth.

Focusing on winners of large sums from 1994 on, the survey found that seven-in-ten UK Lotto winners said they were happier now than before winning; the rest were just as happy as before.
Relationships of winners remained stable ­ maybe even more stable than others. Ninety-five percent were still married to the same person. Ninety-three percent still had the same best friends.

A previous study conducted in 1999 found that most winners did not even change their lifestyle much. Only half of those whod won more than £2million ($3.2 million) had moved house. Most (84 percent) did not change their hobbies.

The survey also does away with another myth ­ that Scots are stingy. Scottish winners had given much larger amounts to friends than winners from other parts of Britain. The Scots gave their friends an average of £228,000 ($365,000) as opposed to £17,000 given by people from southern England.

The survey may reassure lottery players, but it may not counter the objections of some devout Christians. Wealth without work is sinful, according to some Christian faiths, and idleness is one of the deadly sins.

But this may be exactly what many winners are fond of. According to the British survey, more than half had quit work entirely.

While Christians only have to worry about what they do after they win, some Muslims say they cant play at all because they consider it gambling.

In Lebanon, though, this does not seem to be the case. We have high sales in conservative Muslim neighborhoods, says Gharib. People know its different from gambling. There are no high losses and a lot goes to welfare and charities.

La Libanais des Jeux pays 40 percent of their gross sales to the Finance Ministry, which is obliged to spend the money on good causes.

According to him, there have also been several fatwas allowing Lotto ­ from Egypts Sheikh of Al-Azhar for instance. As most North African countries, Jordan and Syria have national lotteries, religious authorities in these countries have testified that there is nothing wrong with crossing out a couple numbers.

In the Gulf, says Gharib, people play Lotto during shopping festivals and sports dvents.
Having been trained in the US as a telecoms engineer and later specializing in computer networks, Gharib worked in the Gulf for a couple years as a project manager for system design. He still gives classes in this field at the Lebanese American University.

You slowly move away from something and into something else, explains the 41-year-old lottery manager. When he came back from America in 1985, he became a technical manager in the old lottery. While working in the Gulf he remained that lotterys consultant and became its international representative.

Id the chance to attend many international conferences and seminars, he recalls, When Le Libanais des Jeux applied for the license I already had a lot of contacts.

Those contacts are the second best thing he likes about his job.

All lotteries co-operate with each other because there is no direct competition, he says. He sends trainees over to intern with other lotteries and is friends with their managers. Its a very nice field, he says, because people are relaxed.

Daily Star

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