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The Death Row Book Club


Anthony Ray Hinton | The Sun Does Shine | St. Martin’s Press | March 2018 | 14 minutes (3,745 words)

The books were a big deal. Nobody had books on death row. They had never been allowed, and it was like someone had brought in contraband. Only six guys were allowed to join me in book club, but every guy on the row was now allowed to have two books besides the Bible in his cell. Some didn’t care, but others made calls out to family and friends to let them know they could send in a book or two. It had to be a brand-new book and be sent directly from a bookstore to the prison. It was like a whole new world opened up, and guys started talking about what books they liked. Some guys didn’t know how to read, others were real slow, almost childlike, and had never been to school beyond a few grades. Those guys didn’t know why they were on death row, and I wondered about a world that would just as soon execute a guy as treat him in a hospital or admit he wasn’t mentally capable of knowing right from wrong.

The very first book club meeting consisted of Jesse Morrison, Victor Kennedy, Larry Heath, Brian Baldwin, Ed Horsley, Henry, and myself. We were allowed to meet in the law library, but we each had to sit at a different table. We couldn’t get up. In order to talk to everyone at once, you had to kind of swivel around in your seat so no one felt left out. If someone wanted to read something out of the book, we had to toss the book to each other and hope that the guy caught it or it landed in reach of someone because we weren’t allowed to lift our butts up off the seats. The guards seemed nervous when they walked us to the library. We weren’t planning a riot or an escape; we were five black guys and two white guys talking about a James Baldwin book. Perfectly normal. Nothing to see here.

When the books arrived, one of the guards had brought them to my cell and handed them to me. Two brand-new copies of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. I had read it in high school, but I read it again so I could pass it on to the next guy. All seven of us took about a week to read the book, so with two copies being passed, we were ready for book club in a month. That became the routine for each book. Some other guys had asked their families to send them the same book, so in our section of the row — with fourteen guys upstairs and fourteen guys downstairs — almost everybody seemed to be talking about the book.

Some people hated it because it talked so much about God, and others loved it for the same reason. A couple liked it because there were some sex scenes. For that month, it seemed like the row was transformed to another place. We were in New York City, in Harlem. Our parents had a complicated and sordid past, and no relationship was as it seemed to be on the surface. We were in church, waiting to be saved or feeling the glory of Jesus as it racked our body in convulsions. We were victims of violence. We were caught up in a strange family dynamic where we didn’t know who our daddy was or why he hated us. We were John, the main character, turning fourteen and trying to figure out the world and make sense of what he was feeling. We were ourselves, but we were different, and the book occupied our days and our nights in a new way. We weren’t discussing legal questions, playing pretend lawyers and trying to understand a system that didn’t make sense half the time. We weren’t the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low, the forgotten and abandoned men who were sitting in a dark corner of hell waiting for their turn to walk to the electric chair. We were transported, and just as I could travel the world and have tea with the Queen of England, I watched these men be transported in their minds for a small chunk of time. It was a vacation from the row — and everyone was a part of book club, even before the seven of us had our first official meeting.

When we finally did have our meeting, we sat at our respective tables and felt an awkwardness that wasn’t there when we were yelling to each other through the bars of our cell. Larry and Henry, being the only white guys, looked especially uncomfortable. The guards had locked us into the library, so we were in there by ourselves. There could be no violating the rules, no getting in any fights, no foolishness whatsoever. It was strange after so many years to have a change in our routine. Every day, except for when they took you to shower, things happened at the same exact time. So when there was suddenly something new, especially for the guys like Baldwin and Heath and Horsley, who had been there over a decade, it was strange and they seemed on edge.

“So, what do you think?” I asked everyone.

“How do we do this exactly? What’s the format?” Jesse Morrison was used to Project Hope, so he knew how to organize a group.

Everyone looked at me. “Let’s just talk about whatever we read that we want to talk about. Whether we liked the book or not. What we liked about it, what we didn’t. What left an impression. How does that sound?” I looked around at everyone, and they nodded. Henry looked serious. “You know what I liked?” I asked. “I liked this sentence: ‘For the rebirth of the soul was perpetual; only rebirth every hour could stay the hand of Satan.’ ”

“What you like about it?” asked Larry.

“I like that it’s about hope,” I said. “It’s like your soul can be reborn. No matter what you’ve done, you can be new again. It’s a hopeful sentence.”

“Yeah, but Satan is right there, pushing you every hour on the hour,” said Victor. Victor was a quiet guy. He was sentenced to die for raping and killing an old woman. “When I drink, Satan takes over; that much I know.”

We were quiet. Everyone knew he had been drunk the night he and Grayson had done what they did. Grayson was on the row too, but I never saw the two guys even acknowledge they knew each other. Baldwin and Horsley were both on the row for a crime they were accused of committing together. Horsley had told them he did it alone, Baldwin hadn’t done it, but it didn’t matter. Baldwin had been shocked with a cattle prod until he confessed. The jury had been all white. He and Horsley had both been tortured. Horsley tried to tell anyone who would listen that Baldwin wasn’t there, but it didn’t seem to matter. They were both sentenced to die. Just two more black men off the streets of Alabama.

We weren’t the scum of the earth, the forgotten and abandoned men who were sitting in a dark corner of hell waiting for their turn to walk to the electric chair. We were transported.

Heath spoke like a preacher, so I expected him to have something to say about the church folk in Baldwin’s book. He was strangely quiet, though.

“Everybody talking about being saved in this book,” said Henry. “I’ve never been to a church where people falling on the ground getting saved.”

I laughed. “Well, you never been to a black church, Henry. When we get out of here, I’m going to take you to a church where you will see the Holy Spirit come down and take over a person’s body so much that it looks like that person is going to fly right up and out the window of that church!” I started laughing. “You are not going to believe how people carry on in a black church. The only problem is it’s going to last all day and into the night, so you’d best be prepared to eat before you go and be ready to sit there until the Spirit moves you. You are going to be singing and praising the Lord like you’ve never praised the Lord before!”

Henry looked around the group. “I’m not sure they’re going to want me in there—you know, not everyone is like you guys.”

“Well, we will have to show them, won’t we? We will have to show them how a man can change.”

Henry smiled at me and kind of shook his head and shrugged a little. We all knew the row was different. Outside of here, the world was still different. Henry was a white man who’d lynched a black teenage boy. I was a guy who would blow a man’s brains out for a few hundred dollars. Brian and Ed were the kind of guys who would kidnap and kill a sixteen-year-old girl. Larry had his pregnant wife murdered. Victor could rob and rape an eighty-six-year-old woman. Jesse would shoot a woman for five dollars, according to his case. I looked around at our unlikely group, locked in a library in Holman Prison. A few of us were innocent, a few were not. It didn’t really matter.

“This is what I liked,” said Baldwin. “The part where John’s having to clean the house. Do you remember? Right in the beginning?” Baldwin unfolded a piece of paper he had brought with him. “I wrote it down while I was reading.” He straightened out the paper and cleared his throat.

John hated sweeping this carpet, for dust rose, clogging his nose and sticking to his sweaty skin, and he felt that should he sweep it forever, the clouds of dust would not diminish, the rug would not be clean. It became in his imagination his impossible, lifelong task, his hard trial, like that of a man he had read about somewhere, whose curse it was to push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have the giant who guarded the hill roll the boulder down again—and so on, forever, throughout eternity; he was still out there, that hapless man, somewhere at the other end of the earth, pushing his boulder up the hill.

Everyone was quiet when Baldwin finished reading. He had read softly and carefully, like he had been practicing and didn’t want to get it wrong.

“Are you like the guy pushing the boulder up the hill?” asked Victor.

“Yeah, pretty much.” Baldwin cleared his throat. “Aren’t we all pushing the boulder? Every day, all day, week after week, year after year, we push that boulder up, and then the giant just pushes it back down. And we’re going to keep doing this until the giant crushes us to death with that boulder, or someone comes along at the top of the hill and gives us a hand. Someone tells the giant to make way, and we get to push our boulder up and over and then sit down and take a rest or something? Isn’t that just how it is?”

A few guys laughed, but I nodded at Baldwin. Horsley just looked down. I had been pushing my boulder up the hill hoping that Perhacs, or Santha, or now Alan Black was going to move the giant out of the way. Or at least hold him back so I could get to the top. I knew what Baldwin meant. I knew how helpless he felt. I felt the same way.

“That’s a good quote, Brian,” I said. “That’s something we can all relate to.”

The others nodded.

Horsley raised his hand to speak, and we all laughed.

“What you want to say, Ed?” I asked.

“I like how you think the people are all a certain way, but then you find out their stories, their histories, and you see how they got to be that way. Yes, maybe the father is an ass, but he’s had some loss, and it seems like the more you know of their story, the more you kind of forgive them for what they do. You know? It’s kind of like that here, right? We all got a story that led to another story and led to some choices and big mistakes. All these characters make mistakes, you know? Nobody is living this life perfect.”

Larry hung his head, but the other guys grunted in agreement. Then it was quiet, and I wondered who was thinking about their own mistakes. I had made mistakes, no doubt about it. Wouldn’t we all do things over if we could if we knew now what we didn’t know then? There wasn’t a guy in this library who wouldn’t have chosen differently if he could have.

The guards seemed nervous when they walked us to the library. We weren’t planning a riot or an escape; we were five black guys and two white guys talking about a James Baldwin book.

“Who else read a passage that meant something to them?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if this is how book club was held in other places, but I didn’t have a study guide or a printed list of questions from anywhere.

I had talked to Sia and Lester about it on my last visit, and Sia had said to just let people talk about what moved them. “Everybody feels something different when they read the same thing. You just have to see what made people feel something and then talk about that,” she’d said. “Don’t try to be the teacher; just talk about whatever the guys want to talk about.” I had nodded. The point was to get them thinking about anything but the dark, grimy, hot hell of the row. It was a gift to spend time in your mind away from your own reality. I could take my private jet anywhere around the world. I spent my week between visits having dinner with the most beautiful women in the world. I had already won Wimbledon five times. I was just this week being recruited by the New York Yankees. I was busy in my cell, too busy to think about the giant at the top of the hill pushing my boulder down. That’s all I wanted for these guys, an hour of freedom and escape. An hour away from the rats and the roaches and the smell of death and decay. We were all slowly dying from our own fear — our minds killing us quicker than the State of Alabama ever could. Men would do all kinds of crazy things rather than spend another night with their own thoughts. Bring in the books, I thought. Let every man on the row have a week away, inside the world of a book. I knew if the mind could open, the heart would follow. It had happened to Henry. Look at him sitting here in a locked room with five black men who had nothing to lose. He had been taught to hate us and fear us so much that he had thought it was in his rights to go find a teenage boy and beat and stab and lynch him just because of the color of his skin. I had no anger toward Henry. He had been taught to fear blacks. He had been trained to hate. Death row had been good for Henry. Death row had saved his soul. Death row had taught him that his hate was wrong.

