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BEZAWADA: We should not allow unfavorable odds to discourage us to act

Opinions Column: Traipse the Fine Line

"Many things come to mind when people hear the word “lottery” — high stakes, high rewards, equal opportunity and no chance. “No chance” means the rare occasion that anybody actually hits the jackpot, even though the mathematical probability checks out. It is an assumption that pervades beyond the scope of the lottery business, either because everyone does it or nobody wins it. It is a societal self-fulfilling prophecy of pluralistic ignorance.

In the case of the lottery, the odds are fundamentally considered impossible to beat and largely remain a mindless hope.

That is, until the Selbee couple entered the fray.

Jerry and Marge Selbee are a retired couple living in the quaint town of Evart, Mich., the kind of blink-and-you-miss-it town you zip past on the highway. They ran a local convenience store for 17 years before selling the business and planned a quiet, pleasant life together. Satisfied with their lifestyle, they had no active interest in foraying beyond the comfort of their home.

One day, Jerry Selbee came across an advertisement for Winfall, a new lottery game, on the way to his former convenience store. The skills from his bachelor's in Mathematics, and natural mathematical abilities, allowed him to accomplish what was so resolutely declared impossible. He found a loophole in the lottery, and calculated the odds of winning it— all within 3 minutes.

Jerry outlined the thought process he used to estimate his potential outcomes and profit margins from Winfall in the transcript of a recent interview by "60 Minutes". 

The process was perfectly legal. It involved no undermining, twisting or criminalization of the game rules or the law. The couple's operation expanded to include 25 townspeople, and through Jerry Selbee's formula, the small-town business reaped more than $26 million, earning an accumulated $8 million in profits over the course of nine years. They had to store their losing ticket stubs, amounting to $18 million, in a barn. Their only competition was a motley group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Math majors and other interested friends who gambled for the Massachusetts Winfall in large volumes similar to those of the Selbee couple, and generated nearly the same amount. 

The riveting story was first reported in The Boston Globe. It sparked enough commotion that the state of Massachusetts even ordered an investigation operating under the assumption of vast, statewide organized crime. Greg Sullivan, lead inspector on the case, said, “I wasn't surprised. I was dumbfoundedly amazed that these math nerd geniuses had found a way legally to win a state lottery and make millions from it.” To him, the state also profited immensely — by approximately $120 million.

After all of this, Jerry Selbee said the most shocking recollection was the fact that nobody else had gleaned the trick. He described the realization as “amazing,” and that he “couldn’t fathom it.” It is a testament to the opportunities we miss in life, either through disbelief in our own abilities or our lack of observance of the little things — like the wording of that one extra phrase in a tricky math problem or the tiny town in Michigan. “There’s a perception that people with more money do better," said Beth Bresneham, former executive director of the Massachusetts State Lottery.

The Selbee couple clearly debunked this misconception. Even with the vast profits they garnered out of Winfall, their lifestyle did not budge. The money went to the small township’s shareholders, such as Dave Huff, a local mechanic who used it to send his children to school. Jerry and Marge Selbee themselves spent the money on renovating their house and educating their children. After Winfall was shut down, the town returned to its regular quaint activities, as if it had not changed at all.

This is not a story lamenting the possibilities we have glossed over throughout our lives. In fact, it is a celebration of the boundless amount we do have, and the many more that have yet to come. The Selbee couple stumbled across this chance when they were 64 years old. Their only competition may have been MIT math majors, but as Jerry said, the thinking required “sixth grade math.” The problems are out there, and the solutions are within us.

The key is not to get bogged down by the odds. As it is in life as well as the lottery, every person has an equal chance of winning. The deciding factor is how you decide to do it.

Sruti Bezawada is a Rutgers Business School and School of Arts and Sciences sophomore double majoring in marketing and communications and minoring in Japanese. Her column, “Traipse the Fine Line," runs alternate Wednesday's.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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