The scene is the Valencia Grocery and Deli, at 1300 Valencia Street.  But it could be any bodega in the Mission District or, for that matter, anywhere in California where the lottery is played.  Patrons wander the store for a snack, and then troop to the lottery machine, where they pay for the snack and a lottery ticket, handing over a few bills, on a recent morning, to Fadi Shatara, the cashier.

“You can’t win, if you don’t play,” said Shatara, shrugging.

Most people know that players rarely win the lottery and even people who know the long odds gamble say they play just for the thrill of it and that’s enough.  But some lottery games have a tiny (if temporary) edge in the odds, such as “Cherry Tripler” and “$100,000 Club,” but for some reason the games are difficult to find in the Mission District.

A garbage full of losing lottery tickets and scratchers.

Most players in the Mission District are probably unaware of these favorable games. They are middle-aged or elderly, between 40 and 65, retired, and on a fixed income, according to bodega and deli clerks. They come from all races.  That is somewhat different from the findings of a 1999 study by Duke University of national lottery trends. Duke found that low-income minorities, with a high-school degree or less, play the lottery more often than whites.

The lottery started in California in 1985, ostensibly to help schools. By law, a third of lottery revenue must go to public education, recently some $1 billion.  I come from a family of modest means but heavy gamblers. My grandmother would lose a large part of her Social Security check gambling in the back rooms of New York bodegas. So I have a special interest in gambling, a family itch, but not very strong.

I buy instant games, better known as scratchers, every now and then. California currently has seven lottery games, and usually has as many as 25 scratcher games, like “Hit the Jackpot,” which disclose a winner of small sums instantly, rather than waiting for a daily drawing or one every several days for the multi-million-dollar prizes.  The odds of winning are long. Based on recent data from the California State Lottery website (, the odds of matching 5 of 5 in the “Mega Millions,” drawn every few days, is 1 in 3.9 million tickets (about the population of Oregon).  The odds of matching 5 of 5 plus the Mega are 1 in nearly 176 million (or three-fifths of the United States).

Dolores Street resident, Frank Maples plays $5 worth of lotto every week, and never wins, he said.   “The first time I played was 20 years ago.  I won $100 and now I’m hooked,” he said.  He’s hoping to win a big jackpot—at least $20 million, he said.  He knows it’s almost impossible.

But for scratchers, like me, the odds are better. For example, a $1 game where you need to match three symbols in a row or two symbols and a cherry to win a prize, the odds are 1 in 4.97 tickets.

So I set out to try my luck. Based on recent odds from the Cal Lottery website, I wrote down the name of one scratcher from each price point with the highest odds of winning and the highest payoff.  I searched for these games in the Mission District.  To my surprise, it took visits to eight stores for me to find these favorable games — “Cherry Tripler,” “On the Money,” and “Red, White and Blue 7.” I never found “$100,000 Club.”

Why? One store clerk told me that they have no control over which games they get.  Alex Traverso, a spokesman for the agency that runs the lottery, the California Lottery Commission, said the games are sent at random, but with attention paid to what games are most popular in a neighborhood.

Discouraged, I scratched 12 tickets ($45 worth).  I won nothing but a free ticket on “Red, White and Blue 7” and $8 on “Hit the Jackpot.” I was down $37.  I was carrying on a family tradition of losing at gambling. I can’t remember a day my parents didn’t play the lottery.  My mother’s only birthday wish was to go to her favorite casino.

Recently on a trip home to Brooklyn, I asked my mother how much she gambled and she handed me a receipt for her and my father. I gasped. The one-day total was $175.  If they spent that much every day, it meant that most of her salary as a nurse was going to the New York State Lottery. (Clearly it didn’t, I have five sisters and a brother.)

My mother’s bag of tickets.

“I know the money I spent adds up to more than I would probably win,” my mother told me.  “But it’s not just playing to win.  Part of it is that excitement, the anticipation that maybe you’ll win something big.”

She added, “Every time I say I’ll stop, I win (something), so I go back the next day.”

A few days later, I took my few winning tickets to Valencia Grocery and Deli to cash them in.  I received an “Extreme Green” with my free $3 pick and a “Pot of Luck” scratcher for $2.  As I left, the cashier wished me luck.

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Armand is a photojournalism and multimedia student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and is originally from Baton Rouge, La. His work history includes being a paper pusher in Los Angeles and a youth program coordinator in Ramallah, and is currently a student editor at Mission Local, which means he gets to read a lot of news and tell people what to do.

He also waits for the day when bacon and buffalo sauce combine on one plate.

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