Would having a math PhD really help you win the lottery?

A journalist suggests that one woman who won four multi-million dollar lottery payouts was able to do so because she had a mathematics PhD:

First, [Joan Ginther] won $5.4 million, then a decade later, she won $2 million, then two years later $3 million and finally, in the spring of 2008, she hit a $10 million jackpot.

The odds of this has been calculated at one in eighteen septillion and luck like this could only come once every quadrillion years.

Harper’s reporter Nathanial Rich recently wrote an article about Ms Ginther, which questioned the validity of this ‘luck’ with which she attributes her multiple lottery wins to.

First, he points out, Ms Ginther is a former math professor with a PhD from Stanford University specialising in statistics.

A professor at the Institute for the Study of Gambling & Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, told Mr Rich: ‘When something this unlikely happens in a casino, you arrest ‘em first and ask questions later.’…

Three of her wins, all in two-year intervals, were by scratch-off tickets bought at the same mini mart in the town of Bishop.

Mr Rich proceeds to detail the myriad ways in which Ms Ginther could have gamed the system – including the fact that she may have figured out the algorithm that determines where a winner is placed in each run of scratch-off tickets.

He believes that after Ms Ginther figured out the algorithm, it wouldn’t be too difficult to then determine where the tickets would be shipped, as the shipping schedule is apparently fixed, and there were a few sources she could have found it out from.

At first glance, the story does seem unlikely: four wins and three from scratch-off tickets from the same retail location. But here are three reasons to doubt the claim that this woman beat the system:

1. If lottery algorithms could be figured out by the public, wouldn’t other people have figured this out as well? A math PhD sounds problematic but other smart people could figure this out if it could be figured out. Additionally, couldn’t this woman win more than 4 times if she had it all figured out?

2. Just because someone won the lottery four times does not mean that something underhanded happened. Just because some events are “random,” like winning the lottery or being struck by lightning, does not mean that people can’t win multiple times. Aren’t there plenty of other multiple lottery winners?

3. The quote from the professor is interesting: be suspicious first and then figure out what is happening. This is the view from the business end. If someone is gambling and consistently winning your money, you might respond. For example, this book about card-counting MIT students is fascinating (much better than the movie based on the book) not only for how the students figured out how to count cards but also because of the response of the casinos. (My favorite part – and I think I am remembering this correctly: the students leave Las Vegas because they are raising suspicions with their winnings. But they eventually find that their names and photos have been sent to casinos around the country. It gets to the point where they are escorted out of a casino just moments after entering.) But it sounds like the Texas Lottery Commission doesn’t think anything is wrong. Shouldn’t they be the ones who care the most?

If you read the original story, Ginther’s buying habits do sound strange. But I still think this reporter needs to find some more evidence before Ginther could be accused with certainty.

0 thoughts on “Would having a math PhD really help you win the lottery?

  1. There have been at least two other stories that I’ve run across in the past year dealing with “gaming” the lottery system, involving both scratch-off tickets (Wired’s February 2011 story) and drawn numbers (Boston Globe’s July 31st story).
    As a legal matter, Dr. Ginther is definitely innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, depending on what she actually did, she might not have broken any laws.
    As a practical matter, this is incredibly suspicious, improbable, and shady. I have no problem with people asking very pointed questions.

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      • If we stipulate, as you did for purposes of your question, that what she did was “not illegal,” then of course it was not shady. But for reasons I discuss below, that is beside the point.
        I am using “shady” here to mean roughly “there is probable cause that she did something illegal.” To apply my logic to a different scenario, it is shady to be found standing near the banks of a deep, swift-flowing river with a smoking gun. The point is not that it’s illegal to own a gun. The point is that, given these hypothetical facts, (1) the smoking gun holder may have done something illegal, (2) the river might have swept away additional incriminating evidence, and (3) it’s worth looking into.
        Getting back to Dr. Ginther, it’s certainly not illegal to have a Ph.D. in mathematics. But it’s illegal, say, to bribe lottery officials or contractors for secret information. To be clear, I don’t know that Dr. Ginther bribed anyone or did anything else illegal. But winning four lotteries is a smoking gun–it’s hard to imagine a scenario under which that would happen and all laws were followed. And having a Ph.D. is a bit like having a swift deep river nearby–she could be using her advanced math skills to obscure the fact that this is really just a case of illegally obtaining secret information.
        Again, I have no idea whether Dr. Ginther did anything illegal. As far as I’m concerned, however, the circumstances are shady. It’s worth looking into.

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      • It is pretty clear that something other than a fair game is happening here. The lottery is supposed to be a fair game. That’s shady. Why? Did the PhD use only publicly available information, and the lottery officials screwed up, as they did in Massachusetts, or did she somehow create or obtain additional information? Maybe someone at the printers has a friend in that town?

        Either way, it’s shady. The laws of probability tell us this is not a fair game, and the location and timing of winning tickets is not entirely random.

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  2. Pingback: How to rank the luckiest cities in the United States | Legally Sociable

  3. I grew up in this town. Population about 3,500. Her father was the “town doctor”. Her mother was a Professor at Texas A&I University in Kingsville if I remember correctly. In fact Dr.Ginther delivered me and was our family doctor for over 20 years until we all moved out of town. She is at least 10 years older than me so I don’t remember her other than seeing her around town. Good family that did a lot for the community before the lottery winnings.

    My guess is her father won the original Pick 6 Lottery drawing and she cashed the ticket, but I have no proof of that. The rest was just plain luck.

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