CHANCES AREA man in a black bomber jacket walks in hurried steps to the counter of a lottery-ticket shop in northeastern Seoul, his face ruddy and body shuddering from the late-night subzero temperatures and blasting wind outside. He quickly scans the colorful assortment of tickets on display before settling on 18 Housing Lottery chances, and hands over 18,000 won ($14).
Han Seong-jin will have to hold onto these tickets for a week before finding out if he's the lucky winner of the jackpot, which could be up to 500 million won. The long waits for the drawings are nothing new for Mr. Han, 37, who runs his own small business. He buys lottery tickets two or three times a month, and prefers the drawing tickets over the scratch-and-wins. "It's just something that I do for amusement," he says.
Loud banners and posters are plastered all over the walls of the small shop where Mr. Han bought his tickets, which is part of a nationwide chain of lottery shops. In a lower-middle class part of Junggok-dong, the place also sells cigarettes and has a coffee machine. The premises are mostly bare except for a stand-up counter where patrons can scratch their cards.
A typical banner in the store shouts: "This is a lucky shop that produces the most number of high-stakes winners." It is an overstatement, to be sure, for the shop has been around no more than 60 days. The name of the shop, Cheonhamyeongdang Boggwonbag, likewise lays it on thick. The first part of it means "auspicious spot under the heavens." But for the hundreds of people coming in every day to try their luck, even the tiniest suggestion of fortune siding with them can be reassuring.
Customers at the shop can select from a wide array of lotteries. Nine instant scratch-and-win and eight drawing lotteries are available, with each ticket costing from 500 won to 4,000 won. The biggest possible jackpot on offer is the Big Super Double lottery, a one-off event whose drawing will take place at the end of March. Tickets sell in sets of two for 1,000 won, and the jackpot could reach up to 10 billion won.
The owner of the shop, Kim E-su, says that the most popular tickets are for the Housing & Commercial Bank's Housing Lottery. Though other lotteries existed prior to the Housing Lottery, it is Korea's longest running lottery. It was begun in 1969 to establish a fund to provide housing for low-income families. When introduced, its grand prize was 3 million won.
Mr. Kim says that there seems to be a distinct generation gap between the fortune seekers, which may be based in the impulse for instant gratification. "People in their 20s and early 30s go for the scratch-and-win type which carry smaller prizes," he explains. "But older customers go for the draw lotteries, some of which you have to wait three months for."
Business is brisk in the evenings, Mr. Kim says, particularly after 8 when people are on their way home from work. Sales vary according to the weather, and the arctic wind on this recent weekday evening slowed sales to a crawl. Normally, the shop's daily sales range from 800,000 won to 1.3 million won.
Curiously, though the economy is in a slump, more people seem willing to try their chance at blind luck. The market for lottery tickets, excluding the Internet lotteries, rose to 750 billion won last year and could rise to 1 trillion won this year with the planned introduction of Lotto, according to Na Jeong-joo, who oversees 10 Cheonhamyeongdang Boggwonbang franchises in Seoul. Nationwide, the chain had 120 outlets as of last month, up from just 10 the year before. There are about 250 such specialty stores around the country operated by five chains, Mr. Na says.
"It's unfortunate that people playing the lottery are mostly from the lower classes, people who really cannot afford to fritter away their money at the very slim chance of striking it rich," he says.
But there are winners, of course, and the stories of those fortunate souls get out and encourage more people to try their luck. Mr. Kim at the northern Seoul shop said, "A few weeks ago a man who bought 20 scratch-and-win tickets at our store won 100 million won." For that lucky man, a 10,000 won investment paid off handsomely. Even after the mandatory 22 percent tax levied on all lottery prizes of more than 10,000 won, the lucky fellow must have been on cloud nine on his way home from the bank where he redeemed his winning ticket for cash.
Back at Mr. Kim's shop, a man enters after parking his car on the curb. Apparently a novice, he carefully reviews the posters on the walls for a few minutes, then asks for five Plus Plus chances, which carry cash prizes of up to 4 billion won. "I don't need something big," says the 40-year-old man, Ahn Chang-joon. "If I win I'll split the prize evenly among my five siblings." Judging by the confident way he talks, you'd think he must be on to something. On his way out, waving the envelope containing the tickets, he says with a broad grin, "I had a very auspicious dream."
Of course, Mr. Ahn is not about to divulge the details of his lucky dream. To say it out loud, to let words about the dream leave your mouth, would mean that you have forfeited the fortune. So just what are considered auspicious dreams?
In Korea, seeing things traditionally associated with wealth, such as gold and jewelry, are perceived as lucky, as well as idiosyncratic beliefs like holding a pig in your arms. But some dreams that would seem clearly ominous are also considered lucky by Koreans, such as seeing yourself or another person dead, seeing blood, or walking along a road covered with dung. By contrast, signs of bad luck in dreams include perceiving yourself as improbably fat, skinny or sweaty.
Whether or not propitious dreams presage big jackpots, it's nice to recall the lucky trio who won a total of 2.5 billion won in a lottery last year. A man identified only as Mr. Kim, 36, a restaurant worker from South Gyeongsang province, bought 10 tickets from a convenience store. He gave away three to his brother, three to a friend, and the rest to other friends as Chuseok holiday presents. Two of the tickets given to his brother won the top two prizes in the October Plus Plus draw while one given to his friend took third. The winners' nocturnal messages? "I dreamed that I was in a funeral procession, and my brother dreamed that he was finding wild ginseng," Mr. Kim said. What did you see in your dreams last night?
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