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But Jerry figured it was mere bad luck. Odds are just odds, not guarantees. Flip a quarter six times and you might get six heads even though you have better odds of getting three heads and three tails. To align his own results with the statistical odds, he just needed to buy more lottery tickets. This was an uncomfortable leap for a guy with no experience in gambling, but if he stopped now, he would never know if his theory was correct.
Sorting 3, tickets by hand took hours and strained his eyes, but Jerry counted them all right there at the convenience store so that Marge would not discover him. The Selbees then went on vacation, camping at a state park in Alabama with some friends, and while sitting at the campfire one evening, Jerry decided to let his wife in on the secret.
He was playing the lottery. He knew how to beat it. He had a system. The logs cracked in the dusk. She mulled his words over for a long moment. Then, at last, she smiled.
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She had seen her husband solve so many different kinds of puzzles over the years. Certainly he was capable of doing so again. Jerry would eventually buy hundreds of thousands of tickets every roll-down week. The lottery is like a bank vault with walls made of math instead of steel; cracking it is a heist for squares. And yet a surprising number of Americans have pulled it off. A investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review found widespread anomalies in lottery results, difficult to explain by luck alone.
In a similar vein, a Stanford- and MIT-trained statistician named Mohan Srivastava proved in that he could predict patterns in certain kinds of scratch-off tickets in Canada, guessing the correct numbers around 90 percent of the time. Srivastava alerted authorities as soon as he found the flaw. It would take too many hours to buy the tickets in bulk, count the winners, redeem them for prizes, file the tax forms.
He already had a full-time job. It never occurred to Jerry to alert the Michigan Lottery that Winfall was vulnerable to exploitation. For all he knew, the state was perfectly aware of the flaw already. Maybe the flaw was intentional, to encourage players to spend lots of money on lottery tickets, since the state took a cut of each ticket sold, about 35 cents on the dollar. He would just be buying a lot more of them.
Jerry founded an American company that sold nothing, created nothing, had no inventory, no payroll. Its one and only business was to play the lottery. And, unlike Srivastava, he and Marge were willing to do the grunt work, which, as it turned out, was no small challenge. Code in the purchase. Wait at least a full minute for the 10 slips to emerge. Code in the next purchase. Jerry and Marge knew all the convenience store owners in town, so no one gave them a hard time when they showed up in the morning to print tickets literally all day.
Sometimes the tickets jammed, or the cartridges ran out of ink. Pick one up, put it down. They had the time. It was a game. Marge even seemed to like the manual labor. In the weeks between roll-downs, they got antsy. Jerry and Marge placed the losing numbers in large plastic tubs that they stored in a barn out back. That way, there would always be a paper trail for the IRS. And they were happy to share their good fortune. Like lotteries in other states, the Michigan Lottery welcomed large betting groups; after all, the more people who played, the more money the state got to play with.
Jerry saw that office pools and other large bettors were allowed to play as corporations instead of individuals, and it seemed to him that the state was practically inviting groups to play Winfall for big stakes. So in the summer of , about six months after Jerry bought his first tickets, the Selbees asked their six children if they wanted in. When Jerry insisted this was just bad luck, Marge and the kids decided to believe him.
They let him risk their money again, and within two more plays, everyone was in the black. That June, Jerry created a corporation to manage the group. The corporation itself was nearly weightless. It existed purely on paper, in a series of thick three-ring binders that Jerry kept in his basement, a ream of information about the members, the shares, the amounts wagered on roll-down weeks, the subsequent winnings and losses, the profits and the taxes paid.
It was an American company that sold nothing, created nothing, had no inventory, no payroll. And business was good. By the spring of , GS Investment Strategies LLC had played Winfall on 12 different roll-down weeks, the size of the bets increasing along with the winnings. Marge squirreled her share away in a savings account. Jerry bought a new truck, a Ford F, and a camping trailer that hooked onto the back of it. He also started buying coins from the U.
