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The Spanish lottery

The Spanish lottery 

The Spanish lottery is not just a normal lottery, it is part of the Spanish culture. Especially with Christmas, people get together to watch with tension the national lottery drawing. On the 22nd of December 100.00 Balls are rolling, 2 million people are watching on TV, and € 2 billion ($ 2.3 billion) is waiting for its owners. How did the world´s biggest jackpot come to be what it is now?

The origin of the Spanish lottery

When the Spanish King Charles III, was implementing many improvements to the country and fighting a lot of wars, there was a lack of cash flow and he had to come up with a solution. He then remembered that when he reigned over the region of Naples for 19 years, which was then part of the Kingdom of Spain, they had a monthly betting spree called the “lotto”, which derives from the French word “lote”, meaning faith. Since 1682, this had been beneficial for the state to earn some extra cash. 

So, in 1763, the king started to control any kind of practice of gambling or games of chance in Spain and illegalized both board and card games. In the same year the king introduced the “Lottery of Madrid”, and so the state lottery was now the only game they could spend their gambling money on.

The only person against this introduction was the pope, who was anti-gambling. However, since the king informed him that he was using this money to build hospitals and churches he was pardoned. 

With this lottery, the kingdom had a monopoly position in the world of gambling in Spain, in which he would receive a lot of money on the taxes paid over the tickets, and a 20% of earning on the tickets. 

The lottery was quite different than the one from now. There would also be a cage filled with balls with 90 numbers, and 3 numbers would be drawn. You could bet to “a single draw”, so you would get a price for picking the right number. Then there was the “fixed number” which would be choosing the correct number followed by also the right position (1st, 2nd, 3rd). Then there was the “ambo”, selecting two winning numbers, and a “terno” with three winning numbers, which would obviously grant you the biggest price. A saying was if you had chosen the correct three numbers: “Me cayó el terno”. Each number would have limited possible buyers, so just in case there was a very popular number, and everybody had chosen the same number, then the kingdom didn´t have to pay out such a large sum of money. 

For various reasons, the government implemented a change in the Spanish lottery system, and in 1812, in the middle of the invasion of Napoleon, the city of Cádiz in the south presented the new version of the lottery as Spain knows it now, with the largest price handed out just before Christmas. It was here when you could buy one ticket with a 6-digit number on it. 

El Gordo

First of all, the lottery can be played twice a week, with the prizes drawn on Thursdays and Saturdays. However, a third of all lottery spending a year is done for the Lotería de Navidad, the Christmas Lottery, among locals nicknamed El Gordo, (lit. translated “the fat one”, however more accordingly this would be “the big one”), which is named after the jackpot name, takes place. 

Preparations for this day start mid-July when the lottery tickets go on sale. This means that the lottery ticket will be on sale all over Spain. They do this since there are some special places to buy the tickets, in Madrid for example, so when people from Barcelona or Seville pass by Madrid, they make sure to take some lottery tickets with them. 

The tradition is for the Spaniards to buy at least 3 lottery tickets. One with the family, one with the company they work for, and the bar they regularly visit. On average each Spaniard spends around € 60,- ($ 71,-) for this day (76% of all Spanish aged 18+ play the lottery). Each family, company, and bar will have one or two numbers. Obviously, when you work in a company with two numbers, you´ll need to buy both numbers, imagine that your colleagues will win, and you lose out. So, these € 60,- is easily reached, counting already with 3 tickets at € 20,- ($ 24,-) apiece. 

I know it all sounds a little complicated, but here is where it gets even more confusing. Each number has a reference, and each reference has 10 tickets. Each number with a reference costs € 200,- ($ 240,-), each ticket is a tenth of this ticket called a decimo (a tenth in Spanish). Actually, the Spanish word for lottery ticket is un decimo. So, if you see on the screen your number has won € 10.000,-, you have to divide this in between 10 since you bought a decimo.

The evening before the lottery, the area where the cage with the balls is positioned, is closed with three keys, with each key with a different person. 

The day of the lottery is always on the 22nd of December, it is 08:00, the doors have been opened by the 3 master keys, the Spanish are anxiously eating breakfast, not knowing if the next breakfast is going to be with caviar and champagne. 

The drawing starts at 09:00 sharp. During the whole drawing, there are always around 2 million people watching the lottery drawing live on television (at least 7 million people will tune in, at least to have a glance). Families are united, bars are packed with people, and the radio at the office is blaring the numbers. 

A whopping 100.000 numbers are rolling, now what. Well, there are actually two lottery ball cages. One has the 5 digit lottery number on it, while the other one has the amount of money the number is worth (1807 balls in total). So, when the number 51649 falls, and the number 30.000 appears, that means you have won € 30.000,-. Quick fun fact: All the balls have an exact size of 18.8 mm. (0.74 inches) in diameter and weigh exactly 3 grams (0.11 oz) and are made of boxwood with the numbers engraved by laser, so the weight always stays equal.  

