Service of Gambling

August 6th, 2012

Categories: Deception, Expectations, Gambling, Uncategorized


Antics of MIT’s black jack counting students in “Bringing Down the House” became famous in Ben Mezrich’s great book-turned-movie. Some of those pesky kids are at it again-MIT undergrads along with a biomedical researcher helped a gambling group game Massachusetts’ Cash WinFall.

scratchofflotterytktBonnie Kavoussi of The Huffington Post described the game as: “… players had to match six numbers on their ticket with randomly drawn numbers. But if no one matched all six and the unclaimed jackpot was around $2 million, the prize money was redistributed among ticket holders with fewer matching numbers. Statisticians calculated that players buying $100,000 of tickets were virtually guaranteed to win during those brief periods.”

The Boston Globe reported that the gambling group won about $48 million on an investment of $40 million, wrote Kavoussi. That paper has been bird-dogging the story since last summer.

What riles: The Massachusetts lottery officials knew about the MIT kids’ wagering strategy for the gambling group in 2010 and did nothing about it because it generated some $16 million for the lottery. Nice for innocent players who thought they were gambling in a good faith situation overseen by authorities.

I guess the lottery officials in Massachusetts don’t read the gambling trade media. According to Kavoussi, Gerald Selbee’s gambling group–the one involved in Massachusetts–had previously trounced a similar game in Michigan where his “winnings” were almost $8 million. When that state discontinued its WinFall game in 2005, he set his sites on Massachusetts. It was in that year that Selbee and his mathematics geniuses set their sites on New England.

This year the state closed its Cash WinFall game. Kavoussi quotes the Masachusetts state treasurer, Steven Grossman, of telling the Boston Globe. “I feel it is important to essentially apologize to the public. We’re sorry some gained unfair advantage.”

And here I thought, when buying an official lottery ticket, that while my chances of winning were less than slight, at least I had a chance. Who knew the playing field was canted toward professional gamblers. Sounds a bit like the stock market to me.

Should the lottery authorities have closed down the game as soon as they learned that the formula was uncovered or is it caveat emptor in the lottery/gambling game regardless of who oversees it? We hear of people winning big time by buying one ticket, but it sounds as though you must “invest” $100,000 to win–only if you’ve figured out the strategy. Has this changed your policy about buying scratch off and lottery tickets? Think this formula-cracking consortium might come up with a winning prescription to save our economy?


10 Responses to “Service of Gambling”

  1. matt mecs Said:

    it is a bit off the main topic, but this just shows that with high-powered computers and advanced statistics have changed everything in society. Everything that was once considered intangible – sports performers, movie stars, and yes – scratch offs, can now be measured and a return on investment to the nth degree.

    Atlantic Monthly had an article earlier this year about a big time gambler who was given concessions by business-hungry casinos (limited amount of decks, and other little things that made the odds closer to 50/50. However, one casino screwed up and gave him over 50% odds at winning. He punished the casino for over millions.

    With the internet, anyone can research the odds on game theory, etc and perhaps scratch offs will become a thing of the past.

    Are church raffles the next victim? 🙂

  2. DManzaluni Said:

    This isn’t new at all. A few decades ago someone discovered that with the French National Horse racing ‘tote’ system (can’t remember what it was called), you could always come out ahead if you bet on every horse in every race and just left off all the rank outsiders. People had been winning against the system for years with a VERY simple almost-non-mathematical formula.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Unless we are whizzes at advanced statistics it sounds like we should stay away from scratch-offs and casinos. As for church raffles, proceed at your own risk.

    A billion years ago I was playing a 10 cent slot machine overseas. It was broken. I didn’t have to put any money in and the arm kept changing the symbols on the machine and on occasion, a few dimes came out. I got tired of the thing after a bit and needed to move on but what I’ve always been told was proved here: These machines are not the slot machine addict’s friend. The house wins, the players usually don’t.

    Although I have not seen a slot machine in eons, I still love playing them and if I came across one, I’d put in a few dollar’s worth [which these days might be two tries!] So even though we may all know better, many of us will still enjoy dreaming for a dollar or two. Guess hope is worth that price.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Mon Dieu! I wish I’d known about this! But then, bettors would have to be up to date about which horses and/or jockeys were outsiders. Nevertheless, I like the idea that you didn’t have to be a genius to beat such as system! Obviously, the folks who developed that system weren’t on top of their games, either!

