MADRID -- After another brutal year of economic hardship, Spaniards across the country are hoping for relief when the country's famed Christmas lottery — the world's richest — pays out $3.3 billion in tax-free awards on Saturday.
Almost everyone in the country of 46 million people will be glued to live TV to watch school children sing out the winning numbers for the lottery that pays out maximum prizes of $529,840 and many more for smaller amounts. The top prize is dubbed "El Gordo" ("The Fat One") and is likely to be won by hundreds if not thousands of players.
Unlike other big lotteries that generate just a few big winners, Spain's lottery — now in its 200th year — has always aimed for a share-the-wealth-system rather than a single jackpot, and thousands of numbers yield at least some kind of return.
The Christmas lottery is so popular that there are frequently three $26 tickets sold for every Spaniard, and the lottery itself is the unofficial kickoff of the holiday season.
"A lot of people win," said Pablo Foncillas, a marketing professor at the IESE Business School in Madrid. "It's really common even if you don't win to get a free ticket. So many people win that people just keep on playing. Everyone knows someone who's won, even if it's only a little bit."
Hundreds of players lined up daily to buy tickets this week outside the Dona Manuelita lottery store in Madrid, which has often sold winning tickets.
Before Spain's property-led economic boom collapsed in 2008, they had hoped to win so they could buy a small apartment or a car. Now people said they need the money just to hang on to what they have and avoid being evicted or having cars repossessed.
Betting that tickets from Dona Manuelita stood a better chance of winning, unemployed construction company office manager Miguel Angel Ruiz drove 100 miles to buy for a pool of players including his wife and relatives.
"We're buying more hoping we'll hit it so we can emerge from poverty," said Ruiz, 39. "Before the crisis, lottery winnings were to buy an apartment or a car, and now it's to pay debts."
Diego Sanbrano, let go from his waiter's job two months ago, said the Spanish lottery isn't about getting rich and never working again.
"It's to pay off debts and straighten out your life," he said. "You pay the mortgage and make the car payment, and then maybe you have a little left over to go somewhere on vacation."
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