Mint as a hedge against inflation, hoping to protect his family from any future catastrophe. He eventually filled five safe deposit boxes with coins of silver and gold. Then, in May , the Michigan Lottery shut down the game with no warning, replacing it with a new one called Classic Lotto Officials claimed that sales of Winfall tickets had been decreasing. So it just—it gave me a sense of purpose. The following month, Jerry received an email from a member of the lottery group. The player, a plant manager at a Minute Maid juice factory in Paw Paw Township, had noticed that Massachusetts was promoting a brand-new lottery game called Cash WinFall.
There were a few differences between it and the now-defunct Michigan game: But otherwise, it appeared to be the same. Jerry did a few brisk pencil-and-paper calculations. The odds were good. He wondered about the logistics: Lottery tickets had to be purchased in person, and the western edge of Massachusetts was more than miles from Evart. He had no connections to store owners in Massachusetts, either. Who would ever let him and Marge stand in one spot for hours, printing ticket after ticket?
Jerry emailed the plant manager back, asking if he knew anyone who ran a party store in the state. The player gave him a name: Disliking the hassle of airports, Jerry climbed into his gray Ford Five Hundred one day in August and began the hour drive to the East Coast. What he didn't know was that, for the first time in his gambling career, he was about to encounter some ruthless adversaries.
Seven months earlier, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named James Harvey was knocking on doors in his dorm, trying to get people excited about two personal projects. The other was a lottery betting pool he wanted to start.
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The dorm, a four-story building known as Random Hall, was packed with computer science and engineering majors. A mathematics major in his final semester, Harvey had been researching lottery games for an independent study project, comparing the popular multistate games Powerball and MegaMillions to see which offered players a better shot at winning. They never left the room except to get lunch. A biomedical researcher at Boston University, Ying Zhang, had also discovered the flaw, after an argument with friends about the nature of the lottery.
Believing it to be exploitative, Zhang had researched the Massachusetts State Lottery to bolster his point. Then he found the glitch in Cash WinFall, and as happens so often in America, a skeptic of capitalism became a capitalist. He bought tickets in bulk at a convenience store near his home, in the Boston suburb of Quincy, and stored the losing tickets in boxes in his attic until the weight made his ceiling crack. After the first roll-down, Harvey assembled 40 to 50 regular players—some of them professors with substantial resources—and recruited his classmate, Yuran Lu, to help manage the group.
Lu was an electrical engineering, computer science and math major with a mischievous streak: Of course, it would have been a lot easier for the MIT students to print their lottery slips in bulk, using their own computers, and then hand the slips over to a convenience store owner when it was time to play. It was one of several safeguards put in place by the Massachusetts State Lottery to monitor betting activity and prevent manipulation of the game. As a result, the Massachusetts State Lottery was perfectly aware of several anomalies in Cash WinFall ticket-buying, unusual patterns over the months that signaled that something was up.
The manager was stunned and wanted to know: A compliance officer replied that yes, it was legal. That same week, a dozen stores suddenly requested waivers to increase their Cash WinFall betting limits. Three of the stores were clustered in the town of Quincy, where Zhang lived, and the fourth was in the next town over.
When lottery compliance officers visited the stores, they found two clear violations: Though the Massachusetts State Lottery was within its rights to suspend or revoke the licenses of all these stores, it instead let them off with warnings. But Jerry, wearing rubber bands around his left wrist, offered a deal: Mardas agreed, and a few weeks later, Jerry returned with Marge.
As in Michigan, the two would need to split the work of printing tickets, and so they sought out a second terminal. That taken care of, the Selbees quickly developed a routine around Cash WinFall. About a week before a roll-down drawing, they would drive the miles from Michigan, cutting across Canada to save time, listening to James Patterson novels on tape.
They started at 5: After a drawing, they retreated to the Red Roof Inn and searched for winning numbers, piling tickets on the double beds and the tables and the air conditioner and the floor. Then they claimed their winning tickets and drove the 12 hours back to Michigan with the tens of thousands of losing tickets, storing them in plastic tubs in a barn, behind a door that kept the raccoons out, in case an IRS auditor ever wanted to see the paper trail.
