Here’s how it works. There’s a little board with 38 “little animals” on it. Each animalito has a number. If you pick the right one, you win: the payoff is 30 times your original bet. Put 1,000 bolivars on the little camel and if it shows up, you go home with Bs.30,000. You can bet on as many animals as you want.

Los Animalitos is all the rage. I hear people of all ages talking about it everywhere I go: workers, old ladies, housewives, kids. Even the Mangokistan resistencia guys were talking about it.

A statistician will tell you the house can expect to pocket 21% of the total gambled. For players, the expected return is negative. As with all lotteries, this one is rigged.

My neighborhood in Puerto Ordaz is the Las Vegas of lottery agencies, there’s a place selling Animalitos in every direction. Walking two blocks from my front door, I counted 13 places where they sell the game. Not all were lottery agencies though, some food stores are adding a second cashier to sell los animalitos too.

A while ago, I noticed that some clothing and electronics stores had started selling food. That makes sense: amid an economic cataclysm, people are spending only on absolute necessities. I thought that was rock-bottom, until we hit a new rock-bottom, that is: now, stores are switching from food to selling animalitos.

Even the Mangokistan resistencia guys were talking about it.

At 10 a.m. one recent morning, I went to a lottery agency to check it out: two cashiers protected by security glass. The glass was behind a metal grid for extra protection.

There was no line, but there were four people staring at a bulletin board with a bunch of papers pinned on it. Not previous results, but pieces of papers with what seemed to be clues about the next numbers to come up good. The numbers were arranged in a pyramid, on a grid, and appeared hidden in a caricature. It seemed silly to me that a number to win the lottery would be pinned to a board at the same lottery agency that sells you the ticket, but there they were four adults with their eyes fixed on it, looking for clues.

There was a lady looking at the animals and scribbling numbers on a piece of paper. She seemed like an expert at this, so I asked her for guidance.

“Which animalito should I play?”

Ay mijo, I don’t know, I’ve been losing for months.”

“Really? I’ve never played, so I’m really lost, what are all those numbers?”

“This one and this one turned up this morning” she points at numbers on the board, “so the next one should be in between these right here.”

I asked her what she would play, and she showed me the piece of paper she had. She had already played 13 numbers, and had spent Bs. 8,100 on them.

“Whoa, that’s a lot, what are you going to do with the money If you win?”

“I’ll help my grandchildren, they need me so much. Who knows, maybe God will help me, if the person that’s running this game will…”

The results would be published in half an hour, and she was just looking at the numbers to see if she could figure out some kind of pattern.

The monkey was her favorite.

She sounded really worried, and I just didn’t dare to dig deeper. This game is thriving on people’s desperation. Some are using it as a last resource to round out dinner or make ends meet.

I’ll help my grandchildren, they need me so much. Who knows, maybe God will help me.

I still wasn’t sure about my choice, so I went on to the next lottery agency. Two old men were speculating that the numbers had been coming out in ascending order: the 16 came out, and after that the 17, so the next would be the 18. A lady in her mid-thirties was looking at a picture of a roulette with the numbers of the animals on it.

I went to the next lottery agency (there’s no shortage, I’m telling you) and that’s where I found five kids dressed in rags buying numbers. They must have been around 7 years old. I tried to talk to them, but they were in a hurry. It’s illegal for kids to play the lottery, so they just bought the numbers and disappeared running with the tickets. All they told me is that I should play the horse.

I decided to go with the dog. Bs.100, the minimum bet.

A whole lore has developed around the numbers. Apparently, the scorpion stings twice: it’s liable to come out twice in a row. People swear to God that some days only animals from Africa appear, or water animals, or the zodiac.

Of course, all of this is bunk: as with any lottery, this one is purely random. Even if there had been a pattern to be discerned, the people I saw trying their hand at it were no Alan Turing. Still, they poured their souls into looking for some kind of theme, trying to figure out what the pattern might be.

There are people on social media selling the data for the next numbers for Bs.15,000. It’s a pathetic scam: if you really knew the next numbers, why wouldn’t you just bet on them? Still, desperate people are easy pickings… and picked over they will be.

This phenomenon has been flying under the radar. The media hasn’t really caught on. Luis Carlos —always ahead of the curve— mentioned it on Twitter, and he got people from Maturin, Sucre, and Guárico complaining about how widespread it has become in those places, too.

Predictably, I lost. It was the goat that day.

I kind of want to go and give it another shot, though. That’s the way lotteries work. I’m getting my reward system tickled or something.

Lotteries plus crisis is a dangerous formula, though. I know that goat meant dinner for a few people in Puerto Ordaz that day… and hunger for 38 others.

I’m just glad my chances of getting dinner are better than 1 in 38.

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