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Gambling's Man

Jimmy O'Brien Turned Scratch Lottery Tickets Into a $22 Billion-a-Year Itch

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page C01

ALPHARETTA, Ga.

The headquarters of Scientific Games looks like any other office building on this green stretch of industrial-park suburbia, 20 minutes outside Atlanta. It's basically a parking lot, five flagpoles and room for 900 employees. But with a security pass and a chaperon, you can get a tour of the place, and eventually that will lead to a noisy, bustling factory that you can't see from the street.

"Pretty amazing, isn't it?" Steve Charles shouts one recent afternoon.


Steve Saferin, left, and Jimmy O'Brien with some of the 17 billion scratch lottery tickets that Scientific Games prints each year for state governments. (Erik S. Lesser For The Washington Post)

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Charles oversees production here, and at the moment he's standing near a printing press that's about as long as a football field and 12 feet wide. Close by are what look like a dozen towers, all of which come close to grazing the ceiling. Get closer and you realize that each tower is a series of thick spools stacked one on top of the other -- roll after roll of instant, scratch-off lottery tickets, in perforated sheets. They're festooned with zany fonts and phrases like "Jumbo Cash!" and "Pay Day."

"This is just four days of work," Charles yells, looking up.

Over the course of a year, more than 17 billion -- that's right, billion -- scratch tickets will be stamped out in this plant, enough to girdle the globe at the equator 44 times. About 70 percent of all the cards sold in this country are designed and manufactured here, then sent to state lotteries, then to stores, where they are snapped up in droves that keep growing. Last year, we dropped $22 billion on scratch cards. That's more than we spent on movie tickets and video games combined.

Apparently, we're just getting warmed up. State lotteries say the sweet spot of this market is pricier cards with bigger jackpots -- $10 and $20 cards and million-dollar payoffs are now common. Fifty-dollar scratch tickets will likely debut by the end of the year. Some of these games are designed to take 15 minutes to play.

Many offer booty that makes cash seem dull. Play the "Wheel of Fortune" card and you could wind up with an audition on the show. Eight winners have scratched their way onto the air. And through licensing deals, celebrities, pop icons and other well-known images are turning up on tickets. Elvis has a card ("a hunka hunka instant love," it says in ads) as do stars of the NBA, TV Guide, Monopoly, an assortment of Ford trucks, the Pink Panther, Pac-Man and the "I Love Lucy" show.

"State lotteries love it because it's more interesting to promote the NBA than tick-tack-toe," says Steve Saferin, the Scientific Games marketer who pioneered the licensed card concept.

The dark side of all this is that for a small percent of scratchers, the cards are a life-wrecking problem. For many more, they're just a problem.

"One guy, he'd go into the store and literally buy tickets by the pound," says Ed Looney of the New Jersey Compulsive Gambling Council. "I mean, they'd put the tickets on a scale and weigh them. Then he'd get in his car and scratch for hours."

But big-time flameouts are pretty rare, says Looney. Scratch cards don't mint many gazillionaires, either, or turn up as plot devices on "Law & Order." They're one of those low-profile crazes that seem to take hold while nobody is looking. One day, you're at the store and you realize there are 25 scratch games for sale. Or you discover that your 13-year-old niece plays once a week. (Tsk, tsk. Must be over 18 to scratch.) Or you find yourself rubbing the latex coating off a card for a game called "Twice Lucky" and irrationally thinking, "Wow. I almost won." Which makes you buy another.

Some psychologists who've studied gambling say scratch cards, like all government lotteries, are basically a tax on the poor, since the poorer you are, the more likely you are to play. At minimum, they are a massive transfer of wealth, from the unlucky to the fortunate few and to everyone who doesn't play. But even among detractors, the tickets inspire a certain amount of awe. They're designed with an uncanny grasp of what makes people fritter away money on a losing cause. We're talking about a consumer product that generates about the same amount of money as Coca-Cola, and it hardly existed 25 years ago.

But if the tickets seem like a phenomenon that came out of nowhere, they're not. They came out of Massachusetts. Actually, we can get more specific than that. They came from a former Massachusetts lottery employee known affectionately in the business as "the mad scientist."


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