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 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”

Postcard January 21, 2013, 10:30 am

Not Everyone Can Be a 49er

How Arena Football League players fare in the NFL

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2018

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Article
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
Article
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Article
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

H

e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Portion of those caught in possession of drugs by the U.S. Border Patrol who are U.S. citizens:

3/4

A third of heart attacks worldwide were blamed on unhealthy Western eating habits.

Nikki Haley resigns; Jamal Khashoggi murdered; Kanye visits the White House

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

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“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