At first, Marge found these figures terrifying—it was more than they had ever risked in Michigan—but after a while she got used to it. Mardas came to think of her and Jerry as part of his family. Massachusetts The first time Jerry and Marge played, at convenience stores in Sunderland and South Deerfield, they made money.
As for printing tickets within posted store hours—well, yes, that was a violation. But Jerry saw it as a minor sin, no different than what millions of American businesses do every day to get by. And his comfort level increased when he learned through the grapevine, in , that there were other large betting groups playing Cash WinFall using strategies similar to his own. Over five years, the couple would return to Massachusetts six to nine times per year, never deviating from their system: After observing the Selbees at work, the officer reported that he found nothing out of the ordinary.
One lottery employee replied to the email with a joke: Jerry and Marge would drive the miles to Massachusetts about a week before a roll-down drawing. Meanwhile, around them, the larger American economy was imploding. The housing bubble, the bank bailouts, the executive bonus scandals, the automotive bankruptcies—panic, panic, panic, panic. In Evart, an auto glass plant that had supplied Chrysler closed down, throwing people out of work. American corporations had been playing a lot of games, noted Jerry, and their ways had finally caught up. Jerry and Marge remained in the same house, hosting a family gathering each Christmas as they always had.
Though she could have chartered a private jet and taken everyone to Ibiza, Marge still ran the kitchen, made her famous toffee candy and washed dishes by hand. One such couple was confronted by their accountant after their tax returns listed winnings and losses in the six figures.
Jerry and Marge Go Large
A few players paid down debts. Mardas filed for divorce. From time to time, players in the group asked Jerry if he had a plan for stopping. How many more bets were they going to make, for how many years? As long as they kept playing conservatively, Jerry felt, they would not attract undue attention, and there was no reason not to continue. Unbeknownst to him, however, the MIT students were preparing to attack the game with a new and unprecedented level of aggression. With MIT, Zhang and the Selbees pushing huge pots of money into each roll-down drawing, they were all having to split the payouts.
This had gotten the students thinking. Might there be a way to freeze out the other groups? They hit on an idea: Instead of waiting for a roll-down, perhaps they could force one to happen, by making an insanely large bet. It was one thing to make large bets, like he had been doing, and it was another thing entirely to manipulate the game.
Harvey and his MIT friends saw their opening. No one else knew that the money was going to roll down, so the other bettors, including Jerry and Marge, did not buy tickets. One technical manager guessed, correctly, that one of the large betting groups had triggered the roll-down, though he misidentified the culprits.
It was one thing to make large bets based on a certain system, like he had been doing, and it was another thing entirely to manipulate the mechanics of the game to crowd other bettors out. Marge and Jerry in with five of the Selbee children and their spouses Doug is standing behind Marge; Dawn, holding one of the couple's great-grandchildren, is behind Jerry. He suspected something would happen around Christmas. There was a drawing scheduled for December 27, when a lot of convenience stores would be closed for the holiday; with betting activity slow, it made for a perfect time for MIT to strike.
On high alert for any shenanigans, Jerry asked Mardas to call lottery headquarters to see if stores were reporting spikes in sales. When Mardas was told that, yes, five stores were seeing a surge, Jerry hopped in his car.
He was printing the last of them by the pale light of the lotto terminal when he heard a knock on the door. Jerry gathered that the MIT kids were proposing to collude; instead of all groups pushing into every pot, it might make sense to take turns. Lu did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Despite its new alert software, lottery officials were slow to react once again, and sure enough, the large bets of the Selbees and the MIT group triggered a roll-down. Driving back to Michigan, he felt vindicated. Maybe this would teach his rivals something about playing by the rules. Andrea Estes had never thought much about the Massachusetts State Lottery before she got a tip from a state employee in June An investigative reporter with the Boston Globe, Estes had deep sources in political circles and had a track record of breaking stories about corrupt public officials.
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