  5. Lucrezia Said:

    Life, in itself, is a gamble, and those at the top of the heap are usually not those sitting at poker tables, or running off with millions at a state lottery. Funds, won at such events, are usually gone in a short time.

    So let’s not try to spoil the fun for dreamers, and let them play. It’s silly to close down a game because someone has uncovered a formula. Just alter it to make it much harder to break, or better yet make it undecipherable. Now everyone is happy – or should be!

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    That’s precisely what the Mass. lottery officials should have done, but they didn’t: Change the formula. I wonder why they didn’t?

    Gamblers like me, who spend $2 for Powerball and $1 for the lottery aren’t hurt by those who game the system, though it sure annoys me to think that someone might be and that I don’t have a chance. Those who spend their rent and food money are badly hurt. Maybe they, too, can still win something, though I fear that it’s the professionals who get the big money leaving little for the others.

    In any case, it’s not good for any of the lottery games to raise suspicion that nobody’s vetting what’s going on.

  7. GBS Said:

    For a lot more than a century, moralists have been railing against government run lotteries because they are a corrupting influence, as well as a tax, on the poor. They are indeed both. However, no self-respecting gambler would invest a plug nickel in a lottery ticket unless he had an “angle” like the MIT kids you describe. The odds of anybody winning are rigged far too heavily against the players. None-the-less, people are going to gamble whether we like it or not, and since they are, I’d prefer that the profits go to the State than to the mob, which they would if we didn’t have government lotteries.

    I don’t understand why anybody is upset in this case. Nobody broke the law, and the government got to collect its fat “taxes” right on schedule. The complainers just sound like sore losers to me. All that happened here was that some smart kids, doing what MIT taught them to do – think hard and creatively — doped out how the government’s computer programmer had, assumedly by mistake, rigged the lottery payout equation to favor some bettors over the others. Now if the programmer had been in on the scheme and the rigging had been intentional, that really would have made for a great story, and an even greater movie!

    P.S. A lot of public gambling used to be crooked, maybe still is. Many years ago in Florida, a bunch of us on spring break decided one afternoon to go gamble on the horses at Gulfstream race. We all lost until about the seventh race, when a weaselly runt of a little man sidled over to us, and after chatting us up, let slip that he was a jockey with a suspended license and that the word was out that number five was to win in the eighth race. Sophisticated college kids that we were, we said we weren’t going fall for that one, and he went away. Then my friend, Ned, who went on to become a federal judge, I looked at the tote board. The odds on number five had come down from 15 to 1 to 11 to 1. We looked at each other, and ran for the pari-mutuel windows to bet most of the cash we had left, which wasn’t much. Number five won and paid off at about 8 to 1, and we collected about $75 each, which was a lot of money in those days. My only regret is that we decided to “stiff” the jockey when he came for his cut of the take because we self-righteously agreed with each other that had he known the race was going to be fixed, he should have told the authorities and not us. We should have rewarded him to encourage him to go on being truthful with kids like us.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Geepers–you stiffed that poor defrocked jockey whose hands were tied! Naughty you! You might have notified the authorities too! Thanks, though, for sharing a great story.

    You make a good point about the state gaining $ and not the mob however in this case they both did, with the state’s approval [though the gambling group need not be mob-connected]. Isn’t it pathetic, with revenue coming at it from all sides, that so many states still can’t make ends meet?

    I suppose what riles is that I expect unethical, if legal, behavior from some quarters and an even playing field from others. When the honorable and ethical is nowhere, it makes me feel at a loss literally and figuratively.

  9. DManzaluni Said:


    I object strongly to your message: I never gamble and never waste money on lotteries unless tickets are GIVEN to me.

    But I was at the racetrack in Singapore back in the 1970s with one of the cognoscenti who had a marked card. He told me which horses were going to win each race and ALL of his horses won.

    I suppose, moving back to the real world for just a minute, I should have simply done what you did!

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    There was a chance in both GBS’ Florida racetrack experience and yours in Singapore that the information was little more than a guess. Neither you nor GBS could know–many of his college friends didn’t follow the ex-jockey’s lead.

    It’s such fun to win something from a raffle, a drawing, a lottery, a race. Years ago I tossed my name in a fishbowl at Pottery Barn in Manhattan in the east 50s in NYC. The prize was a gift certificate big enough to buy the most expensive item in the store or many of the other items. I won and will never forget it!

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