Once upon a time there was a pub.
A public house, a drinking establishment, a bar, a boozer.
The pub was known in those days as Ye Younge Bush Inn. As the centuries unfurled it would later be Ye Middle-Aged Bush Inn, then Ye Olde Bush Inn.
Even later still, it would be known as Georgio’s at the Bush, a Michelin starred gastropub serving British classics with an Italian twist. The food would be artfully piled and blobbed on pieces of black slate and feature pigeon cooked three ways with textures of beetroot and a pistachio foam.
But we needn’t worry about that now. That is many years in the future. As our story starts, Ye Younge Bush Inn is the prototype pub at the dawn of civilization. It serves beer, mystery meat pies and dysentery.
Mickey is kicking his heels outside the pub. He sits on a tree stump and looks glumpily at the pub door.
With a puff of sulphur and brimstone, the Devil appears by his side. Old Nick, Lucifer, the horned one.
“Oh, it’s you again,” says Mickey. “You needn’t bother with your tricks. You’ve won my soul already.”
The Devil sits next to Mickey, curling his tail around his toes. “Why are you so glum?”
Mickey points at the pub. “They’ve just invented money.”
“Oh good,” says the Devil. “I like this bit.”
“I don’t,” says Mickey. “It’s a way of swapping hard work for goods and services. You work in the fields all day to earn a penny. Then you can spend that penny on food, beer and girls.”
“Sounds wonderful,” said the Devil, licking his black lips in antici …. wait for it! … pation.
“It’s no good for me. I can’t be arsed to do any work. So I ain’t got no penny. And that means no beer.”
The Devil leaps up. “Follow me, my idle young friend. I will show you some magic.”
They walk inside the pub. It is full to the rafters with horny handed sons of toil quaffing ale and making jokes about turnips.
“If I could have your attention for a moment,” says the Devil to the entire pub. “I would like to show you a magic trick. Before your very eyes, I will turn one penny into nine!”
“This I’d like to see,” says a grizzled farmer who could never his words in the right order put.
The Devil passes around a hat. “I need ten of you to put a penny in this hat. Just one penny. That’s all I ask.”
One by one they fish into their pockets and pull a grubby penny out from the darker corners where it had been nestling amongst the fluff, pieces of string, bits of apple and stray pieces of flint. The pennies are snuggly warm with body heat. Chink, chink, chink, they plop into the hat.
“And now for the magic,” says the Devil. He reaches into the bag and counts out nine pennies. Then he looks around the pub, chooses one person at random – farmer Giles – and presses those nine pennies into his broad soil-stained hands, the size of shovels and just as clean as shovels.
Farmer Giles smiles like a loon. “By ‘eck,” he says in a suitably rural dialect. “That be a mighty fine bit o’ magic. I never be ‘aving nine pennies afore. I be richer than me wildest dreams.”
Everyone crowds around Farmer Giles. Folks are patting him on the back, calling him their best friend, reminding him of past favours done.
Quietly and unnoticed, the Devil takes the one remaining penny from the hat and slips it into his own pocket.
“It won’t be changin’ me,” says Farmer Giles. “I’ll still be the same ol’ fella I always was.”
“Good ho,” says the Devil. “Shall we play the game again? Who else would like to win the nine pennies?”
Time passes like beer through a man’s kidneys. Eventually it is late night, and the only two people left in the pub are Mickey and the Devil. Both are pleasantly pished, under the influence, beer-sodden, drunk. They are working their way through an apparently endless supply of pennies in the Devil’s pocket.
“I don’t unnerstan,” says Mickey through lips that won’t quite do as they are told. “How did we get all this money?”
The Devil claps him on the shoulder. “You humans are shtupid. All you can see are the nine pennies. You think the deal is one penny for nine. And that shounds like a good deal, doesn’t it?”
Mickey nods. “It shurely does, your satanic eminence, shir.”
“But here’s the trick. By the laws of chance you have to spend ten pennies to win the nine. The missing penny goes shtraight into my pocket. They lose, we win.”
“We won’t be able to play the game in the morrer,” says Mickey, suddenly turning morose. “They’ll figure it out.”
The Devil flashes a spectacularly evil smile. “Oh no, my friend. They’ll never work it out. You’ll be playing the same trick for centuries to come. One day, you’ll call this trick a lottery and earn billions.”
“What’s a billion?” asks Mickey.
And so our story ends. Shortly after this adventure, Mickey became the world’s first casino owner. He used the trick that the Devil had showed him to earn more pennies than he knew existed. Before long, he had experienced first-hand what a billion looks like.
The UK Lottery has been running for 20 years. Its terms are even less generous than the Devil’s. It returns just half of its takings into prizes. The prizes are skewed so that a very small proportion of players win a very large amount of money and the vast majority either lose or win a small amount.
If you had spent £10 on the lottery every week for the last 20 years, you would have spent more than £10,000. By the law of averages you would have won a few small prizes, but nowhere near enough to compensate for all the losses. The odds of winning the jackpot or five numbers plus the bonus balls are in the millions. The jackpot is a 45 million to one chance. That’s all but impossible to win.
If you had taken that £10,000 and invested it in a savings account instead, you would now have more than £14,000 at 3% interest or £17,000 at 5% interest.
If you are in debt, then the money you spend on the lottery adds to your debt each week. It costs you interest at the highest rate that you are paying.
If you are paying 10% interest on your money, that £10,000 spent on the lottery will really cost you more than £30,000.
And if you are carrying credit card debts at more than 20%, that lottery habit will cost you more than £130,000.
No wonder the Devil is smiling. We spend so much time staring at the big jackpots that we don’t notice the pennies he is putting into his pocket every single time the game is played.