“What about you, Ray?”

I looked around at the guys. “You know how he’s walking in the city, I think on Fifth Avenue, and he knows it’s not the place for him?”

“Where’s that part at?” asked Victor.

“I don’t remember exactly, but he’s being taught that the whites don’t like him, but he remembers a white teacher being nice to him when he’s sick. He thinks someday that the white people will honor him. Respect him. Do you guys remember that?” I said.

Henry cleared his throat. “I remember that part because it was like the opposite of what I was taught, but just the same, you know?” He looked around a bit nervously. “I wrote it down too.” Henry took out his own paper — a piece of inmate stationery with the lines printed on it as if we were too dumb to write straight. “Can I read it?” he asked.

Everybody nodded. “It reminded me of my dad. I thought of him, so I wrote it down.”

“You go ahead and read it,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”

Henry began:

This was not his father’s opinion. His father said that all white people were wicked, and that God was going to bring them low. He said that white people were never to be trusted, and that they told nothing but lies, and that not one of them had ever loved a nigger. He, John, was a nigger, and he would find out, as soon as he got a little older, how evil white people could be. John had read about the things white people did to colored people: how, in the South, where his parents came from, white people cheated them of their wages, and burned them, and shot them—and did worse things, said his father, which the tongue could not endure to utter. He had read about colored men being burned in the electric chair for things they had not done; how in riots they were beaten with clubs, how they were tortured in prisons; how they were the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Niggers did not live on these streets where John now walked; it was forbidden; and yet he walked here, and no one raised a hand against him. But did he dare to enter this shop out of which a woman now casually walked, carrying a great round box? Or this apartment before which a white man stood, dressed in a brilliant uniform? John knew he did not dare, not today, and he heard his father’s laugh: “No, nor tomorrow neither!” For him there was the back door, and the dark stairs, and the kitchen or the basement. This world was not for him. If he refused to believe, and wanted to break his neck trying, then he could try until the sun refused to shine; they would never let him enter. In John’s mind then, the people and the avenue underwent a change, and he feared them and he knew that one day he could hate them if God did not change his heart.

We were all quiet when Henry finished. We all knew why Henry had picked that passage. His family was KKK. And here was this kid’s dad teaching him the same exact thing, only opposite.

“It’s a shame,” said Henry. “What fathers teach sons. It’s a sin to hate, ain’t that right, preacher man?” Henry looked over at Heath.

“That’s right. It’s a sin to hate, but God can forgive our sins. And the sins of our fathers.”

“That was a good passage, Henry,” said Victor, and both Horsley and Baldwin nodded. Everybody knew Henry had shame, and here we were, five black men in the South trying to comfort the white man who would forever be known for doing the last lynching of a black boy.

Everybody knew Henry had shame, and here we were, five black men in the South trying to comfort the white man who would forever be known for doing the last lynching of a black boy.

“I don’t believe the world is not for him,” I said. “Or for anyone. We are all God’s children, and this world belongs to all of us. I know the sun will never refuse to shine. We may not see it, but I know it’s there. I’m not going to have hate in my heart. I spent some dark years here with nothing but hate in my heart. I can’t live like that.”

“You are not a hater, Ray,” said Jesse.

“My mama didn’t raise me to hate. And I’m sorry for anyone who was taught to hate instead of love, to fight instead of help. I’m sorry for that and for anyone in this room who feels shame for what they were taught.” I looked at Henry. “God knows what’s in each man’s heart. What someone did or didn’t do is between a man and God and is none of anyone else’s business.”

Everyone nodded, and I could see the guard walking up to unlock the door. Book club had been a success. We had spent an hour talking about something that mattered.

“Someday, when I get out of here, you know what I’m going to do?” I asked.

“What you going to do, Ray?”

“I’m going to tell the world about how there was men in here that mattered. That cared about each other and the world. That were learning how to look at things differently.”

“You’re going to tell it from the mountain, Ray?” Jesse asked.

The other guys laughed.

“I’m going to tell it from every single mountain there is. I’m going to push that boulder right on up and over that giant, and I’m going to stand at the top of that hill, and on the top of every mountain I can find, and I’m going to tell it. I’m going to tell my story, and I’m going to tell your story. Hell, maybe I will even write a book and tell it like that.”

“Everybody up. Back in the cell. This here is over right now.” Two guards, one at the door, one in the library, rounded us up and walked us back over to our cells. I watched as Henry grabbed his paper where he’d had carefully copied down a whole page of James Baldwin’s writing and folded it back up. Who would have thought those words would have mattered so much to him?

Larry Heath was the first member of book club to die. He didn’t have a last meal for dinner, and when Charlie Jones asked him for any final words, he said, “If this is what it takes for there to be healing in their lives, so be it. Father, I ask for forgiveness for my sins.”

On March 20, 1992, at a little after midnight, the guards put a black bag over his head, and the warden who had allowed him the privilege of reading a book and meeting with six other guys to talk about what that book meant to him turned the switch on and sent two thousand volts of electricity coursing through his body for a minute until he was dead.

At the next book club, we left his chair empty.

* * *

From The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin. © 2018 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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I spend a fair amount of time teaching women to kick men in the balls, and I’ve learned that this activity tends to generate controversy. Here, according to actual adults who have actually said these things to me, are some reasons you should not kick a guy in the balls:

1. It will make him angry.

I should hope so. I’m not sending him a friend request. If I kick him hard enough, there’s a good chance I’ll render him unable to act upon his anger. That’s my goal. His feelings are his problem.

2. It will make him hurt you worse.

Statistics say otherwise. And anyway, he’s already demonstrated his desire to hurt me. Why should I give him carte blanche to decide how much he’s going to hurt me? I’d rather be an active participant in that decision-making process.

3. Groin kicks aren’t really that devastating; I’ve seen lots of guys get hit in the balls and it hardly fazed them.

This response (almost universally from men) is so common I’ve come to think of it as “groinsplaining”—you can see it many of the YouTube comments in the videos linked above. These people rarely volunteer to demonstrate their own iron balls in a real kicking situation, but they confidently assert that men in general can shrug off all kinds of damage to the groin. All I can say is, I’ve seen two-year-olds take down grown men via the groin, and toddlers don’t even have any training. I do. I like my odds.

4. We shouldn’t be teaching people how to kick men in the balls; we should be teaching men not to do anything that would make us have to kick them in the balls.

Hey, that’s a great idea! Do you have a detailed, research-based plan for teaching all men everywhere to behave themselves all the time? And do you have funding for your efforts, and buy-in from politicians and community leaders, and a network of trained, experienced instructors who can effect this change? If not, better get started on your grant proposal. In the meantime, I’ll just be over here teaching people how to kick guys in the balls. That’s what I do.

5. Telling people they should kick an assailant in the balls is the same as telling victims who didn’t kick their assailant in the balls that they did something wrong.

No, it isn’t. It’s a practical way to reduce the number of future victims by giving them more viable options to disrupt and survive an assault.

Fact: We have the power to damage the bodies of men who try to hurt us. You’re saying we shouldn’t let people use that power. I’m offering people more choices; you’re trying to take them away.

6. Kicking a guy in the balls just makes the world a more violent place.

Maybe, in the short term. But if it stops him from killing someone, or putting them in the hospital, isn’t that a net win for non-violence? The Dalai Lama thinks so.

One in four women will have good reason to kick a guy in the balls at some point in her life. Luckily, it’s not rocket science. Anyone can do it! And ball-kicking’s efficacy is beyond dispute, as the men of MMA so nobly helped us illustrate here. Gentlemen, if any of you are reading this, and conscious: Cheers, and get well soon (the non-wife-beaters among you, anyway).


okay, so!

There is a trick to it. You do NOT want to soccer kick the dude because that’s a little projectile aiming at a littler target.

It’ll do in a pinch, and it’ll hurt, but it won’t incapacitate, which is what you want. You don’t want “ouch!” Or even “FUCK!”

You want him puking on the floor, and this is how we do:

There’s two ranges where a groin kick works: close and mid-range.

Say someone grabs you face to face, or pins you to the wall, and your hands are blocked.
Now you’re close-range. What do you do?
You come in closer, as close as you can, and with every ounce of adrenaline and aggression in your body, you do a can-can kick.

You know the first step in the can-can, where you raise your knee up as high as it’ll go as strong as you can?

Do that, as hard as you can, repeatedly.

If that doesn’t work, here’s the alternative. You’re going to take your hand, grasp between the thighs underhand. Its going to feel like you’re “cradling” the testicles. Dig your fingertips into the fragile skin BEHIND the scrotum. Then, once you have a good grip, you turn your hand into a vise, with your fingers digging inwards to the material. If you do it right, you should feel the testes INSIDE the scrotum. You want, whenever possible, to hook your fingers under them.

Then, with your hands in a claw and your fingertips latched behind the testes, you turn your hand sharply, as though you were turning a doorknob. Simultaneously, haul your elbow back and up as hard as you can.

If done properly, this technique can tear the scrotal tissue, and done with enough force, can tear the testes out of your attacker’s body.

No matter HOW pissed he is, he’s gonna drop. I’ve tried this technique on guys wearing cups and even with protection, it is not a fun feeling.

If you’re mid-range and have enough room for a kick, the goal becomes to use your shin.
The shin is actually called the tibia, which ounce for ounce is one of the strongest bones in your body. So, here’s what you do, my little bloodthirsty beaus:

You aim, you scream “DO NOT COME CLOSER I SAID NO!” (legal purposes, because now you’re officially exercising your right to self-defence). Maintain a 360 degree awareness, just in case he has friends, and then, when he’s close enough, connect your shin full on soccer kick with the delicate squish of his testicles.

