Stupid Question ™
July 8, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Why do Canadians have to pass a math test to win some sweepstakes prizes? What’s the test like?
A: Weird as this is, here’s the verbiage from the fine print of the Major League Baseball All-Star Sweepstakes entry form, recently available at CompUSA:
“Canadian residents must correctly answer a time-limited mathematical skill-testing question to be administered by telephone at a mutually agreeable time as a condition of being awarded a prize.”
Other sweepstakes that allow Canadian entries have similar rules.
The secret here is that a sweepstakes—a form of random-drawing contest used to promote a business—is dangerously close to illegal gambling.
Like most “games of chance,” random drawings have an unsavory reputation due to years of scams, organized crime influence and religious bans. Thus, they’re restricted in several ways. (Raffles and state lotteries are exempted and regulated differently.)
According to Milwaukee attorney and sweepstakes law expert Mark Foley, an illegal drawing does three things: 1) awards a prize, 2) by random chance, 3) for “consideration” (usually money).
To turn this into a legal sweepstakes, at least one of these elements must disappear. The most common way in the US is by removing consideration. Thus, most sweepstakes are free, or have a no-purchase-necessary option.
Another way is to modify the element of chance—and this is the method that Canadian federal law requires. You’d think authorities would want sweepstakes to pick a winner truly at random, and they do. But they don’t want it to be only random.
So that’s why Canadian federal law requires that the winner, after being randomly selected, perform a “test of skills” to get the prize. It makes it a game of impure chance.
The law doesn’t specify what sort of skill test. Math tests are universal because the correctness of the result is indisputable.
What’s the test like? Arcane rumors abound. Sources at Major League Baseball and the Marketing Centre, which administers the All-Star Sweepstakes, said it is extremely simple. One even said there is a formula: “The answer is always ‘one’ or something.”
But Foley said, “The Canadian authorities have made it clear that something as simple as, ‘How much is 2 plus 2?” isn’t enough.” He said he’s seen one test that involved adding several five-digit numbers, and another that used “multi-digit multiplication.”
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An update on the May 20 column about why the British drive on the left: the June issue of “Fortean Times” reported on cart ruts at an ancient Roman quarry in England. The ruts exiting the quarry were on the left, leading an archaeologist to conclude the Romans established left-hand driving. Of course, there’s no evidence this was anything but a highly local circumstance.