Mower enlisted three statisticians to analyze the odds of the top ten winners the Post identified actually winning that often. The results were next to nil—“like picking one star out of 50 galaxies, then having your friend guess the same star on the first try,” as a statistician described one winner’s odds. So Mower tracked down some of those winners. One claimed to just be incredibly lucky, another said he dreams in numbers and one appears to be the victim of identity theft—he says he’s never won the lottery. Mower also tracked down one man who appears to be legitimately lucky—Mower told me he even got lottery officials to pull that man’s actual tickets out of a warehouse.
“That guy had an amazing winning streak,” Mower said.
It’s kind of hard to imagine people winning the lottery and not noticing, but Mower said it’s actually understandable. He explained that some of the games are so confusing, it’s hard to know if a ticket won anything. As part of the story, he bought a lot of lottery tickets to try to understand the system. And once he thought he’d won a small pay-out. He took the ticket to a store clerk he knew to check it, only to discover his ticket wasn’t a winner.
“That kind of put it in perspective,” he said. “You wonder, why would people rely on store clerks to do this for them. It’s because it’s really confusing.”
This package took a different path from most newspaper investigations, many of which are motivated by finding a victim, and then looking more deeply to find more victims and patterns of policy failures. But the lottery victims didn’t even know they were victims, so they weren’t clamoring for coverage.
But now they are. Mower said “the calls are pouring in” from people wanting him to check certain stores or clerks against his database. And the reporting has already yielded results: Lottery officials pulled machines from three stores last week, a state legislator has pointed to the story to demand changes, and the Lottery announced new safeguards.
Kudos to The Palm Beach Post for trying its luck on the lottery.
Editor’s note: Susannah Nesmith worked with Michelle Quigley while at The Palm Beach Post from 1992-1998.