By Andreina Aponte
CARACAS (Reuters) - "The Whale", "The Dog" or "The Zebra"?
Players line up beside a small kiosk in a poor neighborhood to choose animals in a lottery game that has become a craze in Venezuela even as the oil-rich country suffers a fourth year of brutal recession.
It seems more and more Venezuelans are turning to gambling in their desperation to make ends meet amid the country's unprecedented economic crisis.
Though more people lose than win overall, the illusion of a payday has become more alluring as Venezuelans endure the world's highest inflation, shortages of basics from flour to car batteries, and diminished real-term wages.
Among multiple options from race courses to back-street betting parlors, the roulette-style "Los Animalitos" (or the Little Animals) is currently by far the most popular game on the street.
"Most people I see playing the lottery are unemployed, trying to make a bit extra this way because the payouts are good," said Veruska Torres, 26, a nurse who recently lost her job in a pharmacy and now plays Animalitos every day.
Torres often plays more than a dozen times daily at the kiosk in Catia, spending between 5,000-10,000 bolivars, but sometimes making up to 50,000 or 60,000 bolivars in winnings - more than a quarter of the monthly minimum wage.
When that happens, she splits the money between buying food and diapers for her baby boy, and re-investing in the lottery.
The Animalitos game, whose results appear on YouTube at scheduled times, is hugely popular because it goes through various rounds, holding people's interest, and provides more chances to win than most traditional betting options.
The cheapest ticket costs just 100 bolivars - a quarter of a U.S. cent at the black market currency rate, and more than 10 times less than that at the official exchange level.
"It helped me a lot," said Eduardo Liendo, 63, of a timely win. He recently lost his house and lives in a car in Caracas' Propatria neighborhood, but had a successful punt on the Animalitos, choosing the dog figure after his own had died.
There is no hard data on betting figures, and the government's betting regulator did not answer requests from Reuters for information. But those behind Venezuela's gambling businesses, run by a mixture of private companies and local regional authorities, said trade was booming, with lines longer and busier than ever - because of, not despite, the hard times.
"In a crisis like the one we're going through, people drink and gamble more to escape from reality," said psychologist Rosa Garcia from the rural state of Barinas.
The latest scarcity in Venezuela is cash - as authorities cannot produce enough notes to keep up with dizzying inflation - so many bars, shops and betting parlors have quickly switched from cash to electronic transactions to keep money flowing.
That has hit the Caracas hippodrome, where cash is still king. But thousands still go there at weekends, pushing against fences in front of the sand track to cheer their horse on as salsa music booms in the background.
(See http://reut.rs/2A2eOEB for a related photo essay)
(Reporting by Andreina Aponte; Additional reporting by Francisco Aguilar in Barinas and Ricardo Moraes in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Frances Kerry)