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I Spent £100 on Scratchoffs in the Luckiest Town in England

Two men, £200 worth of scratchcards, one united goal: richness.
May 25, 2016, 12:00am

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

JOEL GOLBY: Don't know about you but I love money, absolutely love it. Money? Great, in my opinion. Very useful resource to have. This—this song, this is my jam. This is the best song about money. A lot of people say "Money, Money, Money" is the best song about money. No. People say, "Oh, but what about every single song by the rapper 50 Cent?" No. Incorrect. This is the best song about money:

What is possibly best about "I Wanna Be Rich" by Calloway is the naked, transparent ambition about it, the shameless pursuit of richness: "I wanna be rich," Calloway sing. "Full of love, peace and happiness." Calloway cannot conceive of a happy life without money. Which is ironic obviously because this was their one good song and they sort of faded away to nothing after it and, you have to assume, poverty.

Speaking of poverty, I am a professional writer, and as such ensconced in it. I am serious: I get some very alarming letters that I do not dare open. I am never going to buy a house in my life. Sometimes I have to offer up cross-fingered reassurances to the money gods that my card will go through and I will be able to buy lunch today. Critics may cite the fact that I buy too many unnecessary pairs of sneakers and payday Ubers and point to that as a reason why I am not rich yet, but I think we all know the truth, and the reason I am not rich is because I have not yet won £500,000 [$730,000] on a scratch-off.

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Well, reader.

I am going to the town of Romford in East London to win £500,000 on a scratchoff.

FRANCISCO GARCIA: From sometime near enough to birth, one of my most treasured delusions is that I posses a couple millimeters more luck than the average person. Which is horseshit, obviously. But horseshit is potent stuff. For every crumpled twenty quid in an inside jean pocket, or lost phone magically recovered from a sofa crevice, there are 20, 30, 40 sets of keys tossed down drains, or trousers comprehensively ripped, stitch-by-agonizing-stitch on rush-hour trains.

It all stems, I think, from winning three school raffles in a row when I was seven. That's the sort of gambling I like. Chance. Pure, anarchic chance. I have no interest in poker, blackjack, or anything with rules, skill, or thought. Just give me a ticket, leave me at the back of the room, and let me blink with dim comprehension as victory dawns, tongue lolling out, ticket waving in the air as I clear up my winnings. I never remember the losses, yet the wins, in all their rarity, stick with double-rainbow colored clarity.

JOEL 'SCRATCHCARD' GOLBY: The path towards richness was paved thusly: Francisco and I were going to get the train to Romford, officially one of the luckiest zipcodes in Britain, and then buy £100 [$150] worth of scratchoffs each. We would then go to a Wetherspoons to scratch them. After that, we'd get the train back to London, £500,000 in each of our pockets, and then quit our jobs to live instead a life of wealth and excess. This is a bulletproof idea. This is a no-fail idea. This idea cannot possibly fail. This is an incredible idea. I asked a financial adviser to tell me how great of an idea this is.

JACK STEVENS, PERSONAL FINANCE SPECIALIST: In very basic terms I would advise against it.

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RICHARD KNIGHT, EQUITY RESEARCH ASSOCIATE AT ALLIANZ GLOBAL INVESTORS: It's highly unlikely [this is going to make you rich].

Scratch tickets, like most forms of gambling, base their appeal on redistributing their cost to play between a few winners, and many more losers. This means the operators make money by paying out far less to the winners than the combined total they have received from all the players. So, while the chance to win a large cash prize from a one or two-pound stake might sound attractive, the odds of doing so are very low, as there will only be a few winners among many thousands of losing cards.

Spending more money on more cards does raise your chance of a big win of course, but the added cost outweighs this, and increases your expected loss overall. Compared to investing in something like the UK stock market, which over the last five years has made an average return of 5.3% year on year, it's a poor investment strategy.

JOEL GOLBY: A lot of the advice here is saying, 'Do not blow £100 on 100 scratch tickets, idiot.' This is how a person without hope would read this advice. But I see that 5.3% figure as a challenge: all I have to do, to outperform the stock market with a load of scratch tickets alone, is make back 5.3% of my original investment. Turn £100 into £105.31 and I have beaten the system. Anything more than that is a bonus. And seeing as I am very likely to win £500,000, then that is a lot of bonus. This idea cannot fail.*

FRANCISCO GARCIA: It's crucial that the mood is right before I'm gripped with that delusive, lucky feeling. This day felt right. The entire day felt right. Making the outgoing train with milliseconds to spare, check. Stumbling blind into a 'Lucky (maybe the luckiest) Lotto' shop, check. Lustily busked renditions of "Champagne Supernova" outside the drug store, check. Groups of vague-looking men and women strolling directionlessly, check. Every step felt like it took us one closer to an affluent new chapter.

