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Scratch-off tickets are lottery's big winner in N.J.

Jul 25, 2006, 11:09 am

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New Jersey Lottery

Wanna bet which game has fueled the New Jersey Lottery's growing revenue over the past decade?

It's not the multi-state Mega Millions, introduced in 1999, but the simple scratch-off ticket.

Yes, the tempt of instant gratification has nearly tripled scratch-off sales since fiscal year 1997. Last year, scratcher sales reached more than $1 billion for the first time and accounted for nearly half of the state's lottery sales.

"One reason has to do with sort of instant gratification - they can find out immediately," said Don Catlin, a retired mathematics professor at the University of Massachusetts and author of "The Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers."

"But perhaps a more reasonable reason is they're playing because of their pocket book," Catlin added.

Scratch-offs tend to give more back to players - percentage-wise, not jackpot size. Number games pay out about 50 percent, while New Jersey's instant games offer a 65 percent return on your investment, a fact sometimes belied by experience.

"I don't like the scratch-offs, you never get nothing," said Ruben Burgos, 51, of Camden, a regular player of drawings games.

Charmella Moore, 28, of Lindenwold, plays the numbers in a work pool, but when she plays occasionally by herself, she sticks with scratchers.

"I'm never any good with numbers," Moore said.

Tom Sands, 41, of Cherry Hill, leans toward drawings thinking he has a better chance. "I hardly ever win," Sands said of scratch-offs.

He still scratches because he knows someone who won $25,000 and $60,000 that way.

So Sands buys regularly for drawings and occasionally grabs an instant game. He used to play $100 per week, but fatherhood has trimmed that to about $20.

"If you're going to spend it on nonsense like drinking or smoking ... I don't," Sands said. "I spend it on the lotto. People say it's a sucker's bet, but if you win it's not a sucker's bet."

Scratch-offs are no sucker's bet for state lotteries like New Jersey.

"Instant ticket sales nationwide have become something that seems pleasing to the public - instant tickets are unique in that you are able to partner them with popular themes," Lottery Director Michellene Davis said. " ... There's always an interesting new, creative way to partner that particular arm of our products."

In fiscal 1997, the state sold nearly $1.2 billion in tickets for nightly drawings. Over the ensuing years it joined a multi-state game and started drawing Pick 3 and Pick 4 twice daily — and sold just over $1.2 billion last year.

That's a rise of $35 million, in a period when instant game sales are up $683 million.

They are more popular, offer a prettier gift package than a pink sheet of Pick-6 numbers and give a better shot of winning, but you're still better off at a casino, said Catlin, the lottery pundit.

"They're all lousy bets," Catlin said. "Whether it's regular lottery or scratch tickets, any casino game is better, except maybe for keno."

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