El Gordo: The World’s Biggest Lottery

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Every so often, you see lottery jackpots that grow to enormous levels. Lotteries such as Powerball and Mega Millions have on occasion grown to have prizes over $1 billion dollars.

However, they all pale in comparison to the annual lottery which takes place in Spain every year. The total amount of money given away in this lottery is over double the cash prize given out in the biggest American lottery. 

Learn more about El Gordo, the Spanish Christmas Lottery, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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This episode is sponsored by the Tourist Office of Spain.

It’s spring, and that means Easter, and there is probably no country in the world with as many unique Easter celebrations as Spain.

You will find religious processions in many cities, with mourners dressed in black, religious brotherhoods, floats, and of course fantastic food.

And, of course, each region and city will have its own unique customs and traditions.

Even if you can’t make it this year don’t worry. These celebrations have been going on for centuries, and will probably be going on for centuries in the future. 

You can start researching your dream trip to Spain today by visiting Spain.info where you can get everything you need to know to plan your Spanish experience.

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Lotteries have a surprisingly long history. 

There is evidence of lotteries being run in the 3rd century BC during the Han Dynasty in China. They were believed to have partially funded the Great Wall of China.

Emperor Augustus created a lottery to help raise funds for repairs to the buildings and infrastructure in Rome. 

During the early Renaissance, lotteries were popular in Italy and the Netherlands as a source of revenue. 

One of the things which really brings in money is when lotteries have huge jackpots. 

In the United States, there are multi-state lotteries that roll over their main prize when there is no winner. If you have enough weeks in a row without a winner, the jackpots can become enormous. 

On three occasions since 2016, there have been Powerball or MegaMillions jackpots that have gone over $1,000,000,000. 

However, these prizes are actually annuities that are distributed over 20 years. If you take the cash upfront, which almost everyone does, you get closer to 60% of the value. 

When you factor this discount in, there has never been a US lottery that has given out over $1,000,000,000.

However, none of these massive jackpots can hold a torch to the Sorteo Extraordinario de Navidad or the Spanish Christmas Lottery. However, many people know it better as El Gordo, or the Fat One. 

El Gordo is quite simply the biggest lottery in the world in terms of total prize money. 

In 2020, the total prize money given away was €2.38 billion euros or $2.897 billion dollars. Also, unlike American lotteries, the prizes which are promoted are not annuities. It’s cold hard cash. 

El Godo is not run like American lotteries. For example, there are over 292 million possible numbers you can pick in the Powerball lottery. The MegaMillions lottery has 302 million possible numbers. 

El Gordo only has 100,000 numbers. 

Now, you might be doing some quick math in your head. If the prize is almost $3 billion dollars, and there are only 100,000 numbers, wouldn’t it be really easy to just buy up all of the numbers and win the prize? 

Well, no. It would be a pretty bad lottery if they couldn’t figure out basic arithmetic. 

The rules of El Gordo are very different from lottery rules you might be used to. 

For starters, each ticket costs €200. There are 170 tickets available for each of the 100,000 numbers. 

If you do the math, 100,000 numbers times 170 tickets times €200 equals €3.4 billion euros. 

Do they really have 17,000,000 people spending €200 on each ticket? No. 

And this is where the rules of the lottery get interesting. 

Each €200 ticket is called a billete. Most of them are not purchased by individuals. They are purchased by bars, kiosks, and others who sell lottery tickets. 

Each billete is actually a perforated sheet consisting of 10 tickets. Those tickets are called a decimo and they cost €20 each. Each decimo has the exact same number as the billete.  Each decimo gets 10% of what every the billete wins. 

The decimo can further be subdivided. There are charities and street sellers which can sell smaller, cheaper units of tickets. All of these cheaper tickets, called participaciones, are all attached to the same number as the original ticket that it came from. 

So how does this all work in practice?

Let’s say you run a bar in a small town. You might purchase 10 billetes, all of which are the exact same number. Those are then subdivided and sold to your customers and other people in town. 


Everyone in the community in effect playing the same number. If the number comes up, then everyone wins and splits the prize. 

This is what makes El Gordo so popular. It isn’t one person winning a ginormous amount, it’s everyone around you winning a fairly large amount of money. In fact, the motto of the lottery is “The greatest prize is sharing”.

One of the reasons people buy tickets is that they don’t want to be the only one in their social group to not have purchased a ticket. 

In 2012, a greek filmmaker named Costis Mitsotakis was living in the small Spanish town of Sodeto. Everyone in Sodeto purchased a ticket…..except for Costis. Everyone’s share in town was about €100,000.

Each winning number for the El Gorgo grand prize will get about €4,000,000 per ticket, and remember that there are up to 170 tickets per number. 

The drawing is held on December 22 each year in the Teatro Real in Madrid. 

There are two giant ball hoppers that are on stage. One has all 100,000 of the numbers. The other has 1,807 balls which correspond to the prizes. All of the balls are made of wood and are individually laser etched. They also have a hole in the center. When they are pulled out they are then placed on a wire with other balls. 

The balls are all taken out of the hoppers by children from a nearby elementary school: San Ildefonso. There are two children who each take a ball from each hopper at the same time. They then sing the numbers which are written on each ball. The balls are shown to a committee of observers on stage, and to a camera where the public can observe.

The children from the school are used because of tradition. It used to be an orphanage, and the lottery used to use them because it was felt they would be trustworthy. 

The process can continue for hours as all 1,807 prizes and the numbers are selected. There is one grand prize, El Gordo, one second-prize, one third-prize, 2 fourth-prizes, and 17 fith-prizes. The remaining 1,794 balls are very small prizes.  

If you want, the entire 2018 draw is on YouTube. It is a 5-hour video covering the entire process from putting the balls in the hopper, to the selection of the final prize ball. The El Gordo ball is drawn around 3-hour, 47-minute mark. 

One thing I should also mention is that the Spanish Christmas Lottery is also the second oldest lottery in the world. It began in 1812 in Cadiz and has been held every year, even though the Spanish Civil War. 

You are probably wondering what is the oldest lottery? That is also from Spain. The La Primitiva lottery was first held on December 10th, 1763. 

I’ve been to Spain many times, and on every trip, I’ve seen people selling lottery tickets. However, I never bothered to look into it. 

The next time you are there and you see someone on a sidewalk with a wooden briefcase with tickets, or if you are at a local bar, ask if they El Gordo tickets. If so, for just a few Euros, you can participate in one of Spain’s oldest traditions.

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