What you want is as much upwards force as possible in combination with as much momentum as you can manage. When he collapses, which he will, then stomp on his groin again, and then run.

The latter has less of a trick to it. It’s primarily about momentum and force.

Remember, if you’re close enough to put your hands on him, use your knee. If he’s coming at you, use your shin.

If you can smell the nachos he had for dinner, rip his fucking balls off.

It’s easy to do, they’re tiny little squishiness wrapped in a delicate flap of skin about as thin as a toenail.

Remember: if he’s coming at you, he’s ALREADY out to hurt you. Might as well give the fucker a reason to be pissed.

How to Kick a Guy in the Balls: An Illustrated Guide

Someone once told me that the way to train a proper knee in the groin (with appropriate aggression if you want to hurt him enough to let you go is to train and act as if you’re not aiming your knee at the groin, but aiming for somewhere much higher so that your mind knows to really ram your knee upward.

A male friend of a friend of the family once generously and kindly advised me that if anyone with nuts ever got up on me without me wanting him to do so, to “grab his balls as hard as you can, squeeze, and yank away from his body until they feel like marmalade. Then run.”

I have never forgotten this advice.

My self-defense trainer used to say: “Eyes are like grapes. Ears are like pull tabs. And if you’re going to grab some, girls - grab, pull, twist, and bring those balls home to Mama.”

…I really need to embroider that on a cushion.


“What would street fights between guys look like—or professional fights for that matter—if one could go below the belt? For one, there’d be a lot more collapsing. Two, a lot more writhing in pain. Three, a lot less getting up. All in all, it would add up to less time looking powerful and more time looking pitiful. And it would send a clear message that men’s bodies are vulnerable.“

“So, men generally agree to pretend that the balls just aren’t there. The effect is that we tend to forget just how vulnerable men are to the right attack and continue to think of women as naturally more fragile.”



“In 2015 I wrote an essay in which I speculated about why we don’t see men kicking each other in the balls more often. We leave no stones unturned here at SocImages, folks.I argued that men don’t kick each other in the balls because it would reveal to everyone an inherent and undeniable biological weakness in every man, not just the man getting kicked.  In other words, it’s a secret pact to protect the myth of masculine superiority. I expected a reaction, but I was genuinely surprised at what transpired. In public — in the comments — men debated strategy, arguing that men don’t kick each other in the balls because it’s actually a difficult blow to land or would escalate the fight. But in private — in my email inbox — men sent me hushed messages of you-are-so-right-though.“

I work at a job that requires me to lug around hand trucks with stacks of stuff on it held in place with a bungie cord. Like this:

One time, I messed up wrapping the cord and it whipped around and nailed me right in the ballsack. Three things happened:

1. I fell down to one knee as the most nauseating pain I have ever experienced knocked me off my feet.

2. I let out a strangled scream that wasn’t louder only because I’d had the breath knocked out of me by the pain.

3. I couldn’t walk right or stand up straight for a solid fifteen minutes. I couldn’t see straight because my eyes were tearing up so bad. I couldn’t piss right for a week.

And that was from a single accidental blow to the testicles, not repeated strikes intended to harm.

If you need to hurt a man, go for the nuts.

Captain William Fairbairn taught unarmed combat to UK and US Special Forces in WW2; he was apparently famous for concluding every lecture and demonstration with “and then kick/knee/punch/hit him in the testicles”. Fairbairn wrote numerous books including “Self Defence for Women and Girls”; you can guess what that might involve…

This was supposedly his finisher to dealing with any enemy, even if that enemy had been knifed, garotted, manually strangled, brained with a chair or for all I know taken to bits by hand-grenade, heavy machine-gun, aerial bombing or long-range naval artillery. It was his version of “nuke the site from orbit: it’s the only way to be sure.”

And strike him in the cods” - what the codpiece contains - is also a standard instruction in numerous period fight manuals. It’s an effective defence, and the more effectively it’s made, the more effective its result. Strike as if driving the point of impact through the roof, or grab as if taking it home as a trophy.

Even outside the Real World, remember it for writing purposes: despite the protracted Hero/Villain fights beloved by Hollywood, anyone hit by an expert tends to stay hit (plenty of examples on YouTube). It’s not protracted or visually dramatic but it’s effective and in fiction, if properly written, doesn’t read as abbreviated or lazy but as something by someone who Knows A Thing Or Two.

When two combatants who Know A Thing Or Two go head to head with no rules but You or Me, the fight is like a Nac Mac Feegle - fast, brutal and short. A solid smack in the Ooh-mah-Tenders will do it too.

Carpe Testiculum…

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Carpe Testiculum

The Lottery Hackers - The Huffington Post

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Chapter 1

Gerald Selbee broke the code of the American breakfast cereal industry because he was bored at work one day, because it was a fun mental challenge, because most things at his job were not fun and because he could—because he happened to be the kind of person who saw puzzles all around him, puzzles that other people don’t realize are puzzles: the little ciphers and patterns that float through the world and stick to the surfaces of everyday things.

This was back in 1966, when Jerry, as he is known, worked for Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was a materials analyst who designed boxes to increase the shelf life of freeze-dried foods and cereals. “You ever buy a cereal that had a foil liner on the inside?” Jerry asked not long ago. “That was one of my projects.”

He worked in the same factory where the cereals were cooked, the smells wafting into his office—an aroma like animal feed at first, and then, as the grains got rolled and flaked and dried, like oatmeal. Near his desk, he kept a stash of cereal boxes made by Kellogg’s competitors: Cheerios from General Mills, Honeycomb from Post. Sales reps brought these back from around the country, and Jerry would dry, heat and weigh their contents in the factory’s lab, comparing their moisture levels to that of a Kellogg’s cereal like Froot Loops. It wasn’t the most interesting job, but both of Jerry’s parents had been factory workers, his father at a hose-fitting plant and his mother at the same Kellogg’s factory, and he wasn’t raised to complain about manual labor.

One day Jerry found himself studying a string of letters and numbers stamped near the bottom of a General Mills box. Companies like Kellogg’s and Post stamped their boxes too, usually with a cereal’s time and place of production, allowing its shelf life to be tracked. But General Mills’ figures were garbled, as if in secret code. Jerry wondered if he could make sense of them. After locating a few boxes of General Mills and Kellogg’s cereals that had sat on store shelves in the same locations, he decided to test their contents, reasoning that cereals with similar moisture must have been cooked around the same time. Scribbling on a piece of scratch paper, he set up a few ratios.

All of a sudden, he experienced the puzzle-solver’s dopamine hit of seeing a solution shine through the fog: He had worked out how to trace any General Mills box of cereal back to the exact plant, shift, date and time of its creation. “It was pretty easy,” Jerry would recall decades later, chuckling at the memory. In a more ruthless industry, cracking a competitor’s trade secrets might have generated millions in profits. This, however, was the cereal business. Discovering the adversary’s production schedule didn’t make anyone rich, and so when Jerry shared his findings with his managers, his discovery was swallowed and digested without fuss.

He didn’t mind. To him, the fun was in figuring it out—understanding how this small piece of the world worked. He’d always had a knack for seeing patterns in what struck other people as noise. As a kid, Jerry had been dyslexic, fumbling with his reading assignments, and he hadn’t realized he possessed academic gifts until a standardized test in eighth grade showed he could solve math problems at the level of a college junior. His senior year of high school, he’d married his sweetheart, a bright, blue-eyed classmate named Marjorie, and after graduation he took a job as a Kellogg’s factory worker. As their family grew over the next decade—with six kids in all—Jerry worked a series of factory and corporate jobs: chemist at a sewage-treatment plant, pharmaceutical salesman, computer operator, cereal packaging designer and, eventually, shift manager.

Still, he remained intellectually restless, and he enrolled in night classes at Kellogg Community College, known around town as “Cornflake U.” It wasn’t easy to squeeze in a life of the mind between the demands of a growing brood, so Jerry invited his kids into his obsessions with various hidden layers of the world: When he got interested in mushrooms, he took them hunting for morels in the forests; when he became captivated by geology, he brought them to gravel pits in search of fossilized spheres called Petoskey stones. Around the time his oldest son, Doug, was in high school, Jerry asked Doug for help counting rolls of coins he’d collected. Knowing that people rolled up their spare change and cashed it at the bank, it had occurred to Jerry to buy these rolls at face value, hoping that the bank hadn’t opened and checked them. Jerry’s idea was that maybe bank customers, by mistake, had included certain rare and valuable coins along with the normal ones. Father and son would sit in front of the TV at night and rip open the rolls, searching for buffalo nickels and silver Mercury head dimes; they made about $6,000. “Anything he jumps into, he jumps into one hundred percent,” Doug explained later. “He gets interested in string theory, and black holes, and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by all these Stephen Hawking books.”

As the years passed, Jerry earned a pile of diplomas: an associate’s degree from Kellogg, a bachelor’s in mathematics and business from Western Michigan University and an MBA from WMU. He also started a master’s in mathematics, though eventually family duties got in the way and he didn’t finish. Even then, he couldn’t stop thinking about numbers. One year, when he and Marge went to a used-book sale at a library to find gifts for their family, Jerry’s main purchase was a stack of college math textbooks. When their daughter Dawn asked why, he replied, “To keep my skills sharp.”

So perhaps it was only fitting that at age 64, Jerry found himself contemplating that most alluring of puzzles: the lottery. He was recently retired by then, living with Marge in a tiny town called Evart and wondering what to do with his time. After stopping in one morning at a convenience store he knew well, he picked up a brochure for a brand-new state lottery game. Studying the flyer later at his kitchen table, Jerry saw that it listed the odds of winning certain amounts of money by picking certain combinations of numbers.

That’s when it hit him. Right there, in the numbers on the page, he noticed a flaw—a strange and surprising pattern, like the cereal-box code, written into the fundamental machinery of the game. A loophole that would eventually make Jerry and Marge millionaires, spark an investigation by a Boston Globe Spotlight reporter, unleash a statewide political scandal and expose more than a few hypocrisies at the heart of America’s favorite form of legalized gambling.

The Corner Store, in downtown Evart, where Jerry first got interested in the lottery.

