More than 40 percent of state lottery sales in 2012 were from instant cards, which permit players to learn right away whether they've won or lost—and decide whether to play again.

Photo by: Karla Ann Cote

More than 40 percent of state lottery sales in 2012 were from instant cards, which permit players to learn right away whether they’ve won or lost—and decide whether to play again.

On a recent evening, one worker at a corner store in the Bronx showed just how easy it is to spend triple digits on scratch-offs.

Standing behind the counter at Riverdale Gourmet Deli, he lost more than $100 in minutes playing $5,000,000 Multiplier at $20 a pop. The card offers six games, one below the next, and five scratch off boxes on each line.

After losing on a few cards, he began simply scratching off a small portion in the lower-right hand corner of each to reveal a “w,” for a winning card, or an “l” for a losing card, quickly scanning them just to be sure.

Eventually, he won $50, but he was having trouble keeping track of how much he had spent. He says he often ends up spending his entire paycheck this way.

His devotion to scratch-off games is no coincidence.

Contractors who provide those games to New York State promise to mesmerize customers into buying lotto tickets and have made the scratch cards you buy at the corner store dazzle at checkout — and it’s working.

Instant games sales were by far the biggest money makers for the New York Lottery in fiscal year 2012-2013, according to data compiled by the New York State Gaming Commission. There are $1, $2, $3, $5, $10, $20 and $30 games. Another group for $25 are coming soon, according to the New York Lottery.

The Lottery’s biggest vendor, Scientific Games, says “the most exciting thing” about one of its categories — “elimination games” — is the anticipation that grows in a player as he or she scratches off one spot after another, not knowing if they’ve won until “the very last scratch.”

Maximizing the thrill is all part of. On its website, SG gushes over “hybrid” games that “combine the excitement of an instant win feature with the fun of a daily evening drawing.”

With more than 32,000 games, the company knows that when it comes to Lottery games,”in order to stand out in today’s retail environment, a product’s packaging must occasionally change so that the product doesn’t become ‘wallpaper’ unseen by the busy consumer.”

The New York Lottery says it introduces 35 to 45 new games a year, and some retailers carry dozens behind their counters.

SG touts its “color-shifting inks” and its patented printing process called “micromotion,” which uses special coatings on foil to “create the illusion of motion” and create a “dazzling effect” that is felt as well as seen, resulting in “higher perceived value.”

With large print on brightly colored cards labelled Monopoly, Slingo, Betty Boop and Battleship different types of instants represent “alternate play styles to attract new players and keep existing players engaged.”

In 2012, sales of instant games totaled more than $3.7 billion, while no other type of game — not Mega Millions, PowerBall, New York Lottery, Sweet Million, Numbers, Win 4, Take 5, Pick 10 or Quick Draw — even broke the billion-dollar mark. Instant ticket sales represent more than 41 percent of total Lottery revenues, which includes money from electronic gaming at racinos.

Ibraham, one of Riverdale Gourmet Deli’s owners, says customers are so familiar with the games, some use the Lottery machine to enter Powerball numbers themselves. Others get behind the counter to pick the cards they want and have a seat by the coffee machine, scratching them all of before they pay their balance.

It’s not unusual, he says, to see someone scratch away $500 in a single sitting.

This is one of a series of articles on the past, present and future of gambling in New York State. Click here to read more. The Fund for Investigative Journalism’s generous support made this series possible.