Couple win $26 million in the lottery thanks to ‘basic arithmetic’

Couple win $26 million in the lottery thanks to ‘basic arithmetic’
Jerry And Marge Go Large (Spot)
IVA - Movie Trailers / VideoElephant

Winning the lottery is the ultimate pipe dream, offering the tantalising prospect of never having to work or stress about money again.

But, alas, very, very few of us will ever bag so much as a box of chocolates in a village tombola, let alone a national jackpot.

And yet, one couple managed to scoop themselves a cool $26 million (around £20.4 million), not thanks to prayers or luck but to some very clever mathematics.

Jerry and Marge Selbee lived a quiet life in the small Michigan town of Evart where, together, they raised six kids and ran a local convenience store.

When the pair were in their early 60s they decided to sell the shop and retire – their only plan being to “put their feet up” and “enjoy life a little,” as they later told CBS News’ ‘60 Minutes’ programme back in 2019.

However, one morning in 2003, Jerry spotted a brochure advertising brand new lottery game called Winfall.

The shop owner, who has a bachelor’s degree in maths from Western Michigan University, swiftly realised that the game presented a unique opportunity.

Jerry told ‘60 Minutes’ correspondent Jon Wetheim that he could see the potential to earn big bucks within just three minutes.

“[In] three minutes. I found a special feature [in the state lottery],” he laughed.

Marge and Jerry Selbee (pitcured) speaking to CBS New's '60 Minutes' programmeJerry almost instantly saw an opportunity to make a lot of money, legally, from the Winfall game('60 Minutes'/CBS News/Paramount +)

This “feature” was called a “rolldown” and had a simple premise: unlike other lotteries where the jackpot keeps increasing until a player gets all six numbers, in Winfall, if no one nabbed the big prize, the money would low down to the lower-tier prize winners, meaning anyone who matched five, four or three numbers would get a bigger cash payout.

Jerry explained that he worked out he could easily, and legally, play the system by using “basic arithmetic”.

He told Wertheim: “Here's what I said. I said if I played $1,100 mathematically I'd have one 4-number winner, that's 1,000 bucks. I divided 1,100 by six instead of 57 because I did a mental quick dirty and I come up with 18. So I knew I'd have either 18 or 19 3-number winners and that's 50 bucks each. At 18 I got $1,000 for a 4-number winner, and I got 18 3-number winners worth $50 each, so that's 900 bucks. So I got $1,100 invested and I've got a $1,900 return.”

(Nope. Us neither.)

At any rate, his calculations proved correct, and fruitful, and when a rolldown was announced, Jerry bought $3,600 in Winfall tickets and won $6,300. Then he bet $8,000 and nearly doubled it.

At this point, he decided to let Marge in on the act – admitting to her that he had just “cracked the Michigan State Lottery.”

She said she “wasn’t surprised” by his success and that the pair were simply “amazed” that no one else seemed to have thought of it.

Soon the couple started playing for hundreds of thousands of dollars and even set up their own corporation, G.S. Investment Strategies, to track and manage their winnings.

They invited their friends to get a piece of the action, selling shares in the business for $500 apiece.

They all went on to earn handsome sums thanks to the scheme, with one local tool shop owner saying it put “three of his kids through school and another through law school”.

By the spring of 2005, the now 25 members of Jerry and Marge’s exclusive club had won millions after playing Winfall 12 times.

However, then Michigan suddenly cancelled the game, citing a lack of sales.

Backers of Jerry and Marge's G.S. Investment Strategies corporation discuss the incredible money-making schemeThe Selbees and their associates earned millions thanks to the "simple" system('60 Minutes'/CBS News/Paramount +)

The good news was that Massachusetts offered a similar game with similar odds called Cash Winfall, and so the couple and their followers set their sights beyond their home state lines.

Over the next six years, Jerry and Marge drove 900 miles to Massachusetts every time there was a rolldown, buying hundreds of tickets from two local convenience stores.

They then spent 10 hours a day over a period of 10 days straight, sorting the tickets by hand.

Laborious as this strategy may sound, it earned the $4.2 million a year.

Still, all good things must come to an end, and in 2011 the Boston Globe newspaper discovered that Cash Winfall tickets were being sold at an extraordinary volume in certain Massachusetts locations.

It turns out that Jerry and Marge weren’t the only masterminds playing the system: a group of maths majors from the prestigious Massachusetts institute of Technology (MIT) were running their own syndicate, earning millions in profits from betting on Cash Winfall, too.

In the end, the state’s treasurer shut down the game and an investigation was launched, with many assuming organised crime or corruption was behind the betting of millions of dollars on state lottery tickets.

The-then inspector general Greg Sullival told ‘60 Minutes’: “We really looked at this, looking for corruption. We used subpoenas, we looked at documents, we interviewed dozens of people to look at this in detail with a hypothesis that something illegal had happened.”

However, when he found out what was really going on, he admitted: “I was dumbfoundely amazed that these math-nerd geniuses had found a way legally to win a state lottery and make millions from it.”

Meanwhile, this all marked an end to the Selbees’ whirlwind adventure, with their homegrown corporation having racked up more than $26 million during its nine years in business.

The couple used their winnings to renovate their home and help their six children, 14 grandkids and 10 great-grandchildren pay for their education.

And in 2022, Jerry and Marge’s story was turned into comedy-drama film ‘Jerry and Marge Go Large’ starring Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening.

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