By Kiri Blakeley
The August issue of Harper's magazine contains a fascinating story about a woman named Joan R. Ginther, known in the press as the "luckiest woman in the world."
To earn that appellation, Ginther won the lottery four times. That's right, four times. And she didn't win no measly $20 and $30 payouts either-she hit multiple million dollar payouts each time.
First, she 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? One in eighteen septillion.
To put this into perspective, the Harper's story's author, Nathaniel Rich, says there are only one septillion stars in the universe, and one septillion grains of sand on Earth. A person with Ginther's kind of luck, writes Rich, would only happen once every quadrillion years.
Okay, a few months back, I found a $100 bill lying on the ground in a JFK terminal. The odds of that happening is something like one in 100,000. But this is ridiculous.
After Ginther's fourth win, the Associated Press picked up her story, and hundreds of outlets around the world proclaimed her the most fortunate woman alive. But Rich thinks Ginther's luck is a mite suspicious-and he spends seven pages explaining why.
"When something this unlikely happens in a casino, you arrest 'em first and ask questions later," a professor at the Institute for the Study of Gambling & Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, tells the author. (There's an institute for that?!)
Ginther won all four of her lotteries in Texas-the first in a standard pick-six drawing in 1993. A decade later, she had three wins in two-year intervals by scratch-off tickets all bought at the same mini-mart, in the same town of Bishop, Texas, where she grew up. (Pop. 3,126) Not that Ginther has even lived in Bishop for decades. No, she lives in… Vegas! (I'm not making this up.)
Before you pack up and move to Bishop to camp outside of Ginther's golden mini-mart, there's more. Lots more. Would anyone be surprised if I now told you that Ginther also happens to be a former math professor with a Ph. D. from Stanford University who just happened to specialize in-arts and crafts? No! Statistics.
You can see where the author is going here. Rich proceeds to detail the myriad ways in which 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. (Winning tickets cannot be randomly placed because of the chance that they might all bunch up in one pack.)
Who says women are bad at math?
After Ginther figured out the algorithm, if she figured it out, it wouldn't be too difficult to then determine where the tickets would be shipped, as the shipping schedule is apparently is fixed, and there were a few sources she could have found it out from. Of course, she'd then have to make sure no one else bought a ticket except for her, and that would require some cooperation with the winning store's owner.
All of this is theorized in the article, though not proven.
Rich does add that Ginther's wins could have been sheer luck after all. Her one in eighteen septillion odds would have increased exponentially the more she played, and perhaps she played, well, all the time. He also mentions other multiple winners, though none have won as often as Ginther.
The residents of Bishop, Texas seem to believe God was behind it all.
Rich writes that he could not reach Ginther for comment. And the Texas Lottery Commission told him that Ginther must have been "born under a lucky star," and that they don't suspect foul play. The IRS, however, might think otherwise. Rich notes that it might be somehow involved now, though that entity wouldn't comment for the story either (no word on whether God weighed in). Oh yeah, Ginther's golden mini-mart has since mysteriously shut down.
That said, I'm off to my local deli to buy a Set For Life. Algorithms be damned!