Voltaire’s Wager

François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, was a French writer during the Enlightenment. Known for what would today be considered snark, he often made comments to which many would take offense. For example, in his 1764 treatise Dictionnaire Philosophique, Voltaire quipped that “common sense is not so common.” This smarter-than-thou attitude was a theme throughout his works, and, one would expect, his life as well. For example, if Voltaire were around today, he’d be one of those people who didn’t buy a ticket to the billion dollar Powerball drawing, as the lottery is a sucker’s bet. Instead, you’d expect him to be the guy who tweeted out that he didn’t lose because he didn’t play, and instead has $4 more than you do.

Well, unless the odds were in his favor. Which, when Voltaire was actually alive, they were. And it made him very rich.

The French government at the time, like many before and since, lined its coffers not only with the money raised from taxes, but also from loans in the form of government bonds. But in the mid-to-late 1720s, the French government began to cut the interest rates on many of the bonds. This made raising money from new bond issuances much harder, as citizens were unwilling to put good money after bad. After all, why would a holder of a near-worthless 10,000 livre bond (the French currency at the time) buy another one?

The solution came from King Louis XV (or, more likely, one of his subordinates, but a nice part about being king is that you get the credit). France would hold a lottery open only to bond holders. For 0.1% of the face value of the bond, the bond holder could buy a ticket to win a monthly prize, which could be as much as 500,000 livre. Because the livre is a dead currency which predates the U.S. dollar, it’s hard to give a good, modern-day equivalent value, but let’s just say that if you won the lottery, you’d be filthy rich. The trick, of course, is to win.

A compatriot of Voltaire’s — a mathematician named Charles Marie De La Condamine — knew how to do that. Or, at least, he knew how to get really great odds. The lottery, La Condamine noticed, had a flaw: the price of a ticket varied based on the value of your bond. If you held a 1,000 livre bond, your ticket cost 1 livre; if you held a 10,000 livre bond, the ticket cost 10 livres. A proper lottery would have given the second bondholder ten tickets, not one, but this wasn’t a well-designed lottery.

La Condamine got to work, buying up as many low-value bonds as he could, but that requires capital, so he couldn’t do it alone. He created a syndicate which pooled its money, collecting as many low-priced bonds as possible. Voltaire was one of the members of La Condamine’s gambit, and as expected, the syndicate began winning.

As noted in the book Voltaire’s Riddle, the syndicate won for six months before the government realized something was up. The government tried to recoup the syndicates’ winnings, as DI notes, but the courts (or the equivalent at the time) ruled in favor of the syndicate. The government shut down the lottery shortly thereafter, but from Voltaire’s perspective, the game of chance had served him well. His share of the syndicate’s winnings was in the realm of 500,000 livre, making him a very rich man.

Bonus Fact: Attributing quotes to people who have been dead for centuries is always dicey, so Voltaire’s alleged last words are, unfortunately, unverifiable. But legend has it that, on his deathbed, a priest asked him to renounce Satan (which given Voltaire’s repeated criticism of the Catholic Church was an unsurprising ask, but also one unlikely to yield a positive response). As the story goes, Voltaire replied that “now is not the time for making new enemies.”

From the Archives: Beating the Odds: A winnable lottery in Massachusetts.

Take the Quiz: Complete the Voltaire quote. Most if not all of these are from his writings and, therefore, accurate (but translated).

Related: “Voltaire’s Riddle,” by Andrew Simoson. It’s expensive. “Dictionnaire Philosophique” (in English), by Voltaire. It’s reasonably priced.