On YouTube, there’s a video called "Lunch With Kelz." It’s only a minute long. The video is shot inside a man’s car, which is parked outside of a Harris Teeter. He’s got a rotisserie chicken in the passenger’s seat. “You know those days when you just can’t decide what to eat?” he asks, and we all do. The clip, by a YouTuber from North Carolina named Richard Kelly, is representative of what he posts every day — sometimes multiple times a day — to his 2,186 subscribers. "Kelz" has published nearly 2,000 videos to date, and every single one of them has something in common: They’re focused on his obsession with scratching off lottery tickets.
Kelly is part of a small YouTube community of other like-minded lottery fans who call themselves "scratchers." Members of the community share videos of themselves scratching off tickets and watch others do the same, often cheering each other on. In this particular video, Kelly sets a lottery ticket against his steering wheel and gets to scratching with a small, beat-up wooden stick. When the ticket is a bust, he tosses it into the air and turns the camera around. In the face of a loss — a common occurrence for Kelz — his attitude is one of patient resignation. “Welp, welp, welp, that is how the cookie crumbles. Y’all be good, I’ll see you later.”
R. Kelly, as I like to call him, looks like a bouncer and seems friendly and good-natured. He often veers into game show host territory in his videos, punctuating his scratching with emphatic BAMS and BOOMS and other audible signs of excitement.
You might think that, as far as observational gambling goes, watching a stranger play a scratcher is pretty dull. There are no flashing circus lights of a casino slot machine. No facial tics of professional poker players. And yet, this has become a popular enough genre that there are tens of thousands of videos, some with hundreds of thousands of views.
I can’t remember how or when I became fascinated with these videos, but they wormed their way into my brain undetected. I have no memory of discovering them, and now I’m subscribed to dozens of scratcher accounts.
The typical video features a hand holding a ticket against a flat surface — although some, eager to scratch, must make do with the steering wheel of their car — and an invisible voice offering brief commentary.
The primary focus is on the value of the scratcher. People don’t tend to waste their time with the $1 scratchers, instead going straight to $5 or $10 with the chance of winning bigger prizes. Scratchers not available in the uploader’s state are coveted, and trades are common within the community. There are crossword scratchers, there are Bingo scratchers, there are scratchers without gimmicks, but the differences are superficial. At the end of the day you’re just matching numbers and hoping that you have a winning combination.
The other variation is the choice in scratching tool. Common scratching tools include a knife, a wooden stick, a key, and the classic coin.
Communities can be built around pretty much anything. As a tween I longed for connection and sought it wherever I could: forums dedicated to virtual pet games, forums dedicated to America’s Next Top Model, the chat rooms in a file-sharing platform called Soulseek. I wasn’t necessarily joining with the intention of building a life there, but I latched onto each little world quickly. After a certain point of involvement, the initial hobby matters less than the network of people you’ve formed.
Communities can be built around pretty much anything.
Scratch artist Stormsfury777 uploads scratcher videos daily, often multiple times a day. One of his other hobbies is chasing storms and uploading videos of them. He has a modest but tight-knit group of 893 subscribers who loyally comment on each of his videos. Each comment seems like it was written with attention and care. Some are conversational: "Nice hit! cigarettes are $6.70 for my brand here smh. I should start making my own lol." Others are just generally supportive: “Congrats! Great wins today!” or “You been on a roll today.” He responds to almost every comment.
In real life, Stormsfury777 is Mike, a 44-year-old bowling center mechanic from South Carolina who declined to give a last name. He has been scratching on and off since the early 2000s, when South Carolina first introduced the lottery, and found the community by chance. His biggest win came on Aug. 24, 2008, he said, when he won $15,000 (sadly, there is no video). "I just wondered if people were videotaping their scratch-off wins and was surprised to see some were doing so," said Mike. That was early last year. Since then he has made many friends within the community, even meeting up with some in person.
In numbers, the YouTube scratch-off community is small. No more than a few hundred people have congregated around this hobby. Views typically range from the high hundreds to the low thousands. Videos don’t have much rewatch value unless it’s a big win. Once you’ve seen how it ends, the thrill is gone.
An eight-minute video called "HUGE SCRATCH OFF WINNER! HIT $5,000,000 NY LOTTERY HUGE 10X SCRATCH OFF WINNER!" by Chris Hurney is the most popular ones I’ve found, with more than 820,000 views. It has escaped the confines of the scratcher community and found its way to mainstream YouTube, probably because the title teases a big win. Hurney has a deep, gravely voice that makes for a relaxing viewing experience. “Nice video great voice. you may work at the movies break announcer,” said one commenter. “You sound like a pilot,” said another. In the video, he spends $54 on scratchers and wins $215.
The US lottery system is a $73.8 billion industry. In 2015, instant tickets made up $42 billion (62.6 percent) of these sales. The appeal of instant tickets above other forms of the lotto is the immediate gratification. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies, researchers found that when players come close to winning on a scratcher, they are more likely to quickly play another scratcher. "They [near-misses] appear to be a particularly arousing, frustrating loss, that we know from the gambling literature impacts the urge to continue gambling and play durations," the study says.
“For most it’s a hobby, some it’s an addiction.”
The lottery has been known to prey on the desperate. In a 2004 Cornell study, researchers found a positive relationship between lottery sales and poverty rates while there was no relationship between movie ticket sales and poverty rates, indicating that low income consumers may view the lottery as more of a wealth-building opportunity than pure entertainment.
When people are uploading videos multiple times a day, it’s hard to ignore how much money some are spending on scratchers. Mike acknowledges that it can be a dark hobby, saying that "for most it’s a hobby, some it’s an addiction." For himself, he considers it to be “an addictive hobby.”
Mike recently posted a video called "Announcements, Shoutouts, Possible Group Book in the Future?" This video isn’t a scratcher video. Instead, he smokes a cigarette and talks to the camera for 11 minutes about hardships in his life. He has been facing health problems, he says, and feels like he should step back from scratching. He’s been losing too much lately and is considering a brief hiatus. In the same video he also throws out the idea of going in on a “group book” of scratchers with his subscribers. This is a common thought in the community: If they buy an unsealed set of one ticket and distribute them evenly, the big win is more likely to go to a fellow YouTube scratcher. A commenter named Dwayne Boyd offered words of support:
TIMES IN OUR LIVES ARE A CHALLENGE BROTHER IT'S JUST HOW WE DEAL WITH THEM
THINGS WILL WORK OUT
IM IN ON A BOOK BROTHER!!!
LETS GET IT POPPIN
Performing an act with the expectation of an audience’s gaze gives it a different weight. Scratching off a ticket alone in your car, the result only matters to you. Alone, you don’t need to develop a schtick. But knowing that others will watch, even though you’re still alone, instills a sense of duty. Personal anxieties become performative. Don’t embarrass yourself in front of your peers.
To understand, I made my own. I asked the cashier at the deli to give me any $1 scratcher and he handed me "$5,000 in Washingtons," a shiny green scratcher with George Washington on the side. My scratching location: outside of the Agent Provocateur on Mercer Street. My scratching tool: a quarter. I found myself incapable of holding the camera and scratching off the ticket at the same time, so I had to hold the scratcher in place with my foot and crouch down. On a crowded New York City sidewalk, this was humbling. This was a self-imposed humiliation, but I wanted to create an interesting environment for my viewers, away from the sterility of my office.
The video I uploaded is called "$5000 in Washingtons - win." How much did I win? I don’t want to spoil anything. You’ll have to watch it to find out.
Since I have no following within the community, though, my efforts felt misguided. Maybe I’ll become a star. I hope they like my video.