In June 2004, my then-employers arranged a competition for predictions of which two teams would contest the final of the European Football Championships. Despite normally having a soft spot for ‘the underdog’, on this occasion I sensed an opportunity. After all, the ‘big teams’ always prevail in these tournaments, don’t they? I roused the curiosity of a few otherwise disinterested colleagues by promising a sure-fire method of securing victory, and thus an equal split of the prize pot.
Over a lunchtime burger we picked out eight teams we felt had the best chance of winning the tournament and proceeded to create enough entries to cover the eventuality of each of those teams facing all the others in the final. Job done, we sat back, watched the tournament unfold and … well, Greece kept winning matches.
Needless to say, nobody had pinpointed Greece as a potential force in European football. There was no need to panic though; as the semi-final line-ups were confirmed, three of the four remaining teams were part of our predictions, and as long as the Czech Republic made the final we were certain of the winnings. There was no way Greece’s run would continue.
Only once during the entire tournament did the Greeks score more than one goal in a game, but still they won their first title in international football while I cursed that ‘the underdog’ had actually succeeded on the one occasion I hoped they wouldn’t. For all the preparation that went into producing an almost foolproof system, I’d been defeated in comprehensive fashion. It was the most bitter of ironies, as well as, some might argue, a fine illustration of the futility of gambling.
Futile because ‘luck’, like ‘time’, is one of those wonderfully existential concepts that are so difficult to pin down and explain. Everybody knows that “gambling is for fools”, but we still do it because we read stories like that of the man who knows nothing about horse racing, but places £2 on a six-race accumulator and wins £1.4 million. Lucky git! Tried it myself once but soon failed when the day’s races stopped featuring Frankie Dettori. Not that a lack of knowledge hindered the other guy…
It saddens me when the dreams and aspirations of so many people are centred on winning the lottery, but that is the way of the world and I am every bit as guilty. I haven’t purchased a lottery ticket for a long time, but I do buy a scratchcard every now and again. Not many, it should be said, not least because there seems to be an ever-dwindling selection of cards that ‘only’ cost £1 (compared to the majority that cost £2, or even £5).
Generally, I’ve tried to buy them on days when my mood has been bright; when I’ve felt lucky, so to speak. It can’t say much for the quality of my luck (or maybe it does, in fact, say everything about the very premise of luck itself) that on those days I have won precisely nothing. The other day, however, I was feeling grouchy – irritable and more than a little fed-up, so as an ironic experiment I decided to buy a scratchcard. If I win nothing on the days I think I might have a chance, what will happen on a day when I feel like nothing more than a mere toy the Gods play with for their sport?
As it happens… Lo and behold, I won! Sure, the winnings amounted only to reclaiming the £1 spent on the card in the first place, but it was still a win.
“Yep, there’s a pound on that,” said the girl at the National Lottery counter, offering a disproportionately low level of congratulation compared to my euphoric sense of victory. I’d already decided what to do with the winnings, but the girl had clearly seen a lot of similar people in her time working at WH Smith and immediately asked, “Are you buying another?”
“Seems a bit futile if I don’t,” I replied, feeling a hot flush of shame as the claws of gambling sank into my soul that little bit further. Needless to say, the second card held only the sour taste of disappointment (in fact, I might as well have tried actually eating it to see if it possessed a literal sour taste). Perhaps I should have saved the pound for a day when I felt really depressed. Most telling, as the girl processed the winning card through the cash register, an item description flashed up on the checkout display.
‘WINNING CARD DUMMY’ it read. I don’t know why it said that, or what it meant, so I took it as the machine simply telling me something I already knew and made my way back to the office for the afternoon.