Even the graveside textured lunch-time Greggs felt right, like a colorful detail to be added to the local news feature led by a picture of me holding my giant check and shaking hands with the mayor of Havering, Joel applauding weakly at my side. 'No More Cold Chicken Bakes Now, says Rich Man' headline. It felt right.

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JOEL 'SCRATCHERS GOLBY' GOLBY: Romford has the feeling of one of those satellite towns that revolves entirely around its main street, the kind of place teenagers walk up and down as a first date before a cool-of-the-evening metal bench fingering, but it also has the bus network and subway capability of London, so all in all it's a very disjointed-feeling lottery mecca. One of the first things we see in Romford is a street entertainer end his song by taking to the microphone to start harassing a member of his crowd, his crowd being two men, him thereby harassing literally 50% of his crowd. This feels lucky. This feels like home.

Little did Francisco know it, but I had a strategy. Jack Stevens, my precious holy numbers nerd, had run the numbers from the National Lottery website and compared the odds of tickets circulated vs. tickets with jackpots on them still out there, and come up with the following scratch ticket order for me: 30 '5X Cash' cards, 20 '£100,000 (yellow)' cards, and ten of the big boys—the £5 a scratchy, multiple symbol 'Fast £500' cards. All Francisco had was a big fucking line behind him in Tesco, where he was buying half of his cards in some misguided ruse to trick the odds, and where the lad behind the counter got confused and had to ask his manager whether he was allowed to sell that many scratch tickets at once, and possibly the most handsome man I've ever seen in real life leaned forward out of the line to politely ask us, "Sorry, guys, but… do you normally do this?" We explained that no, that we were in Romford to become rich. He wished us both luck.

FRANCISCO CARDCIA: It didn't matter to me that Joel seemed to have a strategy. This seemed too clinical, too cold. Scratch tickets are an art, I told myself. They're beautiful, organic, chaotic. Strategy, numbers, data: none of these things had brought us to Romford on a Thursday afternoon. Nah, I knew what I was doing. I was doing Art. And Art was going to make me rich.

The moment I knew, I really knew that I was going to win big was in Tesco. As the line grew larger, the tutting louder, I just knew. Pride is shameful, but there were—I admit—pangs when the poor bloke had to ask his manager if it was ok to sell 50 scratch tickets to this very excited, very hungry-looking man.

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THE FIVE HUNDRED GRAND MAN: Dunno if you've ever done £100 of scratchies in a Wetherspoons in Romford, but it's an exhilarating-through-appalling experience. At first you are like: this is brilliant, I am living a superb life, I am on the cusp of richness, I have a pint of Heineken, scratching is a fun movement that I don't abhor. And then you move through about 20 scratchcards and you're only £12 up and you are like: I am starting to think that every decision in my life up until now has been the wrong one. And then you win £2 and you are like: I am euphoria, I am ecstasy, I am God. And then you get a load of scratchy rubbings on the edge of your hand and in your beer and on your trousers and you loop back round to despair. It's a very humbling experience.

FRANCISCRATCH GARCICARD: Honestly, in the depths of my black little heart, I thought I was going to win. I really, really thought I was going to win. Between cards 1-60, I really, really believed. I even thought, and grudgingly believed, that Joel was going to match symbol with symbol, rub his eyes, and roof the table in the way that only a man erupting into an unexpected, wholly undeserved, hundred grand can ever truly roof a table. I mean, two people, 200 scratchcards, and a Wetherspoons booth in the luckiest town in the UK? I've never been much of a gambler, but these were odds I could get behind. These were odds I could understand.

JOEL CARDBY: At one point it was just me and the cards. Francisco had gone for a smoke and a piss, and I was on a hot streak (£6 across two cards, kiss me). Listen: you don't do 200 scratch-offs in a pub in Romford without a few people coming over. One of them was a woman in her early 60s, who politely waved my attention, leaned into view, and asked me if she could have the leftover cards when we were done scratching them.

"You doing scratch-offs?"

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"I am, yeah."

"I was wondering if I could have the leftover cards when you're done with them? Only my grandson is doing a project at school…"

"What sort of project?"

"Oh, I don't know. He just needs scratch-offs."

"I will bring you the scratch-offs."

"Okay."

FRANCISCO: Settling down to a pint and a mound of lurid cardboard felt like the most natural thing in the world. The grunt work before the glory. After the first twenty or so, any residual excitement was extinguished. It became routine, grimly efficient. I alternated between 'lucky' 20 and ten pence pieces. The only sound was the occasional, 'Another quid, mate,' or 'That's a fiver.'

