Lifestyle & Culture

Irina Greensitt: El Gordo, ‘the Fat One,’ is Spain’s biggest lottery and a Spanish obsession

Cadiz in March 1812, home to Spain’s government in exile and the last line of defence against Napoleon’s invaders, was a somewhat surprising setting for the first of what has surely become the world’s most famous lottery and in the process a Spanish obsession – “El Gordo,” or The Fat One.

Today, there are much bigger lotteries, but there are no lotteries with bigger spectacles than this annual Christmas event. With other lotteries, the only risk of not having a ticket is not winning. With El Gordo there is an added risk of not wanting to miss out on the celebrations.

Initially, El Gordo was conceived as a means to fund the military, thereby aiding in the fight against Napoleon’s advancing troops during the War of Independence or Peninsular War. In 1897 the draw moved to the now familiar 22 December whereupon it continued unabated and uninterrupted through the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War, two world wars and even a pandemic or two.

How it works

Each ticket or billete consists of a 5-digit number (the all-important number) ranging from 00000 to 99999, a SERIE, and a FRACCIÓN. One Billete will set you back an impressive 200 euros. Fortunately, and to make it more affordable, every Billet produced is divided into Décimos or Fraccións (10 identical parts) each with the same 5-digit number belonging to the same Serie.

A Décimo or Fracción costs 20 euros. This dividing of the same ticket number often between family, colleagues, friends, and locals makes El Gordo something of a Christmas social occasion. I should add that many clubs, communities, workplaces go one step further to allow shares of décimos thereby spreading the winnings even more thinly.

The draw takes place each year on 22 December at Madrid’s Teatro Real, with the spectacle commencing at 9 a.m. and continuing throughout the day, often lasting for six hours or more.

Traditionally, the drawing of the balls is the preserve of pupils from the San Ildelfonso school in Madrid, who in the Spanish theatrical tonadilla style sing out each number as they are drawn to the many millions of viewers watching at home, in bars or at work. This tradition dates back to 1771 (and pre-El Gordo) when the school was an orphanage.

Two huge spherical golden drums are used in the draw. The first contains the ticket numbers – all 100,000 of them – whilst the second contains the prize corresponding to that ticket number. There are 1,807 prize balls, all of which have to be drawn so it’s hardly surprising the whole event takes several hours to complete. At any point during the six-hour marathon, the jackpot prize of 4 million could be drawn, thereby helping keep the attention of viewers, many of whom will have been up since the early hours in anticipation.

It’s not the money … it’s the community

Tickets go on sale during the summer months, usually July, largely to take advantage of the influx of overseas visitors. It is estimated that 20 percent of all ticket sales are by foreigners, the largest spenders (per head) being the Mexicans.

In 2020 there will be 17,000,000** billets available at 200 euros each, representing possible sales of 3.4 billion euros, of which 70 percent – or 2.38 billion euros – is made available as prize money with the remaining 30 percent split between the government and vendors.

(** There are 100,000 billets from 00000 to 99999. There are 170 SERIE (each serie consisting of the same numbers in the range of 00000 to 99999).

Each billete has a 1-in-100,000 chance of winning a share in the top prize of 4 million euros, with each fracción, or décimo, being worth 400,000 euros. In the grand scheme of things and compared to other lotteries it doesn’t appear overly generous.

The appeal of El Gordo lies in the fact that it creates a lot of winners and what prizes there are, are generally shared amongst friends, relatives, colleagues and neighbours. It is this sharing, this community celebration that almost compels you to purchase a ticket.

There is a 10-percent chance of getting your money back, and a 5.3-percent chance of winning one of the higher prizes. Now, of course, all that means is that nine out of 10 tickets will be unlucky. Nevertheless, even losing participants celebrate and receive congratulations because what’s important is good health. After the 2020 we’ve just had, who can possibly argue with that?

Have a safe Christmas, and if you’ve invested money in El Gordo, good luck.

About the author:

Irina Greensitt is from the far eastern town of Khabarovsk in Russia, but has previously been living in the United Kingdom for seven years before moving to Spain in 2014 together with her husband and two young children.

Irina now runs an internet business and lists walking, travel and sailing (passing her skippers exam in 2016) amongst her hobbies. 

See all of Irina’s posts here.

See more from Dispatches’ Spanish archive here.

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