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Saturday, January 09, 2016

If You Play, Don't Tell

Here's another lottery-related column, this one from 2007, when the big prize was substantially smaller than today's...

If you're the person who holds the winning $254 million Powerball ticket, I'm begging you, please keep quiet about it. Every media outlet wants to discover your name, tell your story, and on and on -- and that's exactly what you shouldn't do.

Once you go public as the winner of the 7th-largest lottery prize ever, you're going to discover that you have more friends than you ever thought possible. You'll have tons of people claiming to be your second cousin by marriage twice removed, who just happen to need some cash for a great new business idea they want to start. You'll have every charity in the world calling you night and day.

Resist. Keep quiet. Find someone who knows how to handle large piles of money (if you take the lump sum payment, it's something like $80 million after taxes) and get a lot of professional advice on what to do with it so your future is secure. Too often, we hear about people who have suddenly become multi-millionaires and, three years later, after buying a couple of houses and a lot of cars, going on a lot of vacations, and giving away a lot of money, they're broke.

The people who run lotteries know this, yet they still insist on making a big deal of their winners. It's easy to understand why -- every time they show a big winner, they get more people to believe "that could be me," and sell even more lottery tickets. The odds of winning don't matter, because the public has seen someone win who looks like them, and they picture themselves as that person. It's the classic All-American get-rich-quick scheme, only this one has the endorsement of your state government. It's been said that, in that way, lotteries are a tax on people who can't do math.

Then again, there are stories like the one my father told me years ago. He was a high school social studies teacher. Often, he would have lunch with a close friend from the school's math department. One day, while they were eating, the math teacher mentioned something about having to remember to stop and get a lottery ticket on the way home. My father was aghast at this. He asked how a math teacher, a man who understands statistics and probability, could fall for the lottery. Didn't he know the tiny odds of winning, the literal one in millions shot, that he had a better chance of being hit by lightning? He went on and on in exasperation.

Finally, the math teacher looked him in the eye and answered, "It's a dollar!"