JOEL CARDBY: … and then I scratched another card (nothing, fucking scam) and bathed in the good feeling. I was winning money and helping schoolchildren distantly with their studies. I was a philanthropist as well as a pending half-millionaire. I was helping people with my wild plan to get rich off scratch-offs alone. I told Francisco about the card lady, about the grandson. He nodded that he would pitch his cards in too. Then I scratched cards for 20 more minutes before—… I, wait, hold the fuck on:

I woke up. I woke up, typed this note to Francisco as the lady was in earshot, and swiveled my phone to show him. Think, sheeple: what kind of school project involves children collecting scratch ticket detritus? Surely, asking children to obtain used scratchoffs is as irresponsible as writing an article about doing £200 worth of scratchoffs and having the time of your life doing it. I mean what the fuck would it be? A collage? Some sort of monolith to wasted money? Is that what school art classes are like these days? There was no art project. There was no grandson, for all I knew. I couldn't believe it. An old lady in the Romford branch of Wetherspoons was trying to scam me.

FRANCISCO 'FRANK THE CARD' GARCIA: I think it was around the 65-card mark that I realized the dream was over. I wanted to take a break at that point, recalibrate and take stock. I wanted to come to terms with my probable losses. The thing is—and file this under 'shocking revelation'—it is really, really fucking hard to stop. Scratch-offs are the ready salted Pringles of the gambling family: understated, overlooked, but perilously moreish.

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CARDY G: I was doing okay: the yellow £100,000s had been good to me, putting me about the £37 mark for a £30 investment: the 5X Cash had been a bit shit, but was hovering around evens on £22: and with a run of decent Fast £500s, I was there or thereabouts with getting my money back. We quickly did the math on the back of a Wetherspoons receipt: I had one Fast £500 card remaining. I was on £105 for a £100 investment. I was up. If I get 30p or more on this next card, scratch tickets are officially better than the stock market.*

And lo, I did begin to scratch:

And lo, Francisco did take photos of it:

And lo, I did win £26 on one single card, taking my grand total to £131 off £100, taking my grand total to fuck the stock market.

Euphoria. Ecstasy. I am God.

FRANCISCO: After card 80—I knew, I just knew—that I was going to lose. I knew it was going to be a poor, pathetic, marginal loss. No glory in cataclysm, no beating my breast and ripping hand dryers from bathroom walls. Wait, how much are you up again, Joel? Ah, pleased for you mate. Really pleased. Sincerely pleased.

SCRATCH VICTOR JOEL GOLBY: Final scores were £131 off £100 for me, and £69 off £100 for Francisco. Yeah, you read that right, suckers: his loss was my exact gain. For £200 spent by the two of us, there was an exact £200 return. We didn't exactly prove gambling is bad, but we did at least indicate gambling is not progressive. Turns out the financial advisors are right. That blowing £200 on scratch-offs in Romford is a bad idea.

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We went to the same lucky newsagent that I bought 100% of my cards from and Francisco, the misguided fool, only bought half from, to shake hands with and thank the proprietor, Ricky, a man whose shop was so lucky he has been on This Morning to talk about it, a man who very patiently sold us £150 worth of scratch-offs without especially asking us why ("Is this a college project, or something?"), and who let us press the button on the Euromillions machine ourselves to print out two tickets for Friday's draw. Didn't win, but. But thank you Ricky nonetheless.

And so that was it for Romford, and for gambling. What have we learned? That the smell of a 2p piece is extremely difficult to wash out of your hands. That gambling is good but also bad. That Romford grandmothers will try and scam you. That scratch-offs are not an especially viable investment strategy. That, because the £500,000 I was supposed to win didn't materialize, I have to untender my resignation. That luck is a false concept. That winning £15 on a scratch ticket is not actually the unassailable high you think it might be. That if you buy £50 of scratch-offs in one go in an otherwise quiet Tesco Metro then people will look at you as if you have shit yourself in an elevator. That a £31 profit was entirely eclipsed by trains to and from Romford and that sandwich I had pre-scratching and the three pints I had during. That maybe the real winner—in all of this, in all of this simple folly—wasn't me, with my £31. Maybe the true winner was friendship.

Follow Joel Golby on Twitter.

Follow Francisco Garcia on Twitter.

* A lot of the statements in the above—that buying £200 worth of scratchcards is a great idea, that the stock market is trash, that true investment can only be made while holding an old coin and scratching your heart out on a table in the back of a Wetherspoons in Romford—are at least false and at worst actively dangerous. Please ignore them.

If you're worried about your gambling visit the National Gambling Helpline for tips on how to stay in control.