Listen Live










Maybe the odds of winning the lottery would be a lot better if Joan Ginther would stop buying all the good tickets.

By now you may have heard of the Las Vegas resident, who you probably want sitting next to you when an asteroid, slungshot by aliens, is aimed at your plane. She recently cashed in a winning $10 million scratch-off ticket, making the lucky woman a four-time lottery winner.

That’s right, four times. And while she now lives in Sin City thereabouts, the multi-millionaire prefers her to buy her tickets in her home state of Texas. The state, like many others, is on track to having one of its best lottery years ever during tough economic times…and that might be a bad thing. But, more on that later. First, a look at Ginther’s lottery loot so far, and the odds:

•1993: $5.4 million (paid in yearly installments). Odds: 1 in 15.8 million

•2006: $2 million (lump-sum payoff). Odds: 1 in 1,028,338.

•2008: $3 million (lump-sum payoff). Odds: 1 in 909,000.

•2010: $10 million (lump-sum payoff). Odds: 1 in 1,200,000.

What are the odds?

Amazingly, she’s not the only winner who has defied long odds: A Canadian man has scored five jackpots in five years, although he had to sue to get the last—and biggest—prize of $17 million in 2009.

What are the total odds for four multi-million-dollar payoffs? Michael Starbird, a University of Texas at Austin math professor who has written a book on coincidence and other mathematical quirks, calculates the odds of a four-time winner to come up with this answer: “It’s pretty astronomical…She should quit, incidentally.”

However, he did say the odds of a four-time win was less likely than being hit by lightning, but that a would-be lottery player standing in line for tickets next to her shouldn’t feel tempted to nudge her out of the way. “Probabilities don’t have any memory. She’s no more likely to win the lottery (again) than anybody else. She has exactly the same likelihood as you or I have.”

Sharing the wealth?

The Las Vegas woman has spread her luck: Two winning tickets, including the latest whopper, came from Times Market in Bishop, Texas — and retailers get a $10,000 bonus for some big wins (like the last one). Store owner Sun Bae sold her two winning scratch-offs, which makes Sun the person you want next to you when you’re holding a metal umbrella during a lightning storm while standing atop the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajokull.

The store’s not the only beneficiary of a winning ticket: According to Texas Lottery spokesperson Bobby Heith, the Lone Star State gets a 25% upfront cut for federal taxes, and lottery proceeds overall go towards education. That news might cheer up Texas, which faces an $18 billion deficit—or, it might just add fuel to the controversial proposal to expand gambling as a budget fix.

Lottery: Do states win?

As the fiscal year ends for many states, Texas isn’t the only one to announce lottery proceeds rising in tough times. Across the United States, the recession is actually fueling lottery sales. Searches on Yahoo! spike with alarming regularity every week, and especially before a big payoff. Consider:

•Illinois: $2.2 billion in gross sales, about 5 percent higher than last year.

•Kentucky: $213.5 million from 2009-2010 sales, and the Bluegrass State expects a little more for the next fiscal year.

•Missouri: The goal to raise $250 million for education was surpassed by another $5 million. Proceeds were down, but partly because Arkansas started its own scholarship lottery.

•North Carolina: Transferred a total of $419.5 million to the State Education Lottery Fund — during a time of record high unemployment, the North Carolina Family Policy Council reported.

•Texas: According to lottery media relations director Heith, sales are up 2.2% from last year, with an expected $3.7 billion coming in when the state’s fiscal year closes in August.

Another tax you can’t afford?

So, is a lottery payoff a win win for everyone? Here’s the downside: The odds are still way against you.

“The unfortunate increase in hard economic times is indicative of desperation,” Starbird observes. “The sad thing about the lottery is that the people who do spend money on the lottery are people who can’t afford it well.” If a lottery buy’s purely for entertainment — for instance, getting a scratcher rather than a full-price movie ticket, that’s another story.

But, as for investing in a chance to win? Says Starbird, “The lottery is a tax on the mathematically impaired.” Just don’t tell the lady from Las Vegas.