Chapter 2

Evart, Michigan: 1,903 residents, three banks, one McDonald’s, no Starbucks, a single stoplight on Main Street, a combination Subway/gas station where locals drink coffee in the morning, a diner with the stuffed heads of elk mounted on wood-paneled walls. Historically an auto industry town, sustained by two factories that provided parts to General Motors and Chrysler. Four months of winter and rutted, ice-glazed roads. People endure the cold and the economy and vote for Republicans. Summer brings a shuffleboard tournament and a musical festival billed as “The World’s Largest Hammered Dulcimer Gathering.”

In other words, a perfect town—at least as far as Jerry and Marge were concerned, in 1984, when Jerry decided that he was tired of working for other people and wanted to run something himself: a convenience store. With typical analytic intensity, he had gathered data for 32 “party stores” available for sale across Michigan, places that sold mainly cigarettes and liquor. He studied their financial histories, the demographics of their towns, the traffic patterns on surrounding roads, and found exactly the place to move his family. Though Evart, 120 miles north of Battle Creek, was remote and cold, the town’s auto plants provided a steady customer base, and the store, simply called the Corner Store, was located on Main Street. He and Marge and the kids moved into a two-story house with white siding less than a mile away, on the edge of a forest and the Muskegon River.

Before long, everyone knew the Selbees. Marge, who for years had devoted herself to the role of supportive housewife, joined Jerry at the store. A practical woman who could clear a fallen tree with a chainsaw and sew a men’s suit from scratch without a pattern, Marge did the books, stocked the shelves, and handled impulse items like candy. Jerry purchased the liquor and cigarettes. They opened at 7 a.m. and didn’t leave until midnight, even opening on Christmas morning, when Evart’s only grocery store was closed. Everyone in town passed through the Corner Store—factory workers, lawyers, bankers—and if Jerry didn’t know a customer by name, he knew him by his order. Pall Mall and a Mountain Dew came in a lot. Six-Pack of Strohs was also a regular. Jerry figured out that if he put his beer cooler on defrost late in the evening, the bottles would develop a layer of frost by morning that made them irresistible to factory workers coming off the night shift. “Oh God, did they love that. A lot of 40-ouncers went out of that store. And they said, ‘Oh my God, coldest beer in town,’” Jerry recalled, laughing. “Never told ’em.”

Jerry was happiest when he was trying to solve the puzzle of the store like this, dreaming up ways to squeeze every last penny of profit out of a fixed space. He knew, for instance, that cigarette companies paid store owners for shelf space by discounting the price of cigarettes to the tune of $2 a carton. Jerry figured out that if he bought cigarettes wholesale at this discounted rate, then marked them up by $1 and sold them to smaller retailers who didn’t get the discount, he could undercut cigarette wholesalers. It wasn’t exactly fair to the cigarette companies, but it wasn’t exactly illegal, either.

A year after taking over the Corner Store, Jerry thought to install a lottery machine, a maroon box the size of a cash register that printed tickets for Michigan’s state lottery. The machine was the only one in Evart and one of the few in the county. Word got around fast. “All of our customers that came into our store would play—every one of ’em,” Jerry recalled. The loyal customer known as Six-Pack of Strohs became Six-Pack of Strohs and Five Quick Picks. Jerry offered 16 or 18 different instant games, earning a 6 percent commission from the state on every ticket sold and 2 percent of winning tickets cashed at his store. He advertised in the local paper, and when sales fell on a particular game, he took the unsold tickets and taped brand-new pennies to them. “Those are lucky pennies,” he’d tell his customers, who would then buy the tickets. Soon he was selling $300,000 in lottery tickets per year, pocketing about $20,000 of that in profit. (The biggest prize a customer ever won at his store was $100,000.)

Despite running a vice depot, the Selbees were teetotalers. They didn’t smoke or drink—Jerry permitted himself a single dark beer at Christmas—and Marge avoided the lottery entirely, disliking the sense of risk. Jerry bought a couple of tickets from time to time, but to him, the lottery was only interesting as a phenomenon with order, a set of rules mediated by math and a marketplace. The machine was so successful, however, that he and Marge were able to build a small addition to the store, and he hired an extra clerk to run the machine on the days of the weekly drawings, when business was especially brisk. Eventually, their profits helped pay for the educations of their six children, all of whom earned advanced degrees. “It was like free money,” said Jerry.

At his old convenience store, Jerry liked to dream up new ways of squeezing out a profit from his business, like when he made his 40-ounce beer bottles look frosty for Evart’s factory workers. After a day of work, he and Marge would close up at midnight and head home to their house on the edge of the woods.

And for more than 15 years, this is how it went. The store opened, the sun rose, the sun set, the store closed. Cigarettes, liquor, tickets, tickets, tickets. The Selbee children grew up, left home and started families of their own. Finally, in 2000, Jerry and Marge decided it was time to retire. Jerry began hanging out at the Subway/gas station, arriving each day at 6 to drink coffee and read The Detroit News. Sometimes he’d stop by the Corner Store too, chatting with the new owners to see how they were getting along.

It was on one of these mornings at the Corner Store, in 2003, that Jerry saw the brochure for the new lottery game. Though he’d spent tens of thousands of hours watching his old customers hope for the break that might alter their fortunes, he knew better than to believe the lottery was ruled by chance. “People have been conditioned to think it is luck,” he would later reflect. “They don’t look at the structure of games.”

This particular game was called Winfall. A ticket cost $1. You picked six numbers, 1 through 49, and the Michigan Lottery drew six numbers. Six correct guesses won you the jackpot, guaranteed to be at least $2 million and often higher. If you guessed five, four, three, or two of the six numbers, you won lesser amounts. What intrigued Jerry was the game’s unusual gimmick, known as a roll-down: If nobody won the jackpot for a while, and the jackpot climbed above $5 million, there was a roll-down, which meant that on the next drawing, as long as there was no six-number winner, the jackpot cash flowed to the lesser tiers of winners, like water spilling over from the highest basin in a fountain to lower basins. There were lottery games in other states that offered roll-downs, but none structured quite like Winfall’s. A roll-down happened every six weeks or so, and it was a big deal, announced by the Michigan Lottery ahead of time as a marketing hook, a way to bring bettors into the game, and sure enough, players increased their bets on roll-down weeks, hoping to snag a piece of the jackpot.

The brochure listed the odds of various correct guesses. Jerry saw that you had a 1-in-54 chance to pick three out of the six numbers in a drawing, winning $5, and a 1-in-1,500 chance to pick four numbers, winning $100. What he now realized, doing some mental arithmetic, was that a player who waited until the roll-down stood to win more than he lost, on average, as long as no player that week picked all six numbers. With the jackpot spilling over, each winning three-number combination would put $50 in the player’s pocket instead of $5, and the four-number winners would pay out $1,000 in prize money instead of $100, and all of a sudden, the odds were in your favor. If no one won the jackpot, Jerry realized, a $1 lottery ticket was worth more than $1 on a roll-down week—statistically speaking.

“I just multiplied it out,” Jerry recalled, “and then I said, ‘Hell, you got a positive return here.’”

Chapter 3

The lottery as an American pastime stretches back to the Colonial era, when churches, universities and Congress itself hawked lottery tickets to the public, keeping a cut of the sales and plowing those funds back into the community to pay for roads, or schools, or churches, or armies. This is the basic contract of the lottery: The player accepts a sucker’s bet, a fantastically tiny shot at getting rich, and the organizer accepts the player’s money and does something socially constructive with it.

Lotteries have always been popular with players. Psychological research suggests that we do it for a variety of negative or desperate reasons: a desire to escape poverty, coercion by advertising, gambling addiction, ignorance of probability. Yet there’s also the fun of it. Even when we understand on some level that the odds are ridiculous, that the government is the casino that always wins, we play anyway, because we enjoy the illusion, the surge of risk and hope.

Jerry wasn't thinking about socioeconomics. He was thinking about how he would hide his new hobby from his wife.

This demand for the lottery has made it deathless in America, a vampire institution that hides and sleeps during certain ages but always comes back to life. In 1762, lawmakers in Pennsylvania noticed that poor people bought more tickets than rich people and argued that the lottery functioned as a sort of tax on the poor. They fined operators of these “mischievous and unlawful games” for causing the “ruin and impoverishment of many poor families.” Toward the end of the 19th century, after a corruption scandal in Louisiana—criminal syndicates gained control of the state lottery by bribing elected officials—many states banned lotteries altogether. But Americans continued to play the game underground, with bookies siphoning off the cash that would have otherwise flowed into public coffers, and in 1964, when New Hampshire launched the first legal, government-sponsored lottery in the continental U.S. in 70 years, other states followed.

Today 44 states, Washington, D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico run their own lotteries; they also collaborate to offer Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots, controlled by a nonprofit called the Multi-State Lottery Association. The modern lottery industry is highly complex, offering a zoo of products that are designed and administered with the aid of computers (cash games with a drawing, instant scratch-off games, video lottery games, keno), and the sales of all of these tickets add up to a staggering yearly figure: $80 billion. For comparison, the entire U.S. film industry sells only about $11 billion in tickets.

As for the payouts: More than $50 billion goes to players in prizes, while $22 billion flows to public programs like education, senior assistance, land conservation, veteran support and pension funds. This is why lotteries don’t have a lot of political enemies: the money is impossible for elected officials of both parties to resist. At the same time, as the lottery has grown stronger, so has the fundamental case against it: that the lottery is regressive, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. One review in the Journal of Gambling Studies in 2011 concluded that the poor are “still the leading patron of the lottery”; another study, conducted by the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2012, found that men, black people, Native Americans and those in disadvantaged neighborhoods play the game at higher rates than others. Over the past 40 years, the lottery has played a key role in the broader shift of the American tax burden away from the wealthy; it’s far easier, politically, for states to raise money through a lottery than through more progressive means like corporate or property taxes. According to the investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, who won a Pulitzer for his work on the inequalities in the American tax code, 11 states made more from the lottery in 2009 than they did from corporate income tax.

Jerry was thinking about none of this at his kitchen table. He was thinking about how he would hide his lottery playing from Marge. She had always been the pragmatic one in the relationship, disliking uncertainty and valuing old-fashioned elbow grease over entrepreneurial brainstorms. Even now, in retirement, she was finding it difficult to relax; while her husband watched science shows on TV, she could often be found painting the barn or moving a fallen tree in the yard.

