Context — January 15, 2016, 12:16 pm

The Luckiest Woman on Earth

Three people win the largest Powerball jackpot in U.S. history; Nathaniel Rich profiles a woman who won millions in the Texas lottery on four separate occasions.

Published in the August 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “The Luckiest Woman on Earth” tells the story of Joan Ginther, a sixty-three-year-old woman who has won more than $20 million in Texas’s instant lottery. Read the full article here.

[Lede]

From a New York Times report, published January 14, 2015, on the outcome of the Powerball lottery.

The world’s biggest lottery jackpot of $1.5 billion will be a three-way split of $528 million each.
     Winning Powerball tickets—with the numbers 4-8-19-27-34 and the Powerball number, 10—were sold in Chino Hills, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles; Munford, Tenn., about 25 miles north of Memphis; and Melbourne Beach, Fla., which is on the Atlantic Coast southeast of Orlando.
     The winners will divide a jackpot that, based on final ticket sales, is worth $1.586 billion in total.

The news on July 2, 2010—much like the news of the preceding eighteen months—was dreadful. The unemployment rate was approaching 10 percent, the Dow was down for the seventh consecutive day, and home sales were declining at a record rate. But on the bottom of the front page of the Corpus Christi Caller local section, there was an article with happier news: bishop native wins millions for 4th time. A sixty-three-year-old woman named Joan R. Ginther had won $10 million, the top prize in the Texas Lottery’s Extreme Payout scratch-off game. Ginther’s cumulative winnings now totaled $20.4 million.

Three of her golden tickets had been purchased in Bishop, Texas, a small, poor town about forty minutes southwest of Corpus Christi and two hours north of the Mexican border. The fourth ticket was bought in neighboring Kingsville. “She’s obviously been born under a lucky star,” said a Texas Lottery Commission spokesman, who added that they did not suspect any foul play. Ginther could not be reached for comment.

After the Associated Press picked it up, Ginther’s story was syndicated by hundreds of newspapers worldwide, under headlines like lottery queen and luckiest woman on earth. Websites devoted to the paranormal, the occult, and Christianity concluded that Ginther was a master of visualization techniques; that the constellations had been in perfect alignment; that the woman must have prayed really hard.

A four-time lottery winner did seem unlikely, but how unlikely was it really? The AP interviewed mathematicians. Their findings: the odds of such a thing occurring were one in eighteen septillion. This is what eighteen septillion looks like:

18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

There are one septillion stars in the universe, and one septillion grains of sand on Earth. With onein- eighteen-septillion odds, it can be expected that a person should have Ginther’s good luck about once every quadrillion years. Since the sun will envelop our planet in just five billion years, it is unlikely that another earthling will repeat her success.

The AP story included several peculiar details about Ginther. Though her first winning ticket came in 1993, in a standard picksix lottery drawing, the last three came more than a decade later, in two-year intervals. She won $2 million in the spring of 2006, $3 million in the spring of 2008, and $10 million in the early summer of 2010. These last three were all scratch-off tickets. The article also mentioned that Ginther does not, in fact, live in Texas. Though she was born in Bishop, she has lived for many years in Las Vegas. Finally, it noted that before retiring, she had been a math professor, with a Ph.D. from Stanford. She specialized in statistics.

Ginther was called a “mystery woman,” but it was left at that. Other stories soon claimed the public’s attention. On July 23 a black bear in Larkspur, Colorado, broke into a Toyota Corolla, sat in the driver’s seat, defecated, honked the horn, then “drove” the car 125 feet until it crashed into a thicket. The next week a lobsterman in Narragansett Bay caught a yellow lobster—a onein- thirty-million phenomenon. And in mid-August, four sisters from the Chicago suburbs gave birth in four days; their obstetrician called the births “very unusual but wonderful at the same time.” The Luckiest Woman on Earth was old news. Americans moved on.

But not all of us. I found myself trying to visualize eighteen Earths’ worth of sand, and eighteen universes of stars. There are limits even to miracles.

I called a statistics professor, who said that Ginther’s odds of winning were significantly higher than one in eighteen septillion, but that what was even more likely, from a statistical standpoint, was that some sort of fraud had been perpetrated. A professor at the Institute for the Study of Gambling & Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, said, “When something this unlikely happens in a casino, you arrest ’em first and ask questions later.” “She must have some kind of scam working,” a casino surveillance expert in Las Vegas told me. “They need to lock her up. She would be on my blacklist.” I asked the director of another state lottery whether he believed that the Texas Lottery suspected no foul play. “You can bet on two things,” he told me. “One, they’re doing a serious investigation. Two, they ain’t going to let anyone find out about it.”

I drove to South Texas the next morning. I spoke with dozens of people in Bishop and in neighboring towns. I later interviewed every lottery expert I could find in the state: former Lottery employees, mathematicians, and a woman in the Dallas suburbs who has devoted the last eighteen years of her life to studying the Texas Lottery. I learned that there are only three possible explanations for what happened in Bishop. All three are exceedingly unlikely.

Read the full article here.

Share
Single Page

More from Nathaniel Rich:

From the May 2019 issue

Ruina Mundi

Did climate change create modern civilization?

From the November 2013 issue

The Man Who Saves You from Yourself

Going undercover with a cult infiltrator

Memento Mori October 15, 2013, 6:03 pm

Remembering David Sullivan

On the remarkable life of the subject of “The Man Who Saves You from Yourself”

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2019

New Books

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trials of Vasily Grossman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ramblin’ Man

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Just Keep Going North”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Corralón

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Marmalade Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
“Just Keep Going North”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On February 5, 2019, the president of the United States (a certain Donald Trump) in his State of the Union speech warned of “migrant caravans and accused Mexican cities of busing migrants to the border ‘to bring them up to our country in areas where there is little border protection.’ ”? Wishing to see the border for myself, I decided to visit Arizona, where my ignorance of local conditions might save me from prejudgment.

Post
English Referendums and Scotch Voters·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After years of post-Brexit uncertainty, Scotland’s independence movement has become resurgent

Article
No Joe!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the heart of the US Capitol there’s a small men’s room with an uplifting Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt quotation above the door. Making use of the facilities there after lunch in the nearby House dining room about a year ago, I found myself standing next to Trent Lott. Once a mighty power in the building as Senate Republican leader, he had been forced to resign his post following some imprudently affectionate references to his fellow Republican senator, arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. Now he was visiting the Capitol as a lucratively employed lobbyist.

Article
Marmalade Sky·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a November Saturday in 1990, Pam went over to Joe’s place to listen to records. It was raining in sheets that whipped around the corners of buildings and blowing so hard that women in heels were taking men’s arms to cross the street. Cars were plowing bow waves through puddles of scum.

As Joe was letting Pam into the apartment, a man emerged from the bedroom with a square sheet of black plastic in his hand and said, “Hey, man, you have the Sassy Sonic Youth flexi!”

Article
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, by Cecelia Watson. Ecco. 224 pages. $19.99.

Four Men Shaking: Searching for Sanity with Samuel Beckett, Norman Mailer, and My Perfect Zen Teacher, by Lawrence Shainberg. Shambhala. 144 pages. $16.95.

Japanese Tales of Lafcadio Hearn, edited by Andrei Codrescu. Princeton University Press. 224 pages. $22.95.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Boaty McBoatface, an autonomous underwater vehicle that was named in a 2016 internet poll, discovered that stronger Antarctic winds, the result of a growing hole in the ozone layer, have been causing more ocean turbulence, which in turn has raised sea levels and temperatures.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today