Sunday 14 August 2011

She's the maths professor who's hit a multi-million scratchcard jackpot an astonishing FOUR times... Has this woman worked out how to win the lottery?

She’s been dubbed the ‘luckiest woman in the world’ — and with good reason.

Imagine every grain of sand on the planet and then multiply the total by 18. Those are the odds-to-one that Joan Ginther has beaten by winning a multi-million-pound lottery not once, not twice, but four times.

But some people are wondering if luck ever came into her success at all.

The 63-year-old American won all her jackpots in the Texas Lottery’s high stakes scratchcard games. The cards cost between £12 and £31, and there are three $10 million (£6.2 million) winners among every issue of three million scratchcards.

She bought three of her winning cards from the same petrol station in the dusty border town of Bishop (population: 3,300), where she grew up with her doctor father. The fourth winning card was bought in the neighbouring town of Kingsville.

Her latest £6.2 million win took her lottery haul to almost £13 million. The winning streak started with a £3.3 million scoop in 1993. In 2006, she won £1.4 million, and two years later she struck gold again with £2 million.

The homely-looking winner is coy about her success, declining to explain why she thinks she’s been so fortunate.

As for the Texas Lottery Commission, its spokesman says ‘she’s obviously been born under a lucky star’, stressing he did not believe there had been foul play. But others connected to the gambling industry beg to differ.

The first warning sign is that Ginther doesn’t live in Bishop any more, but 1,400 miles away in Las Vegas, home of gambling

More tellingly, she is a professional statistician, a former maths professor with a PhD from elite Stanford University.

And then there is the timing of her wins — the first was 18 years ago, but the most recent three came within just five years.

When a suspicious writer highlighted the case in Harper’s magazine, experts were unanimous: Ginther must have pulled a scam. But what exactly could she have been doing?

According to some locals, she had a deal with the owner of the Bishop store where she bought three of the winning cards. Whenever a new shipment of high-stakes scratchcards came in, the owner would alert Ginther and keep them aside for her.

Gither would turn up, with rolls of cash bound in rubber bands and stuffed into a money belt around her ample waist.

She would load bundles of scratchcards into a plastic bag before driving to a cheap motel.

She reportedly had the same arrangement with the shop in Kingsville, where she won her other jackpot.

It’s intriguing to note the woman who ran the store in Bishop has sold up, though this may be to do with the fact shopkeepers who sell a jackpot card are given £6,000 by the lottery commission.

Some locals in Bishop claim Ginther buys around 3,000 scratchcards a year. But she would need to do more than buy cards in bulk to win four times.

And this is where the peculiar nature of scratchcards comes into play.

Lottery companies love us to think that scratchcards — by far their most lucrative earner — are a random game. But, of course, they aren’t, if only for the simple fact that the companies need to control the number of winners.

They are the lottery ticket with the worse chance of winning because a computer-generated algorithm — set of instructions — is used to determine where to distribute the jackpot-winning numbers within each run of scratchcards they print, ensuring they are scattered around the region

Ideally, you should focus on a location where there are not too many other people buying cards. Then, wait for your calculations to show the town is due another winner — and pounce.

Is this what Ginther did? If so, she was well-equipped to handle the number crunching.

She researched mathematical education at a community college in California until the mid-Eighties, but after that no one in her home town seems to know what she has been doing.

Was she secretly working on a whole new — and rather more lucrative — set of numbers? Whatever the case — and Ginther has offered no explanation about her winning streak — she would not be the first maths wizard to get rich at the expense of the gambling industry.

Professional gambler Don Johnson recently celebrated yet another big win at the gaming tables by drenching a London nightclub with the contents of the world’s biggest and most expensive bottle of champagne.

No one knows how he managed to win £9.4 million in a six-month blackjack spree, but experts agree he must use a sophisticated card-counting system to decide when to bet big.

Meanwhile, lotteries are becoming increasingly vulnerable to determined number crunching.

Though there is no evidence of it happening in Britain, it’s worth noting that the same companies that make and distribute the Texas scratchcards — the U.S. lottery giants Scientific Games and Gtech — provide services for our National Lottery.

Last month, it emerged that a team of maths and computer experts had exploited a quirk in the state lottery in Massachusetts. Whenever the £1.2 million jackpot for the Cash Win Fall game isn’t claimed, the payouts for smaller prizes increase dramatically.

The mathematicians worked out that at a predictable point every few months, anyone who bought at least £62,000 of tickets was assured a hefty profit. One septuagenarian couple who run a gambling company are estimated to have won £620,000 using the technique this year.

‘Every lottery knows it’s one scandal away from being shut down,’ says Ross Dalton, president of Gtech. ‘It’s a race to stay ahead of the bad guys.’

So is Joan Ginther dishonest, has she used her mathematical skill to improve her chances or could it be that she is simply very, very lucky?

What is evident is that the locals in Bishop love her for handing out hundreds of unused scratchcards, so others ‘can share my luck’.

But perhaps she’s not being generous — she may know she doesn’t need to scratch them because they’re not going to be lucky for anyone.

By Tom Leonard

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