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Haitians Are Hooked on the New York Lotto

Thanks to hole-in-the-wall bookies known as "borlettes," thousands of poor Haitians are playing a local version of New York's state-run lottery.

by Sam Koebrich
Nov 10 2014, 5:00am

Photos by the author

It's commonly known that ​low-income households buy a disproportionate number of lotto tickets, a fact that contributes to the reputation of lotteries as being a regressive tax on the poor. What's often not mentioned when we talk about the lottery is that some state-run lottery systems have international appeal—for instance, Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital plagued by a level of systemic poverty unimaginable to the average Manhattanite, is addicted to an idiosyncratic version of the New York Lotto. 

Walking around the city recently I shuffled through slums, jumped over cholera-infested stagnant water, and climbed piles of rubble still left over from the 2010 earthquake; but no matter where I went, a borlette—a shop where bookies sell lotto tickets—was on every corner. These are typically coated with blue, yellow, and white paint faded by years of intense sun. A wire mesh screen separates the bookie from his or her lineup of regular customers. The memo pads strewn about chaotically are considered critical tools for those who play, since they track weeks of picked and winning numbers—even though these past drawings have no effect on future results. Outside the shop, there's always a chalkboard with the most recent New York Lotto numbers.

Born in the slums of Port-au-Prince in 1969, borlettes quickly spread across the country. Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, then the country's dictator, legalized them soon after their inception; the government now requires owners to pay a licensing fee and use official betting slips, but doesn't provide much else in the way of oversight. Bookies operate independently, but competition for clients has resulted in several conglomerates to form across the city. Today,  the lottery is so popular in the country that some Haitians buy daily tickets right ​off their cell phones.

For years, the bookies provided three games to customers: Midi, a low-stakes Haitian lottery system; the Dominican Republic Lottery, which runs on weekends; and Pick Four, a game based off the numbers drawn in the daily Venezuelan national lotto. After widespread corruption was unveiled in Venezuela, Haitians turned to New York to get their daily dose of risk and dreams.

And when people say they're dreaming about winning the lottery, they're not kidding. Many Haitians actually decipher the messages from their previous night's slumber to decide what numbers are going to be lucky for them that day. No borlette is complete without a  ​tchala, a reference dictionary that catalogs the content of dreams and provides corresponding lucky numbers. Dream of Mardi Gras? Then 37, 11, and 17 are your keys to wealth. 

I asked Augustan, who was in line to pick up his daily ticket, how he chose his numbers. Pointing at the tattered tchala on the wall he said in French that the key to success "depends on the person... There are some who [use their] dreams." He and the the bookie chuckled about the topic. While Augustan rarely uses his dreams to decide his lucky numbers, it's still a respected practice ingrained in Voodoo culture.

Augustan said that he's "really an amateur" but still buys tickets once or twice a day. While Midi is cheaper, the New York Lotto is where the big bucks are made. Borlettes charge $10 for a New York Lotto ticket—just about all of an average Haitian's disposable income for the day. A dollar or two goes to the bookie, and a small percentage is redistributed through the Ministry of Education, but the majority goes into payouts.

Despite the hokey ways Haitians pick their numbers, borlettes are a serious force in the Haitian economy. It's been reported that Haitians spend up to  ​$1.5 billion a year on lottery tickets, almost a fifth of the country's GDP. One bookie I spoke to said he sells over 100 New York Lotto tickets a day. Many residents don't have easy access to banks or financial education, so it's perhaps natural that gambling has become it's own form of investment in Haiti—albeit a dream-based, highly unstable form of investment.

So how is this New York Lottery money getting funneled into Haiti without consequences? It's not—and that's the catch. Bookies appear to simply be using the Empire State's namesake and numbers; they set their own jackpots and payout structures, which most of them conceded when I asked them about it.  

That's not to say that people don't win money. A bookie in Carnape Vert, a hilly slum neighborhood leveled by the earthquake and now stuck in a state of perpetual transitional housing, was eager to insist that he makes big payouts frequently. He shuffled through a legal pad full of chicken scratches to show me that he had people win $600 and $3,000 just in the last week—a lot of money in a country where the per capita GDP is less than $900.

For Haitians who don't randomly become wealthy, there aren't a lot of options. Swathes of Port-au-Prince are still in ruin. A couple years ago, Sean Penn's charity paid for the demolition of the already  ​partially collapsed national palace. Now the site, along with several government buildings around it have been left in a perpetual state of despair, an unfortunate symbol of how bad things have gotten here.

On one walk through the city, I approached a neighborhood to the north of the palace, near the historic Iron Market, which was completely in rubble. Crushed cinderblock consumed acres of land, the occasional spine of a building was left standing, a few tarps bearing the USAID logo hanging from it made some form of a shelter—inside, smeared shit and rusty cans indicated squatters had lived here at some point, or still did.

Walking out of the structure, I squinted to see a functioning street past in the distance: At the corner of the street was a borlette with a line stretching out the door.

Follow Sam Koebrich ​on Twitter.

​Anisa Rawhani contributed to this story.