Why I Hate Tombolas

Apparently Tombola games are an Italian invention (some history). I never encountered them until I came to Britain, and it could even be that they are a European only custom. I struggled to understand them at all until I joined a preschool committee and we seemed to run Tombolas all the time. I have now come to find them irksome.

Tombola game runs like so:

  • Start with a book of paired tickets (like those used for checking in coats and bags at a party).
  • Prizes (typically donated in case of preschools) have a number taped to them, punters meanwhile draw a folded up ticket from a box.
  • Whatever number is on the ticket is the prize they win. If there isn't a number match, they don't win anything.

At very best, one in five tickets is a winner. And yet the prizes are quite low value relative to ticket cost. "However, if the tickets only cost 20p each," (typical in charity Tombolas) "then what's the problem?" you might ask (and John agrees with you too!) -- so typically, you spend a pound and typically get one prize back, which might itself typically be worth about a pound.

Except that it doesn't work quite like that. In fact in a Tombola with 200 prizes (again, a typical number of prizes), with 1 in 5 tickets being a winner (which is considered quite "generous" according to the Tombola how-to guides!), the odds of winning a Tombola are very close to:

  • No winning tickets in each draw of 5: 1024/3125 (or 32.77%)
  • One winning ticket in each draw of 5: 1280/3125 (or 40.96%)
  • Two or more winning tickets in each draw of 5: 821/3125 (or 26.27%).

And sure enough, as you may be guessing, I am almost invariably one of the 33% who usually gets no winner for their quid. Which is sodding annoying. On top of the fact that most of the prizes aren't anything I want, anyway. And it bothers me that 40% of the tickets are wasted (not taped to a prize or drawn out of a box, just thrown away).

So how much do you need to spend to be sure of getting a prize you like? Well, if only 1/10 of the prizes is something nice, you'll dispense with about 15 quid to have a 90% chance of getting something you like. No Tombola is going to be run with prizes worth that much, though, with tickets that cost only 1 quid.

One local preschool (TownTots) historically ran their "Tombola" so that you spent one pound to get one ticket, and every ticket was a winner -- this is a better system, in my opinion, even if the prizes aren't that great, and no one can ever get more than 2 prizes per quid spent, at least you know that you'll always get something for your money.

If you're happy that it's all for charity and you like a bit of relatively safe risk-taking in your life, then playing a Tombola makes sense. But otherwise, it's just another form of gambling where the punter rarely wins.

More on how to run Tombolas.


by PETER DANT on 31 May 2010 Reply

Totally agree with what you have said !

But one thing that you haven`t mentiond(probably because you are completely unaware of it is the "sharp and underhand " practice of holding back winning tickets for star prizes to ensure the prize stays on the stall until "you" want to release it !!

I was a victim of this yesterday after spending ?20.00 to get a DVD mobile player and buying against another man and because at the end of the tombola the "Winning" ticket was not there at all we had to decide by the toss of a coin. I lost !...

Conclusion was that the woman running it had got so surprised by the fierce competion between this man and I (its a man thing!)she had forgotten to re-introduce the star prize ticket or was unable to do so with raising any suspicion...

For a charity stall it was a complete joke and one of the prizes that I did win was a bottle of Christmas non-achoholic drink witth a best before of Aug 2008..................

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