Voltaire’s Jackpot Swindle: How He Conned the French Lotto

François-Marie Arouet – better known as Voltaire – rose from humble beginnings to become one of the leading authors of the European Enlightenment, famed for works including Candide, Zadig and L’Ingénu. Heard of him? Lots of you will have. But what most people don’t know is that the great man was also a bit of a crook, who ingeniously gamed a lottery draw and won the top prize! This is the incredible story of Voltaire’s jackpot swindle.

The plot is hatched…

Voltaire was no angel. Throughout his youth, he had frequent run-ins with the authorities, and he even wrote one of his first plays whilst doing time in Le Bastille – the famous Parisian jail.

The young man clearly had literary talent, but he was struggling for money. How could he fund himself without changing careers or breaking the law?

Voltaire got his answer while at a dinner party, held by the renowned chemist Charles de Fay. Charles Marie de la Condamine, a mathematician and Voltaire’s fellow party guest suggested a novel solution: winning the lottery.

A jackpot worth bending the rules for

Even as far back as the early eighteenth century (and much earlier), national lotteries were being held around the world.

Source: History.com

Leading the charge was royalist France, and there was a big draw on the horizon when Voltaire first met Charles Marie de la Condamine.

Government bonds had been depreciating in value for decades, in-line with a wider economic downturn. Thankfully, the French deputy finance minister, Le Pelletier-Desforts, had come up with the remedy: a lottery for bond owners, with each ticket costing 1/1000th of each bond’s face value.

If they won, the bond owners would get the full original value of their bond back, plus a 500.000 livre jackpot that would have made them exceptionally wealthy.

The plan was brilliant. Revenue would be raised from lottery ticket sales, and the whole exercise would give a massive PR boost to government bonds.

There was only one problem with Le Pelletier-Desforts’ plan – and Charles Marie de la Condamine had spotted it.

The plotters make their fortune

The government’s lottery plan looked good on paper, but Voltaire’s mathematician accomplice had noticed a major flaw. He realised that because the ticket price was fixed to 1/1000th of the bond value, you could skew the odds in your favour by buying tickets attached to low value bonds. In other words, if you bought enough tickets at a low price, you would probably win more than you spent.

De la Condamine’s challenge here was to buy up enough tickets to tip the odds in his favour – and that’s where Voltaire came in. The young writer leveraged his social connections to help build up a lottery syndicate of wealthy players. Each syndicate member would buy up as many cheap bonds as they could, while Voltaire’s job was to orchestrate their efforts.

The French government eventually realised they were being duped – thanks in no small part to Voltaire’s habit of writing cheeky messages on the syndicate’s winning tickets. They tried to get the conspirators convicted in court, but fortunately for Voltaire and his accomplices, they hadn’t actually broken the law. All the authorities could do was to shut the failed lottery down.

Voltaire and de la Condamine had duped their government out of a vast amount of money, with Voltaire alone pocketing 500.000 livre. But there was great consolation for France, in the long run.

Without his dubiously-gotten gains, Voltaire may never have been able to support himself sufficiently in his work as a writer and philosopher. A great lottery swindle lay the foundations for brilliance.

Could someone pull off a similar scam in a modern lottery?

The short answer is probably not. Major lotteries throughout the world have learned from the mistakes of previous draw organisers, and there are now safeguards in place to ensure lotteries are incredibly hard to manipulate.

You’ll occasionally hear stories in the news about people scamming their way to lottery wins – but this will typically involve the “fixing” of smaller draws, rather than mathematical genius.

We do sometimes find exceptions, usually in smaller lotteries. The most notable example from this millennium would be the group of MIT students who developed a system to game the Massachusetts Cash WinFall lottery.

This crafty syndicate of maths and science experts shelled out over $40million on tickets for the draw between 2002-2010, netting a total of $48million in the process – which works out as an $8million profit. By flooding the draw with entries during high-jackpot periods, the group managed to tip the odds in their favour. Imagine that: however you choose your numbers, you probably win!

Like Voltaire, the MIT group did not break the law in the pursuit of their lottery riches, and as such they were able to keep their winnings.