Take your chance on the prize of a lifetime

The promise of winning exotic cars or retirement-worthy cash prizes can make lottery tickets attractive from time to time, but it's important to understand your odds.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - AUGUST 20:  The Dubai Duty Free shopping area of the Dubai International airport in Dubai on August 20, 2009.  (Randi Sokoloff / The National)  For Business story by Armina *** Local Caption ***  RS019-082009-DUTY-FREE.jpg *** Local Caption ***  RS019-082009-DUTY-FREE.jpg
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An e-mail pops into my inbox: "GOLD DUST FOR SALE!!" Apparently, an extremely resourceful group of miners in Ghana have been in touch to let me know they have taken delivery of 500kg of gold dust, and now they are offering me - although I have my doubts this is an exclusive deal - the chance to buy this precious metal at an extremely attractive price. Sounds tempting, doesn't it? Aiman Soufi was on a business trip to Libya a couple of weeks ago when a similar type of e-mail dropped into his inbox. This highly suspect communiqué informed him that he had been selected as the winner of the automotive equivalent of gold dust - a brand new, high-performance Aston Martin DB9 Coupe, finished in fashionable tungsten-and-silver paintwork.

"I opened the e-mail, read it and just got on with the work I was doing at the time," says Mr Soufi, 38, a Dubai resident originally from Syria. "I thought little of it." His reaction to the win wasn't so unlike mine to the bargain-basement gold dust. However, Mr Soufi's chance at riches was somewhat less unexpected, as a few days before receiving the news, he had purchased a Dh500 raffle ticket to win the British supercar at Dubai International Airport.

With the car valued at more than Dh780,000, Mr Soufi could now reasonably describe this ticket as the best investment of his life. Dubai Duty Free, the largest airport retail operation in the world, has run its Finest Surprise and Millennium Millionaire draws to win luxury cars, posh motorbikes and large cash prizes since 1989. In those two decades, more than 1,400 travellers from 68 different countries have driven away their own set of extravagant wheels as grand-prize winners. The airport has also handed out a total of US$98 million (Dh360m) in cash to 98 winners, from 24 countries, since launching its seven-figure cash prize a decade ago.

Abu Dhabi International Airport runs similar promotions, including its Big Ticket monthly raffle draw with its prize fund of Dh1.5m and the associated Win Your Dreams and Go Crackers campaigns, which hand over the keys to luxury apartments and cars to the holders of winning tickets. And for those of you who might harbour a fear of flying, or are just not planning a trip anytime soon, both airports sell tickets online at www.dubaidutyfree.com and www.addf.ae, as well as throughout their terminal buildings.

Sinead El Sibai, Dubai Duty Free's events manager, says Mr Soufi's initial disbelief of his unexpected windfall is entirely typical: "All winners are usually so excited to learn about their win, but sometimes they don't believe they have." Happily, Mr Soufi "didn't have a chance to think the e-mail was a joke", as Dubai Duty Free called him the next day to say he needed to sign some paperwork confirming the transfer of the Aston into his name.

As part of its winners' package, the airport also flies lucky ticket holders in business class to Dubai and will put them up in a luxury hotel for a short celebratory break in the emirate. Membership in such an exclusive club of winners clearly has its privileges. "I've bought tickets two or three times before, but this was the first time I'd seen an Aston Martin in the airport and I liked the car a lot," Mr Soufi explains.

"I just had a good feeling about buying a ticket and thought I'd try my luck." The main attraction of such promotions, apart from the glamorous prizes, is the limited number of tickets available - one current draw at Dubai airport costs Dh500 to enter but is restricted to 1,000 tickets, with a black BMW 750 Li on offer as the bounty to the prize winner. It's worth noting, however, that even with such a high price to pay to enter, the odds (999 to 1) are decidedly better than those available on other supposed "get-rich" schemes, like the gold dust opportunity I was offered by those unscrupulous Ghanaian miners or the myriad of lottery games run elsewhere in the world.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, the National Lottery (which is open only to UK residents) offers a jackpot win of about £2m (Dh11.7m) every week when you buy a £1 ticket. However, considering the odds of someone scooping that top prize are estimated to be 14 million to 1, statisticians have calculated that you are more likely to die falling out of bed than you are to win the draw's top prize. America has the highest prizes of all - Mega Millions jackpots have come close to $400m (about Dh1.5 billion) - but a ticket holder there is literally 200 times more likely to die in a car accident on his way to claim his prize than he is of winning it in the first place.

Ms El Sibai says many of Dubai Duty Free's Finest Surprise and Millennium Millionaire winners "bought a ticket on impulse as they had a 'hunch' they would win ... and the hunch paid off". This is, in essence, the genius of the scheme: if you're comfortable with the longish odds on offer, have a little spare cash in your pocket and fancy a flutter, then buying one of these tickets is unlikely to badly damage your wealth and could provide you with a memorable story from your trip to the airport.

However, all the usual advice about never staking more than you can afford to lose, and never seeing any ticket you purchase as some oddly speculative part of your investment portfolio, applies here. Mr Soufi plans to sell his unexpected Aston Martin, and use the windfall to revamp his own holdings. Citing the high maintenance costs and depreciation associated with supercars as the main reasons for selling, he says he has decided to buy something cheaper instead. He thinks a Porsche perfectly fits that description.

The margin he'll make on his car swap could run into six figures, although he will need to strike hard bargains at both ends of the deal to clear that much. Nevertheless, whatever Mr Soufi nets, he plans to put into stocks, and possibly property. Now that's smart investing. nmarch@thenational.ae