IP and Law

You Can't Win Even If You Do Play

The latest lottery scandal to hit the news involves a disagreement over what constitutes a winning number. Zhang Fuke (or Zhang Heping, a pseudonym the majority of news reports use), a lottery player in Urumqi, sued the Xinjiang Welfare Lottery Center last November after he was denied 1.4 million yuan (US$170,000) despite hitting the winning numbers.

For a "Pick 7 of 13" game, Zhang bought a ticket that hit the 7 winning numbers in the drawing. Yet when he went to claim his prize, he was informed that while the numbers were indeed correct, he did not have the "consecutive six" that were necessary to win. Total prize: Zilch.

In question is a rule that exists in official documentation at the Xinjiang Welfare Lottery Center, but that has apparently not been publicized in the lottery's promotional material. (Arcane regulations only require that the rules be made available in the media, so they are not necessarily on hand for players purchasing tickets.) Make sense of this:

Those entrants whose ticket numbers match exactly the 7 prize numbers from the second drawing of the "Fun Prize" "Pick 7 of 25" game of that prize period, and if there are 6 (or 7) consecutive prize numbers (that is, "Pick 7 Run 6"), will be deemed to have won the "Fun Prize".

As interpreted by Zhang's lawyer (and practically every news article), the "Pick 7 Run 6" clause implies that a valid prize number must have a run of at least 6 consecutive numbers. The prize number in Zhang's case, 02 06 07 08 10 11 13, does not. Zhang's own number, 02 06 07 08 09 10 11 13, does. Therefore, he claims, there can be no possible winner this round, and the lottery is cheating the players.

Attentive readers will notice that Zhang's "Pick 7 of 13" ticket actually contains 8 numbers, not 7. His is not a standard lottery ticket, but rather a "multiple" ticket, allowing him 8 chances to win. According to the Lottery Center, this is designed for the convenience of a habitual player like Zhang, who spends 300 to 400 yuan a month on the lottery. Zhang's losing ticket cost him 16 yuan (he bought 6 other 72 yuan tickets at the same time), but in a game like "Pick 7 of 35", it is possible to spend 22,800 yuan on a single ticket of 16 numbers giving 11,440 chances to win.

The duration of this particular game presents another problem. The "Pick 7 of 13" game was authorized to last just five rounds. When no winners appeared, the organizers extended it; it has passed passed 30 rounds with no winner and constant invalid numbers. The Beijing News quotes a lottery official saying that to do right by the players, they have to continue it until someone wins. China Youth Daily, however, cites an estimate made by a math professor from Xinjiang University, which says that it would take 200 years for a valid winning number to appear. This has raised accusations that the lottery board is running what basically amounts to a scam, publishing meaningless "winning numbers" for every drawing while raking in cash.

2004 was a banner year for the Xinjiang Welfare Lottery. It handled 644 million yuan (US$78 million), or an average of 33.45 yuan worth of lottery tickets per person. This sent 225 million yuan (US$27 million) into public coffers. The "Fun Prize" was a special promotion in this effort; though it continues to attract players, the jackpot is capped at 2 million yuan.

Zhang lost his first suit against the Lottery Center. The court affirmed that his ticket was genuine, but found that it did not meet the published requirements to win. While there are not (yet) any intimations that corruption is involved, many commenters are already comparing Zhang Fuke to Liu Liang, the victim of last year's fake-ticket scam in Xi'an that sent Liu climbing up a billboard when he was denied a BMW. That scandal ended happily, with the conspirators imprisoned and the victims compensated with fancy cars. Overcoming obscure regulations, however, may prove more difficult than rooting out low-level corruption.

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