Is there a way to game the lottery? Without ever winning a jackpot, a small group of bettors have managed to milk a game called Cash WinFall for millions. The key part of the strategy, which resulted recently in just three groups’ holding nearly 70% of the game’s winning tickets, is to play only at specific times and play big time — by purchasing tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of tickets.
A computer scientist from MIT and a low-profile couple that used to run a corner store in Michigan are among the players who apparently figured out an incredibly profitable glitch in one Massachusetts lottery game, according to the Boston Globe.
The game, Cash WinFall, pays a jackpot to the owner of a ticket with numbers matching those on six randomly selected balls. But a tiny number of sophisticated players don’t want anyone to win the jackpot, so that the game’s lesser prizes — awarded for two to five matching numbers — soar in value. Most weeks, a ticket with five matching numbers pays out in the neighborhood of $4,000. But during “rolldown” weeks, when the jackpot tops $2 million and the prize money is rolled down to the smaller prizes, hitting five numbers could net the player $20,000, $40,000 and even $100,000, largely depending on how many winning tickets were sold. Likewise, the prizes for matching three or four numbers rose in value as the overall jackpot increased.
While winning the jackpot would be nice, it’s inessential to reaping a fortune at the game. In fact, there’s good reason to root against anyone’s winning the jackpot because when that happens, the smaller payouts shrink in value. And believe it or not, by playing this game a certain way, at certain times, bettors are almost guaranteed to come out as winners.
The strategy to take advantage of the system almost seems as if it were cooked up by the people running the lottery: to ensure profits, the player must buy a ton of lottery tickets. A math and statistics professor interviewed by the Globe said a mere $10,000 worth of tickets was too risky. But $100,000? Then you’ve got a 72% chance of winning more than they spent on tickets.
The couple featured in the story — Marjorie and Gerald Selbee, who used to run a corner store in Michigan and are in their 70s — recently bought more than $600,000 worth of lottery tickets from stores in western Massachusetts. That’s after already winning nearly $1 million from the game this year, while spending less than $25,000 on tickets.
In May, when there was a rolldown week, just three groups (including the Selbees, of course) hit 1,105 of the 1,605 winning tickets statewide. The Selbees are sure to win again, probably in an eye-poppingly huge way, given their recent “investment.”
The players, as well as the stores selling the tickets, are remaining quiet about the game, not wanting a good thing ruined. One player, Mark Fettig of Tennessee, who was among the big winners in May, gave few details about his strategies but told the Globe “it would be immoral” to report the story, not in the least because it would hurt his and others’ chances of winning. Yuran Lu, a 28-year-old MIT grad with degrees in electrical engineering, computer science and math, who while still a student gathered 600 student passwords just to show the administration he could, runs a company that has won $765,168 this year at the game. Lu was unavailable for comment, off on a five-week vacation in Europe, though his company has been buying Cash WinFall tickets in his absence.
Thus far, the only actions the state has taken are to temporarily suspend a few stores from selling lottery tickets — not because of suspicion of ticket fraud but for violations such as selling tickets without the purchaser present or when only one employee is in the store, which is not allowed. Some stores will also not be allowed to sell more than $5,000 worth of Cash WinFall tickets per day.
But essentially, the game remains the same, with the odds and payout system unchanged. Something tells me there will be a lot more players as word gets around. A lot more. Like with most lotteries, nearly all of them will lose.
MORE: Q&A with Lottery Wars Author Matthew Sweeney
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.