Sunday, February 13, 2000

Little wins keep lottery play going




BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BELLEVUE — This is George Turner's life: His family, his part-time job and the lottery machines at the Bellevue Kroger.

        He's crazy about the lottery machines.

        At least every other day, he hangs around for several hours, watching others lose money on instant tickets and feeding his own cash to the machines.

        Everyone at Kroger knows him. Some think his obsession is sad. Others share it.

        “They tell me I'm a gambling fool, but I live on gambling,” Mr. Turner says.

        The lottery lives on people like him. They think it's a game. It's more like a government tax on gullibility.

        Last year, Kentuckians spent $278 million on the instant lottery, which paid about $177 million in prizes.

        Mr. Turner, 62, buys dozens of tickets at a time. He doesn't dwell on his expenses. At such a furious pace, only the big money matters.

        “We don't count these $5 winners, this small junk,” he says.

        On Thursday, he had one instant ticket worth $125 and two that paid $50 each. To play, he spent about $140 of his own money and $37 in small payoffs from other tickets, he says.

        “I'd say our profit was $50. That's not bad for two hours,” Mr. Turner says.

        He is nobody's victim.

        “I gamble because I want to,” he says. “I smoke because I want to. Everyone's got to have something to do.”

        Mr. Turner's wife, Carol, says he usually breaks even. Their son, George Turner Jr., likes to watch his dad play.

        “He usually does make a profit,” says George, 20. “Ever since I was a little kid he could do this.”

        Experts aren't so sure. Yes, people have winning streaks, but the longer they play, the more likely they are to lose. The lottery counts on it.

        “What's amazing is how delusional gamblers' thinking can be while they're gambling,” says Lori Rugle, president of the Ohio Council on Problem Gambling. “It's common to have all sorts of magical ideas and fantasies.”

        Mr. Turner's pockets are stuffed with instant tickets and cash. His head is stuffed with strategies.

        “When you hit this series here,” he says, pointing to the ID number at the bottom of an instant ticket, “there's only two winners in the whole series, so if you get lucky and hit it once, you don't play it again.”

        He knows when the vending machines get refilled. He knows how many winners are in each stack, and he times his purchases accordingly.

        “Most of the time you have to push him out of the way to get there,” says Carol Wood, a Newport woman who met Mr. Turner at the machines. “Everybody knows him.”

        On Thursday afternoon, Ms. Wood bought an instant ticket that paid $125. Mr. Turner says he knew the game was about to hit. If she hadn't stepped in, he would have bought the winner, he says.

        He's not upset. This just proves his system works.

        He and his family live in a two-bedroom apartment in Newport. At the moment, their place is under renovation, so they're staying in smaller quarters. George Jr. has to sleep in the living room.

        Mrs. Turner works at a grocery store. Her husband is a part-time janitor. Their son does maintenance work. The family has no car, but last week they were able to buy a video game system with Mr. Turner's winnings.

        He remembers the moment he fell in love with gambling. It was 1957, and he was traveling by bus from Cincinnati to Oakland, Calif., headed for an Army base in Hawaii.

        On a 10-minute stop in Nevada, a woman gave him a tip: The slot machine in the bus depot was about to pay off.

        Mr. Turner put in a dime and got $200. He was hooked.

        For years he played five-card stud, then bingo. Now he bets only on the lottery, which he has played exclusively for about eight years.

        “It's so simple,” Mr. Turner says. “You lay your money down, you get your money instantly. It doesn't take all day to win $200 or $300.”

        The lottery entertains him, he says. Without it, he would be a little lost.

        There's no telling how much money he would save.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at ksamples@enquirer.com.