It was an interesting premise: Lottery scratch-off cards can be inherently flawed, and if you’re clever enough, you can exploit them.
That 2011 story in Wired magazine, about a geological statistician who could spot a winning Canadian ticket without scratching off the wax, got Palm Beach Post investigative reporter Lawrence Mower thinking.
Could someone be exploiting Florida’s lottery scratch-offs?
To get the answer, he used the state’s public record law to obtain the Florida Lottery’s electronic database of winners for tickets worth more than $600 since 1993. The lottery does not keep data on winners of tickets worth less than $600.
The database included the winners’ names, hometown, game, amount won, store that sold the winning ticket and the date it was cashed in.
The database’s shortcomings? It doesn’t show winning numbers. It doesn’t prove that the person cashing the ticket actually bought it. And it doesn’t specify the date and time of sale. The Lottery has some of that data, but it’s on paper records locked in warehouses and not easily retrievable.
Mower and database reporter Fedor Zarkhin used computer software to analyze the winners. If someone had “cracked” a scratch-off, they’d appear to win it far more than anyone else.
They didn’t find that. But they found something else: people winning all kinds of games far more than anyone else.
They decided to sort them by those who cashed in tickets most often.
Why that measure, as opposed to people who won the most tickets, or the most money? Because The Post was looking for people who weren’t behaving like normal lottery players.
People who win a lot of tickets at once — like betting 20 times on the same Play 4 number — cash in their tickets immediately, and all at once. Cashing in tickets worth $600 or more requires a trip to one of nine district offices in the state; a winner isn’t likely to make multiple trips to cash in those 20 tickets. By The Post’s measure, that person was lucky once, not 20 times.
And a list of people who win the most money is dominated by those rare people who win a multi-million dollar jackpot. Those people were also lucky just once.
Mower and Zarkhin also compared the list of stores that sell lottery tickets to corporate records to determine if top winners owned convenience stores.
The results: Some people were making several trips per week to cash in tickets, in open defiance of the odds. They were winning all kinds of games, from stores everywhere, and they were often store owners or clerks.
Mower enlisted three university-based mathematicians and statisticians to analyze the top winners and come back with an estimate of how much the winners would have to have spent to win so often.
Meanwhile, he and staff researchers Michelle Quigley and Niels Heimeriks tracked the top winners to their homes. They spent months cross-referencing business and property records, courthouse files and other information, and Mower traveled across the state to track them down.
Some winners refused to answer questions. Others offered unusual explanations for their stream of luck. All but one didn’t offer an explanation that would be mathematically possible.