Marge would have questions, Jerry knew, and he might not have bulletproof answers. He didn’t quite believe the numbers himself. How likely was it that the hundreds of employees at the state lottery had overlooked a math loophole obvious enough that Jerry could find it within minutes? Could it be that easy? He decided to test his theory in secret, simulating the game with a pencil and yellow pad first. He picked numbers during a roll-down week, waited for the drawing, and counted his theoretical winnings. On paper, he made money.

Michigan The first time Jerry played, at a convenience store in Mesick, he lost money. $2,200 PLAYED
($1 per ticket)
$2,150 WINNINGS -$50
But he realized his problem was that he hadn’t wagered enough. Three months later, after buying more tickets, he confirmed his suspicion that big paydays were ahead. $8,000 PLAYED $15,700 WINNINGS +$7,700

The next time the Winfall jackpot crept north of $5 million and the state announced a roll-down, Jerry drove to a convenience store in Mesick, 47 miles northwest of Evart, so that no one would ask him questions. Standing at the machine, he spent $2,200, letting the computer pick all the numbers for him. A few days later, after the lottery drew six winning numbers, Jerry sorted through his 2,200 tickets and circled all the two-, three- and four-number matches (there were zero five-number matches). His winnings added up to $2,150, slightly less than he had spent on the tickets.

A less confident person might have stopped there. But Jerry figured it was mere bad luck. Odds are just odds, not guarantees. Flip a quarter six times and you might get six heads even though you have better odds of getting three heads and three tails. But flip it 5,000 times and you’ll approach 2,500 heads and 2,500 tails. Jerry’s mistake had been risking too little money. To align his own results with the statistical odds, he just needed to buy more lottery tickets.

This was an uncomfortable leap for a guy with no experience in gambling, but if he stopped now, he would never know if his theory was correct. During the next roll-down week, he returned to Mesick and made a larger bet, purchasing $3,400 in Winfall tickets. Sorting 3,400 tickets by hand took hours and strained his eyes, but Jerry counted them all right there at the convenience store so that Marge would not discover him. This time he won $6,300—an impressive 46 percent profit margin. Emboldened, he bet even more on the next roll-down, $8,000, and won $15,700, a 49 percent margin.

The Selbees then went on vacation, camping at a state park in Alabama with some friends, and while sitting at the campfire one evening, Jerry decided to let his wife in on the secret. He was playing the lottery. He knew how to beat it. He had a system. He’d already won five figures.

Marge didn’t react. The logs cracked in the dusk. She mulled his words over for a long moment. Then, at last, she smiled. She had seen her husband solve so many different kinds of puzzles over the years. Certainly he was capable of doing so again. And who could argue with $15,700? “Oh, I knew it would work,” Marge would later say. “I knew it would work.”

Jerry would eventually buy hundreds of thousands of tickets every roll-down week.

Chapter 4

The American heist master Willie Sutton was famously said to have robbed banks because that’s where the money was. The lottery is like a bank vault with walls made of math instead of steel; cracking it is a heist for squares. And yet a surprising number of Americans have pulled it off. A 2017 investigation by the Columbia Journalism Review found widespread anomalies in lottery results, difficult to explain by luck alone. According to CJR’s analysis, nearly 1,700 Americans have claimed winning tickets of $600 or more at least 50 times in the last seven years, including the country’s most frequent winner, a 79-year-old man from Massachusetts named Clarance W. Jones, who has redeemed more than 10,000 tickets for prizes exceeding $18 million.

It’s possible, as some lottery officials have speculated, that a few of these improbably lucky individuals are simply cashing tickets on behalf of others who don’t want to report the income. There are also cases in which players have colluded with lottery employees to cheat the game from the inside; last August, a director of a multistate lottery association was sentenced to 25 years in prison after using his computer programming skills to rig jackpots in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, funneling $2.2 million to himself and his brother.

But it’s also possible that math whizzes like Jerry Selbee are finding and exploiting flaws that lottery officials haven’t noticed yet. In 2011, Harper’s wrote about “The Luckiest Woman on Earth,” Joan Ginther, who has won multimillion-dollar jackpots in the Texas lottery four times. Her professional background as a PhD statistician raised suspicions that Ginther had discovered an anomaly in Texas’ system. In a similar vein, a Stanford- and MIT-trained statistician named Mohan Srivastava proved in 2003 that he could predict patterns in certain kinds of scratch-off tickets in Canada, guessing the correct numbers around 90 percent of the time. Srivastava alerted authorities as soon as he found the flaw. If he could have exploited it, he later explained to a reporter at Wired, he would have, but he had calculated that it wasn’t worth his time. It would take too many hours to buy the tickets in bulk, count the winners, redeem them for prizes, file the tax forms. He already had a full-time job.

It never occurred to Jerry to alert the Michigan Lottery that Winfall was vulnerable to exploitation. For all he knew, the state was perfectly aware of the flaw already. Maybe the flaw was intentional, to encourage players to spend lots of money on lottery tickets, since the state took a cut of each ticket sold, about 35 cents on the dollar. (In 2003, the year that Jerry began playing, the state lottery would sell $1.68 billion in tickets and send $586 million of that revenue into a state fund to support K-12 public education.) In Jerry’s opinion, if he was purchasing large quantities of tickets at certain opportune moments, he wouldn’t be manipulating the game; he would be playing it as it was meant to be played. His tickets would have the same odds of winning as anyone else’s. He would just be buying a lot more of them.

Jerry founded an American company that sold nothing, created nothing, had no inventory, no payroll. Its one and only business was to play the lottery.

And, unlike Srivastava, he and Marge were willing to do the grunt work, which, as it turned out, was no small challenge. Lottery terminals in convenience stores could print only 10 slips of paper at a time, with up to 10 lines of numbers on each slip (at $1 per line), which meant that if you wanted to bet $100,000 on Winfall, you had to stand at a machine for hours upon hours, waiting for the machine to print 10,000 tickets. Code in the purchase. Push the “Print” button. Wait at least a full minute for the 10 slips to emerge. Code in the next purchase. Hit “Print.” Wait again. Jerry and Marge knew all the convenience store owners in town, so no one gave them a hard time when they showed up in the morning to print tickets literally all day. If customers wondered why the unassuming couple had suddenly developed an obsession with gambling, they didn’t ask. Sometimes the tickets jammed, or the cartridges ran out of ink. “You just have to set there,” Jerry said.

The Selbees stacked their tickets in piles of $5,000, rubber-banded them into bundles and then, after a drawing, convened in their living room in front of the TV, sorting through tens or even hundreds of thousands of tickets, separating them into piles according to their value (zero correct numbers, two, three, four, five). Once they counted all the tickets, they counted them again, just to make sure they hadn’t missed anything. If Jerry had the remote, they’d watch golf or the History Channel, and if Marge had it, “House Hunters” on HGTV. “It looked extremely tedious and boring, but they didn’t view it that way,” recalled their daughter Dawn. “They trained their minds. Literally, they’d pick one up, look at it, put it down. Pick one up, put it down.” Dawn tried to help but couldn’t keep pace; for each ticket she completed, Jerry or Marge did 10.

In the beginning, his children didn’t understand Jerry’s new passion. “I thought he was crazy,” Dawn said. “He starts to explain it to you, and your eyes glaze over.” Doug couldn’t make sense of it either. “He always said, this is just sixth-grade math. I was like, ‘Yeah, did you see what I got in math in sixth grade?’” Jerry and Marge insisted that they were enjoying themselves. They had the time. It was a game. Marge even seemed to like the manual labor. (“I’m just the grunt,” she explained, with a mix of self-deprecation and pride.) In the weeks between roll-downs, they got antsy.

Jerry and Marge placed the losing numbers in large plastic tubs that they stored in a barn out back. That way, there would always be a paper trail for the IRS.

And they were happy to share their good fortune. Like lotteries in other states, the Michigan Lottery welcomed large betting groups; after all, the more people who played, the more money the state got to play with. Jerry saw that office pools and other large bettors were allowed to play as corporations instead of individuals, and it seemed to him that the state was practically inviting groups to play Winfall for big stakes. So in the summer of 2003, about six months after Jerry bought his first tickets, the Selbees asked their six children if they wanted in. The kids ponied up varying amounts for Jerry to wager; on their first try together, the family bet $18,000 and lost most of it, because another player hit the six-number jackpot. When Jerry insisted this was just bad luck, Marge and the kids decided to believe him. They let him risk their money again, and within two more plays, everyone was in the black.

That June, Jerry created a corporation to manage the group. He gave it an intentionally boring name, GS Investment Strategies LLC, and started selling shares, at $500 apiece, first to the kids and then to friends and colleagues in Evart. Jerry would eventually expand the roster to 25 members, including a state trooper, a parole officer, a bank vice president, three lawyers and even his personal accountant, a longtime local with a smoker’s scratchy voice named Steve Wood. Jerry would visit Wood’s storefront office downtown, twist the “Open” sign to “Closed,” and seek his advice on how to manage the group.

The corporation itself was nearly weightless. It existed purely on paper, in a series of thick three-ring binders that Jerry kept in his basement, a ream of information about the members, the shares, the amounts wagered on roll-down weeks, the subsequent winnings and losses, the profits and the taxes paid. It was an American company that sold nothing, created nothing, had no inventory, no payroll. Its one and only business was to play the lottery.

And business was good. By the spring of 2005, GS Investment Strategies LLC had played Winfall on 12 different roll-down weeks, the size of the bets increasing along with the winnings. First $40,000 in profits. Then $80,000. Then $160,000. Marge squirreled her share away in a savings account. Jerry bought a new truck, a Ford F350, and a camping trailer that hooked onto the back of it. He also started buying coins from the U.S. Mint as a hedge against inflation, hoping to protect his family from any future catastrophe. He eventually filled five safe deposit boxes with coins of silver and gold.

Then, in May 2005, the Michigan Lottery shut down the game with no warning, replacing it with a new one called Classic Lotto 47. Officials claimed that sales of Winfall tickets had been decreasing. Jerry was offended. He’d found something he loved, something to order his days that felt constructive and rewarding and didn’t hurt anyone. He didn’t want to stop. “You gotta realize, I was 68 years old. So it just—it gave me a sense of purpose.” His fellow players were just as disappointed, including Marge. “I like to have something to do, especially in the wintertime,” she explained.

