Some mysteries just beg for answers.
The case of Joan Ginther got its first in-depth treatment in a 2011 Harper's article, "The Luckiest Woman on Earth."
Author Nathaniel Rich wondered how this Las Vegas resident, who got her Ph.D. at Stanford, defied mind-boggling odds to win three top Texas instant prizes worth $15 million from 2006 to 2010. She also claimed $5.4 million in a 1993 Lotto Texas drawing.
His three theories: Maybe it was an "inside job," using leaked information. Maybe she used mathematical wizardry. Maybe dumb luck was the best explanation.
Having written about lotteries for years, I realized that at least one key bit of information was overlooked: Texas had one of the most player-friendly websites in the nation, spelling out remaining prizes in scratch-off games. Could that have been a key to Ginther detecting patterns and pinpointing prizes?
One idea lead to another, until curiosity led to right-to-know requests, starting in April 2013. Data led to more ideas, many more requests (eventually more than 60), and discoveries like 25 four-figure prizes won by Ginther, and about two dozen more by a friend of hers, Anna Morales.
All sorts of arcane theories fell by the wayside, however, in favor of a simpler one: Ginther saw a series of advantages in high-priced Texas instant games that are often overlooked, from the high payback rate from smaller prizes to ways the odds can be improved in scratch-off games.
The mystery can't be said to be completely solved, partly because some data was unavailable, and mostly because Ginther and Morales failed to respond to requests for interviews.
Feel free to share your ideas and questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Of great help were the Texas Lottery, especially its open records department; Joe Bennett, vice president of game development for Scientific Games; Dawn Nettles, who as publisher of the Lotto Report, lives and breathes the Texas Lottery; Mohan Srivastava, who "cracked the scratch lottery code"; Wharton statistics professor Abraham Wyner and doctoral student Alex Lauf Goldstein, who introduced me to the idea of "positive expected value"; a lottery industry analyst who spelled out how to estimate ticket purchases from prizes won; Emory University mathematician Skip Garibaldi, who explored the odds of various strategies; and Yuran Lu and James Harvey, who beat the Massachusetts lottery's Cash WinFall game and now run a startup called ZeroMailer, a way to manage email lists.
A lot of number-crunching and theorizing by Harvey and Lu enhanced the strategy, shared in Part 3 of this series, for drastically improving the odds of finding huge prizes in scratch-off games.