I wrote recently about the husband and wife team out of Michigan who figured out how to game the lottery, and walked away with almost $27 million over the course of nine years.
But it turns out there’s a greater mystery in the world of lottery watchers.
Her name is Joan Ginther, and she won the Texas Lottery at least four times in 10 years, while apparently buying thousands if not millions of dollars wroth of tickets.
Oh, did we mention she has a Stanford PhD in statistics, lives in Las Vegas, and yet repeatedly made the trip to a single store in rural Texas to make many of her purchases?
Yes, the plot thickens. And so far at least, nobody knows exactly how she did it.
There are several differences between Ginther’s lucrative story in Texas and that of Marge and Jerry Selbee in Michigan and Massachusetts.
For starters, there’s the fact that while the Selbees are now very upfront about how they made their millions, and were the subject of a very well written report recently on HuffPost, Ginther apparently went underground.
At last report, she lives in Las Vegas, but I can’t find that she’s ever given an interview. My attempts to track her down for this story amounted to nothing.
So, we’re left with reverse-engineering and speculation.
By far the best attempt to decipher her strategy that I can find came from the work of Peter Murca, a reporter with Philly.com, who wrote about her at length in 2014.
As Murca tells the story, Ginther likely won her first jackpot in Texas the traditional way: blind, dumb luck, walking away with a $5.4 million jackpot in 1993, payable in annual installments over 20 years.
But Murca’s report suggests the experience led her to turn her Stanford training toward the goal of winning the lottery over and over.
And, after spending a considerable amount of time trying to unpack what she did, he comes to several conclusions.
First, he says, she figured out that while the lottery is ultimately a game of chance, logistics made it possible to ease the odds.
In sum, the fact that the Texas lottery had to ship thousands of scratch off cards to stores all over the state, made it possible for people who pay close attention to track how many tickets had shipped, how many prizes were left, and in which stores the likely winners might wind up.
Second, she may have had help. As Murca wrote:
Anna Morales, a worker in the local water department, filed claims for 23 prizes worth $1,000 to $10,000 in seven games from 2009 through 2012 – about as many as Ginther claimed but in half the time. Another $1,000 ticket was cashed by Morales’ husband, Noe, in 2011.
Pure coincidence seems implausible.
Since neither woman consented to be interviewed, and records don’t show who physically bought each winning ticket, let alone whose money was used, explanations for both women claiming so many winners range from generosity to imitation to teamwork.
Third, she apparently played the game of large numbers.
Meaning that over time, Murca concludes she bought a total of $3.3 million worth of tickets in order to win her total $20 million in winnings.
To be clear, that’s an amazing margin, if she figured this out. But it suggests she had figured out a statistical truth that required scale to come to fruition.
And, Murca says, she likely bit hard into her cost of goods, because many of those $3.3 million worth of lottery tickets were winners– just not for the massive multimillion dollar prizes that make headlines.
A few dollars here, a few hundred there, even a few thousand now and again–and Murca concluded the $3.3 million in tickets might have cost her only about $1 million.
To be clear, we don’t know exactly what happened.
The frustrating part about Ginther’s story is that we can’t wrap it up with a nice bow the way we can with the Selbees, or with the MIT students who also figured out how to game the Massachusetts lottery.
Ginther apparently hasn’t given interviews. (If you change your mind, Ms. Ginther, contact me!)
But I think there’s a lesson, even if it’s one I’d never put into personally with something like the lottery.
In every successful business, the founders either have unique access to private information, or else a unique application that can be executed with public information.
The question for any of us in business is: which strategy works best for you?