The following month, Jerry received an email from a member of the lottery group. The player, a plant manager at a Minute Maid juice factory in Paw Paw Township, had noticed that Massachusetts was promoting a brand-new lottery game called Cash WinFall. There were a few differences between it and the now-defunct Michigan game: a Cash WinFall ticket cost $2 instead of $1; you picked six numbers from 1 to 46 instead of 1 to 49; and the jackpot rolled down when it hit $2 million, not $5 million. But otherwise, it appeared to be the same. “Do you think we could play that?” the plant manager asked.

Jerry did a few brisk pencil-and-paper calculations. The odds were good. He wondered about the logistics: Lottery tickets had to be purchased in person, and the western edge of Massachusetts was more than 700 miles from Evart. He had no connections to store owners in Massachusetts, either. Who would ever let him and Marge stand in one spot for hours, printing ticket after ticket?

Still, he couldn’t resist. Jerry emailed the plant manager back, asking if he knew anyone who ran a party store in the state. The player gave him a name: Paul Mardas, the owner of Billy’s Beverages, in Sunderland, about 50 miles from the western border of Massachusetts. Disliking the hassle of airports, Jerry climbed into his gray Ford Five Hundred one day in August 2005 and began the 12-hour drive to the East Coast. What he didn't know was that, for the first time in his gambling career, he was about to encounter some ruthless adversaries.

Chapter 5

Seven months earlier, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named James Harvey was knocking on doors in his dorm, trying to get people excited about two personal projects. One was a Super Bowl party—the New England Patriots were looking for a back-to-back championship. The other was a lottery betting pool he wanted to start.

The dorm, a four-story building known as Random Hall, was packed with computer science and engineering majors. It had a custom lab in the basement and a student-coded website that tracked when the dorm’s washing machines and bathrooms were in use. Harvey’s Super Bowl party had little appeal in Random Hall, but people sparked to his lottery idea. A mathematics major in his final semester, Harvey had been researching lottery games for an independent study project, comparing the popular multistate games Powerball and MegaMillions to see which offered players a better shot at winning. He’d also analyzed different state games, including Cash WinFall, and it hadn’t taken him long to spot its flaw: On a roll-down week, a $2 lottery ticket was worth more than $2, mathematically.

Within days, Harvey had recruited some 50 people to pony up $20 each, for a total of $1,000, enough to buy 500 Cash WinFall tickets for the February 7 roll-down drawing. The Patriots won the Super Bowl on February 6, and the following day, the MIT group took home $3,000, for a $2,000 profit.

Counting $70,000 in tickets took them a full 10 days, working 10 hours a day. They never left the room except to get lunch.

Curiously enough, the MIT students weren’t the only ones playing Cash WinFall for high stakes that day. A biomedical researcher at Boston University, Ying Zhang, had also discovered the flaw, after an argument with friends about the nature of the lottery. Believing it to be exploitative, Zhang had researched the Massachusetts State Lottery to bolster his point. Then he found the glitch in Cash WinFall, and as happens so often in America, a skeptic of capitalism became a capitalist. Zhang encouraged friends to play and formed his own betting club, Doctor Zhang Lottery Club Limited Partnership. His group began wagering between $300,000 and $500,000 on individual roll-down weeks, and eventually Zhang quit his job as a biomedical researcher to focus on the lottery full time. He bought tickets in bulk at a convenience store near his home, in the Boston suburb of Quincy, and stored the losing tickets in boxes in his attic until the weight made his ceiling crack.

As energetically as Zhang played the game, however, he couldn’t match the budding lottery moguls at MIT. After the first roll-down, Harvey assembled 40 to 50 regular players—some of them professors with substantial resources—and recruited his classmate, Yuran Lu, to help manage the group. Lu was an electrical engineering, computer science and math major with a mischievous streak: one time, to make a point about security, he’d stolen 620 passwords from students and professors. Now he helped Harvey form a corporation, named Random Strategies LLC, after their dorm. Their standard wager on a roll-down week was $600,000—300,000 tickets. Unlike the Selbees, who allowed the computer to pick numbers for them (“Quic Pics”), the MIT students preferred to choose their own, which avoided duplicates but also meant that the students had to spend weeks filling in hundreds of thousands of tiny ovals on paper betting slips.

Of course, it would have been a lot easier for the MIT students to print their lottery slips in bulk, using their own computers, and then hand the slips over to a convenience store owner when it was time to play. But Cash WinFall rules didn’t allow this. It was one of several safeguards put in place by the Massachusetts State Lottery to monitor betting activity and prevent manipulation of the game. Officials at lottery headquarters, in Braintree, were hardly in the dark; sales information went straight to them in real time, or close to real time, tracking the number of tickets sold at each store in the state. Any agent who sold more than $5,000 in tickets per day was also required to get a special waiver, which meant that lottery officials could detect unusually heavy betting well in advance.

As a result, the Massachusetts State Lottery was perfectly aware of several anomalies in Cash WinFall ticket-buying, unusual patterns over the months that signaled that something was up. One day in July, a store manager in Cambridge called headquarters because a kid from MIT had walked in and asked to buy $28,000 in tickets. The manager was stunned and wanted to know: Was that legal? (A compliance officer replied that yes, it was legal.) That same week, a dozen stores suddenly requested waivers to increase their Cash WinFall betting limits. Three of the stores were clustered in the town of Quincy, where Zhang lived, and the fourth was in the next town over. When lottery compliance officers visited the stores, they found two clear violations: a player had been scanning stacks of computerized betting slips, and the store where he operated had been extending him credit, allowing the slips to be scanned before they’d been paid for. Later, officials discovered that a whopping 23 stores across the state were violating a different rule involving a “free bet” feature of the game.

Though the Massachusetts State Lottery was within its rights to suspend or revoke the licenses of all these stores, it instead let them off with warnings. This lax approach to rule enforcement is perhaps why, when Jerry showed up at the party store in Sunderland, Paul Mardas was more intrigued than concerned by the Michigan retiree’s proposition. Jerry reckoned that, for starters, he aimed to buy about $100,000 in lottery tickets. Mardas laughed. Billy’s Beverages was one smallish room with a wood-paneled ceiling; he had no frame of reference for bets that large. But Jerry, wearing rubber bands around his left wrist, offered a deal: If Mardas allowed him to print tickets in bulk at his store, he would give him a stake in GS Investment Strategies LLC.

Mardas agreed, and a few weeks later, Jerry returned with Marge. As in Michigan, the two would need to split the work of printing tickets, and so they sought out a second terminal. They found it at Jerry’s Place, a diner in South Deerfield, whose owner was also willing to join their lottery corporation. That taken care of, the Selbees quickly developed a routine around Cash WinFall. About a week before a roll-down drawing, they would drive the 700 miles from Michigan, cutting across Canada to save time, listening to James Patterson novels on tape. They’d book a room at a Red Roof Inn in South Deerfield, and in the mornings, they’d go to work: Jerry to Jerry’s Place; Marge to Billy’s. They started at 5:30 a.m., before the stores opened to the public, and went straight through to 6 p.m., printing as many tickets as the terminals would handle, rubber-banding them in stacks of $5,000, and throwing the stacks into duffel bags.

Billy’s Beverages, in Sunderland. Jerry’s Place, in South Deerfield.

After a drawing, they retreated to the Red Roof Inn and searched for winning numbers, piling tickets on the double beds and the tables and the air conditioner and the floor. Counting $70,000 in tickets took a full 10 days, working 10 hours a day. They never left the room except to get lunch. Then they claimed their winning tickets and drove the 12 hours back to Michigan with the tens of thousands of losing tickets, storing them in plastic tubs in a barn, behind a door that kept the raccoons out, in case an IRS auditor ever wanted to see the paper trail.

The first time they played Cash WinFall, on August 29, Jerry and Marge ended up spending $120,000 on 60,000 lottery tickets. After that they increased their wager to 312,000 individual tickets per roll-down, ultimately going as high as 360,000 tickets—a $720,000 bet on a single drawing. At first, Marge found these figures terrifying—it was more than they had ever risked in Michigan—but after a while she got used to it. “You know, you think of this as money,” Marge recalled, “but pretty soon you never really look. It’s just numbers. It’s just numbers on a piece of paper.” She grew friendly with other customers, chatting about her kids and the weather as if she had lived in Massachusetts all her life. Mardas came to think of her and Jerry as part of his family. “They’re salt-of-the-earth kind of people,” he said. “Genuine.” He was also amazed by their frugality. “I said to Marge, ‘You guys should go on a cruise or something.’ She said, ‘I’d rather go pick rocks in a quarry.’”

Massachusetts The first time Jerry and Marge played, at convenience stores in Sunderland and South Deerfield, they made money. $120K PLAYED
($2 per ticket)
$178K WINNINGS +$58K
But not nearly as much as they made in one drawing near the end of their run, six years later. $712K PLAYED $998K WINNINGS +$286K

According to lottery regulations, customers weren’t allowed to operate terminals themselves—that was the store owner’s job—and the terminals weren’t supposed to be used outside normal business hours. Jerry got around the first rule by having the corporation, of which the store owners were members, “hire” the Selbees to print the tickets. As for printing tickets within posted store hours—well, yes, that was a violation. But Jerry saw it as a minor sin, no different than what millions of American businesses do every day to get by. He didn’t mind the funny looks he sometimes got. One day, a woman at the diner stared as Jerry printed tickets, then asked the store owner to tell Jerry to “stop doing that.” The owner shook his head. “No,” he replied.

More important to Jerry was that the Massachusetts State Lottery didn’t seem to have a problem with anything that he and Marge were doing. And his comfort level increased when he learned through the grapevine, in 2008, that there were other large betting groups playing Cash WinFall using strategies similar to his own. Over five years, the couple would return to Massachusetts six to nine times per year, never deviating from their system: printing tickets, counting them at the Red Roof Inn, redeeming the winners for a giant check, and driving back to Evart with the losers in the trunk. The lottery checked in on them as they printed tickets at least once, in April 2010, when a compliance officer was sent to Billy’s Beverages and Jerry’s Place. After observing the Selbees at work, the officer reported that he found nothing out of the ordinary. “I spent some time observing the wagering routine,” he wrote to his superiors in an email. “Everything is very organized and runs smoothly.”

One lottery employee replied to the email with a joke: “How do I become a member of the [Selbees’] club when I retire?”

