How to Rob the Lottery (And Get Away With It)

voltaire
Credit: Maurice Quentin de La Tour

François-Marie Arouet, better known by his pen name Voltaire, was a famous French philosopher and writer during the 18th century. He wrote everything from poems to essays, novels to serious works of science, and advocated for human rights and freedom of religion and expression in a time where such ideas could get you killed. He inspired many. He infuriated many more. But before all that, he needed a fortune.

So in 1729, with the help of one of the greatest mathematicians in Europe, he decided to rob the lottery.

France had set up a monthly lottery in 1727 that was supposed to drive up the prices of bad government bonds. Citizens could buy a ticket for every bond they owned, at 1/1000th of the bonds value, and from there they would be placed in a draw to win a jackpot of 500,000 French livres. An annual income of 30,000 livres was considered a very large amount, so this would set you up for life.

However, there was a way you could cheat the system. If you had a 5000 livre bond, you’d be able to buy one ticket for 5 livres, but if you bought five 1000 livre bonds, you could get five tickets for the same amount. All you’d have to do was buy the cheapest bonds, snatch up a ton of lottery tickets and claim the grand prize, and you could win the lottery every month.

The mathematician who figured this out, a man called Charles Marie De La Condamine, didn’t have the money or the connections to take advantage of his scheme, which is where Voltaire came in. Together they set up a syndicate where ‘investors’ would buy up lots of low-price bonds, split them into even smaller sums and then collect the lottery tickets. To ensure they wouldn’t be instantly be caught, Voltaire developed an ‘understanding’ with the notary in charge of issuing the tickets.

voltaire-baquoy
“Dear France, I’ll try not to spend your money on war or palaces. Merci, V”. Credit: Pierre Charles Baquoy

The authorities only started noticing what was going on when they examined the backs of the winning tickets. Most people would write good luck phrases there, but Voltaire had been using the space to mock the deputy finance minister who’d originally introduced the lottery, even signing several tickets with increasingly ridiculous names.

Amazingly, when the government took the syndicate to court, the Royal Council ruled that no laws had been broken, meaning Voltaire’s 11 (definitely what they would have called themselves) were allowed to keep their riches.

Voltaire himself pocketed a cool million or so livres from the scheme. He went on to invest his money smartly and turned his huge fortune into a frankly outrageous one. Money gave him the opportunity, bravery and influence to do and write what he wanted, instead of having to scrape a living appealing to the public and courting the rich and famous.

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