Game over for Turkey’s national lottery

Turkey’s National Lottery, which holds a unique place in the country’s literature, history, and daily life, seems to have been dealt a blow by the polarization of the country. Most buyers have lost faith that the money will be spent on a national cause.

“I spent New Year’s Eve 1976 playing tombala with the Keskins.”
Chapter 58, titled “Tombala” (the bingo) of the book “The Museum of Innocence” starts with this sentence. Author Orhan Pamuk writes about the daily lives of middle-class Turkish families, their evening entertainments, and their New Year’s Eve celebrations. At the center of such celebratory traditions is this bingo game. The game is described as transcending class both in Nişantaşı, a posh district of Istanbul, and Çukurcuma, the low-income district at the time. Elderly people play it with a kind of a cynicism, but they cannot give it up.

“Look, Kemal, twenty-seven’s come up, and you have one on your card!” said Füsun. When she saw I wasn’t paying attention she put a dried bean on the 27 on my tombala card, and smiled. “Stop messing around and play the game!” she said, for a moment looking into my eyes with concern, anxiety, and even tenderness.”

One of the rare moments when the protagonist Kemal grabs the attention he so desperately seeks from Füsun, happens during a game of tombola. Kemal tells us that the tombola set displayed in the Museum of Innocence is the exact tombola set they used for eight consecutive New Years at Füsun’s house. He remembers that for forty years, from the late 1950s to the late 1990s, his mother used a similar set. This set would have been taken out once a year, then at the end of the evening they would carefully gather the pieces into the velvet pouch and count the numbered wooden tiles. Orhan Pamuk stops and, for a couple of lines, tells the story of the tombola tradition.

“Invented in Naples, and still played by Italian families at Christmas, the game passed, like so many other New Year’s rituals and customs, from the Italian and Levantine families of Istanbul into the general population after Atatürk’s calendar reform, in no time becoming a new Year’s ritual. In the 1980s, newspapers used to give out to their readers cheap cardboard and plastic tombola sets before the New Year’s Eves.”

According to Pamuk, one of the objects that reminds us of “the slow and humble rhythm of the routines that ruled our lives” is the National Lottery tickets we buy. In the Museum of Innocence, Kemal remembers that his mother in Nişantaşı and his aunt in Çukurcuma would buy a quarter ticket every year “to serve as one of the tombala presents.” This is because buying a National Lottery ticket at that time was New Year’s Eve entertainment for millions of Turkish people, just like tombola. Of course, everyone buying a ticket secretly dreamed of the minute possibility of winning the jackpot. Even though they knew it would never happen, they would still go and buy a quarter ticket and put it aside. It was also tradition to buy these tickets from different places in the city or even different parts of Turkey. On the first day of the new year, the newspaper would publish the winning numbers from the National Lottery and people would check their tickets for a match.

Tickets could be bought from mobile lottery vendors on every corner of the city. In the novel, these sellers are depicted as trying to find creative ways to sell more tickets: “In the run-up to New Year’s there would be thousands of vendors selling tickets for the National Lottery in the streets of Istanbul, and some would go dressed as Santa Claus into the wealthy neighborhoods. One evening in December 1980, when I was choosing what tombala presents to take to Füsun’s house, I saw a small coed group of lycée students deriding one such Santa Claus, pulling his beard of cotton wool and laughing.”

This year we did not see any of these mobile lottery ticket sellers on the streets or corners of Istanbul before New Year’s Eve wearing Santa costumes or even their classic lottery ticket seller hats. Like many of my acquaintances, I buy a National Lottery ticket once a year in accordance with our tradition. An exception to this habit of mine would be when I buy a ticket from a vendor who stops by our local gathering place. On one of these evenings, a friend sitting with me said he buys tickets all the time. When he noticed my surprise, he tried to explain saying, “I am buying cheap dreams.”

How much of this has to do with the gambler inside us, I do not know, but one thing is certain: The lottery is widespread national entertainment; it is a game we all play together. One almost always loses, but nobody is ever sorry to have lost. Because everyone knows the money it collects goes to the poor and needy or to a common cause. This is the greatest consolation prize.

The history of the lottery began during a time when it motivated the collective spirit and created a common culture. The national lottery is one of the inventions of the 19th century, when national identities and nationalism stood at the forefront.

According to Professor Mete Tunçay, who wrote the history of the lottery for the Istanbul Encyclopedia, lottery activity in Turkey began among Levantine and non-Muslim families. One of the first known drawings was in 1853 and was organized by Naum Theater. In 1856, the Ayestefanos (San Stefano) Lottery was held under the auspices of the Armenian Catholic church. Between 1870 and 1910 the “Şark Şimendiferi” Lottery was held. In 1898 the İane Sergisi Lottery was organized for the veterans of the 1898 Ottoman-Greek War. Then, there was the Ziraat Bank Lottery in 1906 organized for the benefit of migrants who arrived after the Russian War. These were the outstanding lotteries of the Ottoman period.

After the republic was founded in 1923, The Turkish Aeronautical Association (Türk Tayyare Cemiyeti) lottery started in 1925. This later transformed into the Türk Hava Kurumu Lottery. The first new year’s prize was given in 1932. The National Lottery Administration was founded in 1939 and the lottery was named after it.

There were a number of famous lottery ticket selling outlets. The Istanbul Encyclopedia has a wide record of them. One of the best-known ones is the Nimet Abla outlet at Sirkeci, which still operates to this day. According to the records, there were 1,470 mobile sellers in Istanbul in 1994. Who knows what happened to these vendors, but in 2020, none of them were on the streets before the New Year.

I was not able to find any of the mobile vendors this year at the places I was used to seeing them in Istanbul’s Şişli district. One would be in front of the post office, another would be at the corner of the old YKM, yet another in front of the Pelit bakery. The same goes for other districts of Istanbul, such as Kadıköy and Beyoğlu.

I found out what had happened to the mobile lottery ticket sellers who used to be all around the city after a short search on the internet. A story from Sözcü daily said that 14,000 of the 15,000 mobile dealers did not renew their contracts when a private company took over the lottery administration and cut the dealer commissions in half.

It is not difficult to understand why many people were affected by the discussions and controversies regarding the VAT tax rate favoritism after the privatization of the national lottery and a number of rumors surrounding the draws. It was game over for the ticket sellers and buyers. They have stopped playing, most probably when they lost their faith that their money would be spent on a national cause.

Turkey’s National Lottery, which holds a unique place in our literature, history, and daily life, seems to have been dealt a blow by the polarization of the country.

Me? I still looked around, found an outlet, and I may have bought a quarter ticket. What can I say? Old habits die hard.

October 27, 2020 A new dream for Taksim