Powerball and the lottery curse

The recent winner of the Powerball jackpot is Mavis Wanczyk, a hospital worker from Chicopee, Massachusetts.

The Largest Undivided Lottery Jackpot in North American History

The drawing was on 8/23/2017 and the winning numbers are 6, 7, 16, 23, 26, and Powerball number 4. The size of the jackpot was $758.7 million, the largest undivided lottery jackpot in North American history. Instead of having the winnings being paid out over a 30-year period (the annuity option), Wanczyk took a lump-sum payment of $480 million and took home $336 million after taxes. This recent winning is widely reported. Here’s are one instance and another instance of reporting.

We wish Ms. Wanczyk well, hoping that she will manage the unexpected windfall in ways that add to her happiness. For lottery winners of giant jackpot, sometimes the winning is the easy part. Google “the curse of the lottery”, you will see plenty of stories of lottery winners who lost big – breaking up of marriages, going bankrupt, getting robbed, being swindled and in some cases committing suicide or being murdered.

In some states, by law the lottery winners must make public appearances holding a giant publicity check in front of camera. For the states that have no such requirements, where the public appearances are voluntary, wise winners would skip any photo ops (their identity would still be revealed) and head immediately to an undisclosed location. They know that plenty of slings and arrows (in some cases bullets) would come their ways – from swindlers, fraudsters and robbers as well as from the long lost friends and relatives who want to share the wealth. Just like one famous line in the movie Forrest Gump, ‘run, Forrest, run!” That would be the best advice for a winner of a giant and sudden windfall of cash. Of course, it is also important to hire a reputable and trustworthy financial adviser.

Sudden windfall cash usually does not last long. About 70 percent of the time, the cash will be gone in a few years, according to the National Endowment for Financial Education (see this piece from time.com).

The Time piece also mentions several stories of lottery winnings gone wrong. One winner mentioned is Abraham Shakespeare, who won a $30 million jackpot in Florida. He told his brother, “‘I’d have been better off broke.” Shakespeare (the lottery winner) has his own page in Wikipedia. His eventual fate: he was murdered by a swindler named Dee-Dee Moore 3 years after winning the big prize. The Wikipedia page of Abraham Shakespeare is more like a posthumous monument of his notoriety as a murdered lottery winner, rather than for highlighting achievements.

The Time piece also mentions a “success” story. Richard Lustig is a 65-year-old Florida man who is a seven-time lottery game grand-prize winner. He had the wisdom of hiring a good financial planner and a good accountant. With the right mindset and the foresight of financial planning, he and his family are enjoying the good life made possible by the lottery winnings two decades earlier.

Shakespeare and Lustig are from two opposite extremes in post lottery winning experiences. In between these two extremes, there are plenty of nightmarish stories with most of them being ended up in poverty, some in drug addiction (stories are here and here).

The Google search for “the curse of the lottery” turns up plenty of advice too. Here’s a piece from Forbes. Another article is a piece from Wired. The piece from Lotto Report has sad stories and other information that can shed more light on the lottery curse. Here’s home page of the Lotto Report.

As horrendous as some of the lottery curse stories are, the odds of incurring such fate are extremely rare. The odds for winning the Mega Millions jackpot is 1 in over 175 million (see here for the calculation). The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot is one in over 292 million (see here for the calculation). The odds of being struck by lightning is 1 in 700,000 according to a piece from National Geographic (significantly below 1 in a million odds). The odds of lightning strike would be more similar to the odds for winning the jackpot in a smaller lottery, e.g. Fantasy 5 in California Lottery (1 in 575,757).

Of course, the longer the odds, the larger the potential jackpot. In fact, some of the most viewed articles in a companion blog called Talking about Numbers are about lotteries. The articles deal with California Lottery. But the ideas and observations would apply to other lotteries as well.

One way to calculate the odds of winning the top prize in a lottery is through math (done here for various games in California Lottery and here for Powerball). Another way is to look at data.

In this piece in Talking about Numbers, I showed that there are only 257 winning tickets with payouts of $1 million or more in the 26-year period from 1985 (the founding of California Lottery) to August 2011, averaging 10 “$1 million plus” winning tickets a year. Of these 257 winning tickets, 247 are in the first 25 years and 10 in the last year.

Naturally, I would like to update the study but California Lottery had since then made it hard to gather the data in their website. But the essential fact remains the same. There are on average about 10 winning tickets a year that pay out $1 million or more. These 257 winning tickets are out of over 9 billion purchased tickets! This means the odds for winning a “million dollar plus” prize in California prize are about one in 36 million (calculated here).

Of course, California Lottery will try their best to give the impression that winning is more commonplace. Lottery authorities are in the business of selling tickets. They do not want to provide a picture reflecting the true odds of winning big. The odds of 1 in 36 million are much better odds than the Powerball odds for sure. But the prizes are not as mega as Powerball (the average of 247 winning tickets from 1985 to 2010 for California Lottery is $18 million).

This piece has more information on the study. Here’s another frequently viewed post on lottery topics.

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\copyright 2017 – Dan Ma