Inside ‘El Gordo,’ the world’s largest lottery that’s routinely worth billions

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The largest lottery in the world is El Gordo in Spain.
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Heino Kalis/Reuters

Wednesday’s Powerball drawing will be worth a staggering $700 million, the second-biggest jackpot in US history.

That’s still less than half the record jackpot set in 2016 of $1.5 billion.

But in order to earn the title of “largest in the world,” the latest Powerball would have to defeat a 204-year-old lottery called El Gordo, the Spanish Christmas Lottery that has taken place every year since 1812 and is routinely worth billions.

In 2012, for example, El Gordo’s prize pool was a gigantic $3.3 billion.

While that giant prize pool may get split among thousands of winners – in other words, there is no one mega-jackpot – the drawing’s three-hour ceremony, held strictly at 9:00 a.m. and followed by torrents of wine, is a sacred part of Spanish culture.


Unbelievably, the very first El Gordo ceremony was held five days before Spain ratified its Constitution in 1812. It has continued every year since then, even through the country’s civil war in the early 20th century.

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Wikimedia Commons

The ceremony proceeds largely the same way, with two children pulling balls from two giant hoppers. One hopper has the winning numbers; the other has the dollar amount.

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Andrea Comas/Reuters

During the three-hour ceremony, the entire country is hoping their five-digit ticket will match with the top prize: the El Gordo ball. In 2015, that ball alone was worth $700 million, which was split between roughly 1,600 people in the the southern coastal town of Roquetas de Mar.

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Juan Medina/Reuters

There are hundreds of other winning numbers, and Spaniards will go to any lengths to muster up some good fortune. In other words: costumes.

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Andrea Comas/Reuters

And more costumes …

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Susana Vera/Reuters

In 2009, El Gordo was graced with an especially holy presence.

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Susana Vera/Reuters

Unlike America’s Powerball or Mega Millions jackpot, El Gordo doles out smaller, six-figure prizes to thousands — sometimes entire towns. These increased odds are what lead people to spend more on tickets, which causes the pot to swell.

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Heino Kalis/Reuters

Victory over the probability gods is a family affair.

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Jon Nazca/Reuters

Which means there is no shortage of wine-filled celebrations. Spaniards prefer to use cava, a sparkling white wine.

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Heino Kalis/Reuters

Did we mention there’s a lot of wine?

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Heino Kalis/Reuters

Because there is.

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Luis Correas/Reuters

Even for people like this woman who won a lesser prize, a winning ticket equates to thousands of dollars.

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Eloy Alonso/Reuters

Not everyone wins, of course. Even for those dressed in true El Gordo spirit, the odds are still 1 in 100,000 for the top prize.

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Andrea Comas/Reuters

But as today’s Powerball-obsessed nerds will tell you, that’s almost a sure thing compared to the 1-in-292.2 million odds of Wednesday’s drawing.

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Juan Medina/Reuters

In either case, there’s only one way to find out.

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Juan Medina/Reuters