#366: Gaming The Lottery
Three great articles about winning it big
Happy Thursday, loyal readers. This week’s issue is about the lottery.
In sixth grade I won the lottery. No, it wasn’t the lottery, like Powerball or Mega Millions. But I jumped for joy nevertheless. That’s because at the end of the annual magazine drive, whereby I cajoled neighbors and family members to subscribe to People and Sports Illustrated, there was a school-wide drawing for an exciting grand prize: an Androbot Topo. And somehow, out of 600 middle schoolers (some of whom shared my enthusiasm), I won. (My mom, who volunteered for the drive, insists she played no part in my good fortune.)
It was the first and only time I’ve ever won anything. Obviously it had an effect on me, because here I am telling you this story decades later and devoting today’s newsletter to outstanding articles about lotteries.
Even if you’ve never struck it rich, you’ll enjoy this week’s articles, which explore lotteries from a variety of angles. You’ll meet a guy whose American dream turns into a nightmare. You’ll feel disgust that lotteries are legal in the first place. But you’ll also find yourself rooting for two elders gaming the system and taking home millions. Happy reading, and let me know which piece(s) resonate with you!
Get ready for a wild ride. This is the story of Viktor Gjonaj (pronounced Joe-nye), an Albanian American real estate broker in Michigan who loves numbers. He’s convinced he can predict which four numbers will come up on the Michigan Lottery’s Daily 4, whose prize is $5,000. One time, Mr. Gjonaj showed up at the state claim office with 500 winning tickets. Then he did it again, which caught the attention of an old friend, Gregory Vitto (not Italian, despite his last name), who was down on his luck after the death of his mother. Together they won the lottery multiple times, thanks to building charts and spreadsheets, believing in bunk theorems that some numbers repeat themselves, and downing hundreds of Red Bulls to pull all-nighters (so they could talk about numbers). But one day, Mr. Vitto sensed that something didn’t quite add up, especially when Mr. Gjonaj went on a long losing streak. (31 min)
Americans spend more on lottery tickets every year than on cigarettes, coffee, or smartphones, and they spend more on lottery tickets annually than on video streaming services, concert tickets, books, and movie tickets combined.
Lotteries are in our country’s DNA. They funded European settlement of the continent. Puritans condemned gambling but established their first lottery in 1745. Fancy colleges like Yale financed their construction with lottery funds. George Washington managed a lottery whose prizes included enslaved people.
Always popular, lotteries boomed starting in the 1960s, writes Kathryn Schulz in this thoughtful review of “For a Dollar and a Dream,” by the historian Jonathan D. Cohen. As America’s prosperity began to wane, politicians sought out ways to finance services without raising taxes. States like California promised huge investments in education and then reduced public funding after introducing the lottery. Sadly, instead of resulting in better infrastructure and quality of life, lotteries have accounted for just 1 percent of most state budgets. In the meantime, they’ve targeted poor Black and brown people, who spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on tickets. The solution? Ban them, says Prof. Cohen, and Ms. Schulz agrees. (17 min)
+ Ms. Schulz is one of my favorite authors — and not just because she called me an “astute reader” multiple times when I interviewed her for Article Club in February. It’s also because of “When Things Go Missing,” one of my all-time favorite pieces, and her follow-up memoir, Lost & Found, which loyal reader Carina recommends.
⭐️⭐️ AN ALL-TIME FAVORITE ⭐️⭐️
Jerry and Marge Selbee are delightful retirees from down-home Michigan who have worked hard every day their whole lives to put their six kids through college. Now they’re ready to game the lottery and win millions of dollars. If you’ve ever dreamed up money-making schemes, or if you like mathematical thrillers pitting grandparents against MIT students, this one’s for you. (48 min)
Thank you for reading this week’s issue of The Highlighter Article Club. Hope you liked it. Feel free to share your thoughts and feedback. All you need to do is hit reply, email me, or leave me a voice message.
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