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Spain Holds $2.2B Christmas Lottery

Dec 23, 2003, 5:26 am

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El Gordo

The world's richest lottery spread $2.2 billion in Christmas cheer Monday throughout Spain, including to a village whose name means luck.

Spaniards spent the morning glued to television sets and radios for the latest edition of a sweepstakes that goes back to 1812 and marks the official start of Spain's holiday season.

For three hours, school children picked small, wooden balls out of two golden tumblers -- one for 5-digit lottery numbers and another for the corresponding prize.

Known as El Gordo, or the Fat One, the lottery uses a complex system of shared numbers that shuns winner-takes-all jackpots and instead brings wealth to millions of people holding numbers that go from 00001 to 66,000.

Complicating matters further, each of those 66,000 numbers is repeated 1,900 times. People often team up to buy tickets costing $25 each, so windfalls trickle through towns, offices, sports clubs and bars.

Tens of thousands win something -- from $125 to $250,000 on a single ticket.

This year's first-prize number was 42473. The 1,900 tickets bearing that number were worth a total $470 million.

Six-hundred first-prize winners were sold in a village in Catalonia called Sort, which means "luck" in the northeast region's language. Many people trek there to buy tickets, making its lone lottery outlet -- nicknamed The Golden Witch -- Spain's busiest at Christmas.

Manager Xavier Gabriel said he'd sold winning tickets worth $186 million in winnings. "The Golden Witch has behaved well, to say the least," he told the national news agency Efe.

Another lucky place Monday was the eastern beach town of Santa Pola. Lottery office manager Raul Robles was already celebrating having sold fourth-prize tickets worth a total of $250,000 when he learned he'd also sold second-prize coupons -- bearing the number 24635 -- worth $220 million.

"My heart is racing. My legs are shaking," Robles told Efe.

Three-quarters of the country's 40 million people take part in El Gordo, officials say.

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