Jerry and Marge would drive the 700 miles to Massachusetts about a week before a roll-down drawing.

Chapter 6

Meanwhile, around them, the larger American economy was imploding. The housing bubble, the bank bailouts, the executive bonus scandals, the automotive bankruptcies—panic, panic, panic, panic. In Evart, an auto glass plant that had supplied Chrysler closed down, throwing 120 people out of work. American corporations had been playing a lot of games, noted Jerry, and their ways had finally caught up. “They were taking far more risks than I was, based on their rewards. That’s why I did a risk-reward analysis after every game, to make sure I was still on track.”

Compared with Bear Stearns or Goldman Sachs, the Selbees were downright conservative. By 2009 they had grossed more than $20 million in winning tickets—a net profit of $5 million after expenses and taxes—but their lifestyle didn’t change. Jerry and Marge remained in the same house, hosting a family gathering each Christmas as they always had. Though she could have chartered a private jet and taken everyone to Ibiza, Marge still ran the kitchen, made her famous toffee candy and washed dishes by hand. It didn’t occur to her to buy a dishwasher.

Instead, the Selbees' lottery playing helped cushion their friends and family, as well as a few people they had never met whom they’d allowed to join the betting group. (One such couple was confronted by their accountant after their tax returns listed winnings and losses in the six figures. “Do you have a gambling problem?” he wanted to know.) Jerry and Marge’s kids socked the winnings away for their children’s educations. A few players paid down debts. Wood, the Selbees’ accountant, took four cruises and renovated his house. Mardas filed for divorce. Meeting the Selbees had given him the financial freedom to “make some changes in my life,” as he put it. “I fell in love again, and remarried, and I’ve got three stepkids that I never thought I would have.”

From time to time, players in the group asked Jerry if he had a plan for stopping. How many more bets were they going to make, for how many years? Weren’t they pushing their luck? “I mean, if I were running a lottery game and somebody spotted a flaw, I would shut it down immediately,” said Jerry. The group had lost money only three times, and even after the biggest loss—$360,000 in a drawing in 2007, when another player correctly chose all six numbers and took the jackpot—the group had made the money back. As long as they kept playing conservatively, Jerry felt, they would not attract undue attention, and there was no reason not to continue. “I’m going to milk this cow as long as it’ll stand,” he’d reply.

Unbeknownst to him, however, the MIT students were preparing to attack the game with a new and unprecedented level of aggression. Though it would later be estimated that their group made at least $3.5 million by playing Cash WinFall, they had noticed that their profit margins were declining, for a simple reason: competition. With MIT, Zhang and the Selbees pushing huge pots of money into each roll-down drawing, they were all having to split the payouts. This had gotten the students thinking. Might there be a way to freeze out the other groups? They hit on an idea: Instead of waiting for a roll-down, perhaps they could force one to happen, by making an insanely large bet.

Jerry was enraged. It was one thing to make large bets, like he had been doing, and it was another thing entirely to manipulate the game.

In the week leading up to the Cash WinFall drawing of August 16, 2010, the state had not announced a roll-down, because the jackpot was only $1.6 million; it didn’t seem that it would reach the required $2 million. Harvey and his MIT friends saw their opening. Over three and a half days, they bought an astonishing 700,000 lottery tickets, costing $1.4 million. This was more than enough to tip the jackpot over $2 million before lottery officials knew what was happening—and before they could announce the roll-down. No one else knew that the money was going to roll down, so the other bettors, including Jerry and Marge, did not buy tickets. The MIT group hoovered up a $700,000 cash profit.

Surprised by the jackpot’s extremely rapid inflation, lottery employees reviewed their data to see what had gone wrong. One technical manager guessed, correctly, that one of the large betting groups had triggered the roll-down, though he misidentified the culprits. “FYI,” he wrote in an email to a colleague. “Michigan guys decided last Friday to push [Cash WinFall] jackpot over $2 mill.” Rather than impose penalties, however, lottery technicians instead installed a new software script to notify them of especially high sales, so that in the future, Braintree could alert all players to an imminent roll-down and give everyone a fair shot.

Jerry was enraged. It was one thing to make large bets based on a certain system, like he had been doing, and it was another thing entirely to manipulate the mechanics of the game to crowd other bettors out. “They took us out of the game,” Jerry said. “Intentionally.” The next time MIT tried to force a roll-down, he decided, he was going to be ready.

Marge and Jerry in 2017 with five of the Selbee children and their spouses (Doug is standing behind Marge; Dawn, holding one of the couple's great-grandchildren, is behind Jerry.) COURTESY OF DAWN TOMLINSON

He suspected something would happen around Christmas. There was a drawing scheduled for December 27, when a lot of convenience stores would be closed for the holiday; with betting activity slow, it made for a perfect time for MIT to strike. On high alert for any shenanigans, Jerry asked Mardas to call lottery headquarters to see if stores were reporting spikes in sales. When Mardas was told that, yes, five stores were seeing a surge, Jerry hopped in his car. Leaving Marge behind, he drove on Christmas Day to Jerry’s Place, where he spent hours printing 45,000 tickets, long after the sun went down.

He was printing the last of them by the pale light of the lotto terminal when he heard a knock on the door. The store was closed—it was just Jerry behind the counter—so he opened the door a crack to talk to the visitor, a polite young man who said his name was Yuran Lu.

“I’m from the other club, and I think it would be mutually beneficial if we knew how much money each of us were playing,” Jerry would later claim Lu told him. Jerry gathered that the MIT kids were proposing to collude; instead of all groups pushing into every pot, it might make sense to take turns. This was unethical in Jerry’s mind, so he shook his head and closed the door. Lu walked away. (Lu did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

Despite its new alert software, lottery officials were slow to react once again, and sure enough, the large bets of the Selbees and the MIT group triggered a roll-down. Jerry had no idea how much went to the MIT kids, but his group made about $200,000 in profit. Driving back to Michigan, he felt vindicated. Maybe this would teach his rivals something about playing by the rules.

Chapter 7

Andrea Estes had never thought much about the Massachusetts State Lottery before she got a tip from a state employee in June 2011. An investigative reporter with the Boston Globe, Estes had deep sources in political circles and had a track record of breaking stories about corrupt public officials. In 2008, Estes revealed a pay-to-play relationship between the state speaker of the house and a contractor, leading to an eight-year federal prison sentence for the speaker. In 2010, she joined the Globe’s Spotlight team, the unit known for exposing the child-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

The tipster told Estes that something weird was happening with the lottery, and that she should find a copy of the 20/20—a record of players who had won at least 20 times and $20,000 over the previous year. The Massachusetts State Lottery circulated this list to state agencies, in case someone on it wasn’t paying taxes or child support. The tipster, who worked for one of these agencies, had noticed that people were buying enormous quantities of lottery tickets in Sunderland, for some reason, and that the buyers were from out of state. Sure enough, when Estes examined the list, she saw that a Michigan company called GS Investment Strategies LLC was buying tickets in bulk at Billy’s Beverages.

Quickly, Estes learned everything she could about Cash WinFall. On July 12, 2011, right before the next roll-down, she drove to Billy’s Beverages, on a hunch that the Michigan players would be in town. When she walked into the store, she encountered a man and a woman behind the counter, printing lottery tickets—Mardas and Marge—and not another soul in sight. “It was really bizarre,” she recalled later. Once Estes introduced herself as a Globe reporter, Marge grew flustered. She refused to answer any questions. Estes drove to Jerry’s Place, which had also appeared on the 20/20 list, and found Jerry. He didn’t want to talk either.

“It was pretty obvious that something was askew,” Estes said. She requested public records from the lottery and discovered that other groups had formed to buy tickets, including one with a bunch of MIT students. When Estes asked officials for comment, however, they claimed ignorance. “The lottery was really sleazy about the whole thing,” she said. “They were quite aware this was going on, and they acted shocked when I told them about it.” However, as soon as word of her inquiries reached Steven Grossman, the newly installed state treasurer, he instructed the lottery’s executive director to do everything by the book. Within days, lottery officials were cracking down on the large betting groups. They suspended the licenses of seven convenience stores that serviced the groups, including Billy’s Beverages and Jerry’s Place. Aftwerward, they reached out to Estes to say that, yes, the stores had broken lottery rules.

But it was too late to stop Estes. Her story broke on July 31. “A game with a windfall for a knowing few,” read the headline. The article, co-written with reporter Scott Allen, named Jerry and Marge, as well as Lu. According to Estes’ research, Cash WinFall assured a profit, statistically speaking, for anyone who could spend at least $100,000 in tickets on a roll-down week. This meant, Estes wrote, that casual lottery players were unwittingly subsidizing the fortunes of the big groups by purchasing tickets in smaller amounts and at less opportune moments, when the odds were much longer. She consulted Srivastava, the Canadian statistician. “Cash WinFall isn’t being played as a game of chance,” Estes quoted him as saying. “Some smart people have figured out how to get rich while everyone else funds their winnings.”

The story caused a sensation. Embarrassed state politicians publicly criticized the lottery’s handling of the game, and national outlets like The Washington Post, HuffPost and Fox News picked up the story. Readers wrote to the Globe saying that they knew all along that they were getting screwed. (“Trust me,” one Cash WinFall player had told Estes, “small-time players always need divine intervention!”) Two days later, Grossman announced that the state would phase out Cash WinFall within a year; in the meantime, the lottery would limit each store to $5,000 in ticket sales per day. A Globe editorial denounced this as too little, calling instead for an immediate shutdown. “Lottery players have a right to expect that the money they spend on tickets goes to cities and towns,” read the piece, “not into the pockets of well-heeled investors who’ve found a way to game the system.”

Back in Evart, Jerry couldn’t believe the news. The framing of the story—that somehow he was a cheater, that big lottery players were screwing over the little guy—struck him as preposterous. How was buying tickets in bulk, at the right time, cheating? And wasn’t the money he spent on tickets making its way into the budgets of cities and towns all over Massachusetts? If anyone was the big guy, Jerry huffed, it was the lottery itself, which took a 40 percent cut of every ticket he bought.

