Beating the odds

Sunday, August 8, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- Pick a number, every number.

That's how Ken Seidel and a few buddies seized the rare opportunity to make a Missouri Lottery game a nearly sure thing.

The numbers the lottery drew in Thursday's midday Pick 3 game were 4-5-2 in the regular drawing and 1-4-4 in a bonus drawing that Seidel says guaranteed him a 20 percent return on the $23,000 of chances he and his friends bought, at $1 a pop.

That was an easy $4,600 in profit that they cashed in on Thursday afternoon and Friday.

"It was just a business transaction," Seidel said of the plan Friday, after reaping the bulk of his winnings from a Dierbergs store, where a manager ushered him and his friends in a back room to dole out several thousand dollars.

The Pick 3 game asks players to do just that -- pick three numbers. There's a drawing each day, with a number from 0-0-0 to 9-9-9 selected, and the winners who picked that number are paid $600 for each successful $1 play.

That's the regular game. A special Pick 3 promotion made Seidel's payout plan possible. During the four-week promotion, the lottery also has a special drawing from a bag with seven balls in it -- six white and one orange -- that determines whether a second, bonus set of winning numbers will be drawn that day.

If a white one is drawn, they leave it out of the mix and nothing special happens. But if they draw the orange ball, it triggers a second drawing, giving ticket holders a second chance to win.

Someone who spent $1,000 to cover all 1,000 possible winning numbers -- as Seidel and his friends did 23 times over -- would win $600 on the first drawing and $600 on the second drawing, for total winnings of $1,200, or a 20 percent return on the investment.

There's usually no guarantee the orange ball will be drawn on a particular day, but over the last week the white balls had been plucked out one by one. Early Wednesday afternoon, the last white ball was drawn, leaving just the orange ball for Thursday's drawing.

"I knew the orange ball would have to come up, so I went to work," Seidel said.

First he called some friends and tried to enlist the help of co-workers at Neopost, a company near Westport Plaza that sells mailing and shipping systems. Many were skeptical -- after all, everyone knows you can't beat the lottery -- but others caught on right away and wanted in.

"He called up and said he had an idea and ran it by me," said Rick Bailey, a friend who used to work at Neopost. "The toughest thing for me was trying to find 10 grand on short notice. It was a rush to the bank by 4 p.m."

Then it was time to get to work.

"You only have 24 hours to do this," Seidel said. "The work of it all is to make sure you have all the combinations covered. The only risk is making an error and not covering all the combinations. That would have been devastating."

They got cash out of the bank, then spent the night hunched over thousands of the little play slips, filling each out by hand with every possible winning number, from 0-0-0 up to 9-9-9. They did it over and over until Seidel and his three friends had put $23,000 into his plan. Next was taking the slips, a few thousand dollars worth at a time, to local lottery retailers to buy their tickets.

"They thought I was crazy," he said. "I'm blue in the face from explaining how it works."

They bought their last ticket about a minute and a half before the cutoff for Thursday's drawing.

There were some nervous spouses, but Seidel was confident the plan would pay off for him and his friends.

"My wife asked if I had any idea what I was going to tell them if this goes bad," he said. "I said, 'No.' I guess we would have had to move."

The only risk, beyond failing to fill out all the numbers, was the extreme longshot that the same three-digit number was drawn in both the regular game and the bonus drawing. It was unclear whether that would result in a double payout or not.

But that didn't happen, and Seidel and his friends spent Thursday afternoon and Friday cashing in winning tickets and collecting their $4,600 in profit. Not bad for a day's work.

Susan Goedde, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Lottery, said she didn't know whether anyone else figured out Seidel's specific winning tactics but said sales for Thursday's Pick 3 drawing were more than four times greater than before Wednesday's game.

She said the lottery does similar promotions from time to time and this isn't the first time the orange ball lasted to the end of a week, guaranteeing a second drawing that day.

"It's not something that's going to happen often, but we don't have any rules against it," Goedde said. "We're in the business to make winners, so this is a good thing."

Because of the double drawing, Thursday's Pick 3 game paid out more than it took in, Goedde said. But she said the promotion was working to draw attention to the midday Pick 3 game, with no risk to the lottery.

Even if a few millionaires had been savvy to the situation Thursday, the lottery has a safety valve in place, Goedde said. The machines that dispense the numbers have a limit on how many times a specific set of numbers can be sold.

For the Pick 3 game, the limit kicks in if the lottery would have to pay out more than $2 million to the winners.

So how can you repeat the feat? It's possible, though not necessarily likely. After the orange ball was drawn Thursday, all six white ones and the orange one went back into the bag. The sequence will start over, and all the white balls would have to be drawn before the orange one for another chance at Seidel's sure thing.

It's unclear how often that will happen. The Missouri Lottery says there's a 1 in 4.3 chance, though Goedde couldn't say how they'd arrived at those odds. Washington University professor Stanley Sawyer, a mathematician whose research focuses on probability and statistics, said he believes the chances are 1 in 7. Then again, as a mathematician who understands the odds are always in the lottery's favor in the long run, he says he doesn't play Pick 3.

Either way, there's only two more weeks in the promotion, and you can be sure Seidel will be watching for the chance. In the meantime, he's got plans for his winnings.

"We've got a company function this weekend in Las Vegas," he said. "I'm going to try to grow it a little more."

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