Now, both the numbers and the prize money will be called out by children from the 15th century-old boarding school San Ildefonso, which used to be a school just for orphan boys. Some Spaniards still think they are orphans, but the children that are there now, still have parents, but for financial or social reasons these children cannot live at home. 

Just a little side note here, the school received a lot of subsidies from Carlos the III (remember, the king that introduced the lottery to Spain), in return the king wanted the kids to sing at events, funerals and goodwill acts. So, one of the performances was at the lottery drawing of 1771. Since 1892, the official tradition was born with the kids helping out at Christmas, and not until 1984 that also girls were joining the team. 

So still now, when the children call out the numbers, they do this by signing the numbers and the prize money. Actually, the children go through a lot of stress and auditions. From the 200 children, 34 are picked out to sing out the numbers. For 2 months they receive training and preparation for the big day. Even then, things can go wrong. From saying the wrong number, to singing the wrong price (like one “0” less) or a girl who dropped the ball into a plant, and ended up with her saying: “Fuck, can´t find the ball …” All in all, once the big price is picked, the kids always get very excited and nervous to sing the winning price. 

We have the balls rolling, what are the odds of me winning?

There are 100.000 numbers, divided among 180 series at € 200,- ($ 240,-) per number (remember, this divides by 10, to get € 20,- per decimo). If all numbers are sold, and 70% of the paid amount goes into the lottery to win (the rest is for the state), that would make € 2.52 billion ($ 2.97 billion) in prize money, divided between around 16.000 winning numbers.

To win the Gordo, there is a 0,001 % chance of winning it (1 in 100.000). Then some of the smaller prices the chance goes up to 0,099%. There is a 10% chance that you´ll get the money of your lottery ticket refunded, once the winning number ends with the same number as you have on your ticket.  

That is still a very good chance compared with winning the American Powerball jackpot, which has a chance of 1 in 292 million times of winning.

Now, el Gordo in 2019 was worth € 680 million ($ 800 million), which comes down to € 400.000,- ($470.000,-) per decimo (ticket), which makes it the biggest jackpot you can win in the world. Before everyone gets excited about their € 400.000,-. All prizes won over € 40.000,- (Until 2020 it was € 20.000,-) has to pay 20% tax. This means that the winner of € 400.000,-, has to deduct € 40.000,- of tax-free prize money, and then pay 20% over the rest. This leaves a € 328.000,- ($ 385.000,-) for the winner and € 72.000,- ($ 85.000,-) to the government. The State gets a total of € 175 million ($ 206 million) in his bank account, just by an event created by a king 2,5 centuries ago. 


Spain is a country with a lot of superstitions, especially once it comes down to winning the lottery when a large sum of money is up for grabs. If you are superstitious and think you hold the golden ticket, well here are some tips to win the jackpot.

  • In many cultures the black cat is the symbol of bad luck, however, in Spain,  luck will bring you, once you pass the ticket along the belly of a black cat. Others in that category are the back of a hunchback or the belly of a pregnant woman.
  • Another custom is to enter the ticket office with your left foot, while the shop attendant has to hand the ticket with her right hand. 
  • Some luck numbers in Spain are 7, 15, and 22. Actually, another number, which is the most chosen by the Spanish is unlucky 13, which in the lottery should bring luck. 
  • There are two locations in Spain where most people go to buy their lottery ticket. One is a town in Cataluña called Sort, which means luck in Catalan. The other location is in the main square in Madrid called Sol at the stand of Doña Manolita. I´ll give this woman an extra heading. 

Doña Manolita

Mrs. Manuela de Pablo founded her own lottery ticket office in the center in Madrid, together with her three sisters. Manolita is translated as the small Manuela, therefore the name Doña (Mrs.) Manolita. 

She started selling tickets in 1904, and for a few years, a few big prices came from her sold tickets. Because of her always having a winning ticket, popularity grew through word of mouth (the ancestor of social media), so Manolita was now buying more and more numbers. A simple math equation more tickets = more number = more prices. 

The woman passed away in 1951, where her sister took over, then the son of the sister who then sold the office to another family (actually to an Earl / Count). Even today, with no longer any link between the office and the beloved Doña Manolita, at Christmas peak hours, 600 people a day will buy their lottery tickets at this office, standing in the cold for up to 3 hours, with queues literally of many streets. Even though there is a machine next to the office, an online purchase office, and vendors who sell at the same square the same numbers, shouting they have the winning numbers of Doña Manuelita, nothing beats the experience of officially buying the ticket at the Doña Manolita office, that’s the only way you’ll get lucky. 

Fun fact: For those who didn´t win the lottery there is a second round on the 3-Kings day, the 6th of January when they have another round of “El Gordo”, this one called “El Niño!. The prize money is half (€ 200,000 instead of € 400,000), but there is a slight increase in chance of (30% instead of 10%). 

Now you know all about the Spanish lottery with the highest prize jackpot, and if you´re at Christmas in Madrid, be amazed by the queue and maybe line up and buy your lucky ticket and bring something different home, than just some souvenirs.  

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