He and Marge resolved to keep playing while they could. This was easier said than done, since they needed a store without a suspended license; when Jerry tried to explain his system to the manager of a Rite-Aid, the guy called the cops. “He said something about running some kind of scam,” Jerry recalled. “I said that if I was running a scam, it would be for more than just a $2 lottery ticket. It really made me mad.” Jerry had to explain to the police that he was an upstanding businessman who paid taxes and wasn’t trying to pull anything funny. “Well, it doesn’t sound right,” replied the officer, “but I guess it’s not illegal.”

If Cash WinFall was destined to be a scandal, thought Jerry, then people needed to know the parts that were actually scandalous. He decided to call up Estes and finally give her an interview, telling her what he knew about the real manipulations in the game—how the MIT group had placed its thumb on the scales in 2010 by forcing the roll-downs. Two more Globe stories followed, causing fresh public outrage, and that October, Grossman announced that he was asking the state inspector general to conduct an investigation of lottery procedures. The inspector general and his staff would examine thousands of internal lottery documents and interview officials and players, to determine if there had been any corruption. “We felt this was an important step we needed to take to protect the integrity of the lottery,” Grossman said.

The last time Jerry and Marge played Cash WinFall was in January 2012. They’d had an incredible run: in the final tally, they had grossed nearly $27 million from nine years of playing the lottery in two states. They’d netted $7.75 million in profit before taxes, distributed among the players in GS Investment Strategies LLC. Driving back home to Evart for the last time, the couple felt sad and frustrated. They’d known it could all end someday, of course, but they hadn't expected to be made out as villains. Almost anyone in their shoes would have made the same decisions. “If you figured it out and you could do this, would you do it?” Jerry would say later. “I’m just asking. Would you?”

Final Tally Over eight years, GS Investment Strategies LLC played the lottery 12 times in Michigan and 43 times in Massachusetts. The group lost money in only three drawings. MICHIGAN $1.8M PLAYED $2.65M WINNINGS +$850,000 MASSACHUSETTS $17.3M PLAYED $24.2M WINNINGS +$6.9M GRAND TOTAL +$7.75M

They felt vindicated six months afterward, when the Massachusetts inspector general released his report on July 27, 2012. Twenty-five pages long, the report didn’t exactly absolve the Selbees. They and the other high-volume bettors had broken lottery rules by operating terminals themselves, and by doing so outside regular hours. (Though Harvey did not respond to interview requests for this story either, both he and Lu did speak at length with an investigator from the inspector general’s office; details of their activities are drawn largely from this report.) The report also confirmed the accuracy of the Globe stories: For years, as betting groups took advantage of the unique features of Cash WinFall, the Massachusetts State Lottery had looked the other way.

But the report also complicated the narrative of big guys screwing over little guys. There was no evidence, wrote the inspector general, that the game had harmed anyone—not the small players, and not the taxpayers. Over seven and a half years, Cash WinFall had pumped nearly $120 million into state coffers, thanks in part to the manic ticket-buying of high-volume players like the Selbees. The large groups had bought some $40 million in tickets, $16 million of which was revenue for the state. And with the exception of the drawings in which the jackpot had been forced to roll down, the big players had not crowded small players out of the game or reduced their chances of winning. “As long as the Lottery announced to the public an impending $2 million jackpot that would likely trigger a roll-down,” read the report, “...no one’s odds of having a winning ticket were affected by high-volume betting. ... When the jackpot hit the roll-down threshold, Cash WinFall became a good bet for everyone, not just the high-volume bettors.”

The lottery had worked how it was designed to work. In fact, as one financial reporter for Reuters would argue in the days after the report’s release, Cash WinFall was possibly more fair than other lottery games, because it attracted rich players as well as poor ones. Instead of taxing only the poor, it taxed the rich too. This didn’t mean that the public outrage over Cash WinFall was unwarranted, just that it was misplaced. In an increasingly unequal society, where everything seems rigged against the little guy, the lottery is a dream that many people still hold onto. It may be the last promise of a level playing field that Americans actually believe: Even if the lottery is a shitty deal and a sucker’s bet, at least everyone who plays is getting the same shitty deal.

But high-rolling players like Jerry and Marge had shattered the illusion, revealing the lottery to be what it is: a flawed, messy, contradictory and load-bearing structure of capitalism that can be gamed like so many other institutions. With Cash WinFall, if you had a knack for math, you could get an edge. If you were willing to spend the money, you could get an edge. If you put in the hours, you could get an edge. And was that so terrible? How was it Jerry’s fault to solve a puzzle that was right there in front of him? How was it Marge’s fault that she was willing to break her back standing at a lottery terminal, printing tickets?

Today, at 79, Jerry still plays the lottery sometimes—the multistate Powerball jackpot. (He is working on a system to pick “hot” numbers, with no success so far.) Once in a while he goes to a casino and plays Texas Hold ’em. Marge goes with him but doesn’t like to gamble; Jerry will give her $100 to play the slot machines, and she will give him $100 back at the end of the night. While Harvey and Lu went on to found an Internet startup and join the tech industry, the Selbees used their winnings to develop a new business venture: construction financing. Jerry now lends money to home builders in the Traverse City area who provide housing for military veterans, among others. “Marge is one of my big investors,” he said.

And after all these years, the Selbees still get together with members of their lottery group, reliving their adventures and defending their actions. One such morning, a few of them met for breakfast at the diner in Evart.

“The odds are the odds,” Wood said.

“They were just computer picks,” Marge chimed in.

“There’s no magic to a computer pick,” Wood continued. “It was perfectly legal. It’s the American way.”

“I look for tendencies,” Jerry said. “That’s all. Nothing guaranteed.”

Marge, who recently turned 80, was eating pancakes. She had poured so much sugar on top that there was almost no pancake visible beneath the crust of white. She’d always known, she said, that the caper couldn’t last forever. And there had been so many queasy moments of risk and uncertainty along the way. But now, without the game, life was a little emptier. “I really do miss it,” she said. “I’m too young to quit working.”

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44 days ago
this was freaking fascinating.

Why I'm Writing Captain America


Two years ago I began taking up the childhood dream of writing comics. To say it is more difficult than it looks is to commit oneself to criminal understatement. Writers don’t write comics so much as they draw them with words. Everything has to be shown, a fact I knew going into the work, but could not truly know until I had actually done it. For two years I’ve lived in the world of Wakanda, writing the title Black Panther. I’ll continue working in that world. This summer, I’m entering a new one—the world of Captain America.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Those of you who’ve never read a Captain America comic book or seen him in the Marvel movies would be forgiven for thinking of Captain America as an unblinking mascot for American nationalism. In fact, the best thing about the story of Captain America is the implicit irony. Captain America begins as Steve Rogers—a man with the heart of a god and the body of a wimp. The heart and body are brought into alignment through the Super Soldier Serum, which transforms Rogers into a peak human physical specimen. Dubbed Captain America, Rogers becomes the personification of his country’s egalitarian ideals—an anatomical Horatio Alger who through sheer grit and the wonders of science rises to become a national hero.

Rogers’s transformation into Captain America is underwritten by the military. But, perhaps haunted by his own roots in powerlessness, he is a dissident just as likely to be feuding with his superiors in civilian and military governance as he is to be fighting with the supervillain Red Skull. Conspirators against him rank all the way up to the White House, causing Rogers to, at one point, reject the very title of Captain America. At the end of World War II, Captain America is frozen in ice and awakens in our time—and this, too, distances him from his country and its ideals. He is “a man out of time,” a walking emblem of greatest-generation propaganda brought to life in this splintered postmodern time. Thus, Captain America is not so much tied to America as it is, but to an America of the imagined past. In one famous scene, flattered by a treacherous general for his “loyalty,” Rogers—grasping the American flag—retorts, “I’m loyal to nothing, general … except the dream.”

I confess to having a conflicted history with this kind of proclamation—which is precisely why I am so excited to take on Captain America. I have my share of strong opinions about the world. But one reason that I chose the practice of opinion journalism—which is to say a mix of reporting and opinion—is because understanding how those opinions fit in with the perspectives of others has always been more interesting to me than repeatedly restating my own. Writing, for me, is about questions—not answers. And Captain America, the embodiment of a kind of Lincolnesque optimism, poses a direct question for me: Why would anyone believe in The Dream? What is exciting here is not some didactic act of putting my words in Captain America’s head, but attempting to put Captain America’s words in my head. What is exciting is the possibility of exploration, of avoiding the repetition of a voice I’ve tired of.

And then there is the basic challenge of drawing with words—the fear that accompanies every effort. And the fear is part of the attraction because, if I am honest, the “opinion” part of opinion-journalism is no longer as scary it once was. Reporting—another word for discovery—will always be scary. Opining, less so. And nothing should really scare a writer more than the moment when they are no longer scared. I think it’s then that one might begin to lapse into self-caricature, endlessly repeating the same insights and the same opinions over and over. I’m not convinced I can tell a great Captain America story—which is precisely why I want so bad to try.

In this endeavor, I’ll be joined—hopefully for all my time doing it—by the incredible Leinil Yu on interior panels and Alex Ross on covers. Both Leinil and Alex are legends. Even if you don’t consider yourself a comics-head, you should check out their work to see what the best of the form has to offer. I’m lucky to have them—and have been luckier still to have a community of comic creators (Matt Fraction, Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Ed Brubaker, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Chip Zdarsky, and Warren Ellis, among others) who’ve embraced me and helped me learn the form. And I’ve been lucky in my editors—Sana Amanat, who brought me on; Wil Moss, who edits Black Panther; Tom Brevoort, who’s editing Captain America; C.B. Cebulski, who just helped me refashion the script to the first issue; and Axel Alonso, who first broached the idea of me writing Cap.

Finally, but most importantly, I have to thank the black comic creators I admired as a youth, often without even knowing they were black—Christopher Priest, Denys Cowan, Dwayne McDuffie, specifically—without whom none of this would be possible. There has long been a complaint among black comic creators that they are restricted to black characters. I don’t know what it means to live in a world where people restrict what you write, and the reason I don’t know is largely because of the sacrifices of all those who were forced to know before me. I have not forgotten this.

Captain America #1 drops on the Fourth of July. Excelsior, family.

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blindbirdnerd: just-shower-thoughts: Your future self is watching you right now through...




Your future self is watching you right now through memories.

not if i drink enough alcohol! take that you prying creep

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How to read more

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AUstin Kleon

Solid advice!

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100 days ago
I want to start doing this
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