For most of us, the lessons we learned in sixth-grade math class are long forgotten. Though some folks are blessed with a Beautiful Mind-style knack for numbers — their arithmetic ability unlocking doors that the average joe never knew existed — most of us just aren’t that lucky.
But this story might give you a reason to crack the spine on your old math books. One retiree from a quiet town in Michigan set store in the practicality of math. Over the years, he had decoded the problems of many career fields with his calculations, but he didn’t know his most thrilling equation would involve a mathematics jackpot…
Jerry Selbee had a head for numbers. The retiree used his knack for spotting and solving puzzles both in everyday life and throughout a wide variety of careers.
Over the years, Jerry dabbled in several different fields: computer operator, a chemist for sewage treatment, pharmaceutical sales, and notably, materials analyst and cereal packaging designer for Kellogg’s.
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No matter the job, Jerry would find a problem and use his beloved numbers to wrangle a solution. Like during a slow day at the cereal factory, when Jerry was studying the code stamped on a competitor’s cereal box. The adversary? General Mills.
You see, Jerry knew the code carried special meanings about when and where that particular box was produced, but each company had specific codes to throw off the nosy competition. The box on Jerry’s desk proved to be a true Lucky Charm.
Ever the mathematics wiz, Jerry took a trip to the supermarket, picked up several boxes of Kellogg’s and Generals Mill’s cereals, to ensure they were made around a similar time frame, and got to work.
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Jerry tested each batch of cereal to compare the moisture levels and conjured up some ratios; from there, finding the location, date, shift, and time of production was easy-peasy. Weirdly enough, his bosses didn’t have much of reaction. But for Jerry, the thrill of cracking the case was kudos enough.
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Numbers, patterns, and probability puzzles popped out of every nook and cranny Jerry encountered. So, he took it upon himself to give each one his best effort. He even pulled his family into the endless madness of solving and understanding.
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The Selbee’s house was always buzzing with Jerry’s latest project. His wife, Marge, and their six kids sometimes dipped their toes into his work. The eldest child, Doug, mused, “He gets interested in string theory, and black holes, and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by all these Stephen Hawking books.”
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So, after earning several degrees in mathematics and business, studying mushrooms, and examining fossils, Jerry trudged on to his next future area of expertise: he bought a convenience store.
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Though this may seem like a random venture for a mathematical magician, Jerry had done his homework. Poring over the finances, demographics, and traffic patterns of similar shops throughout Michigan, he settled on the perfect location: quaint and quiet Evart.
Marge and Jerry opened the doors to the aptly named Corner Store in 1984. As a surprise to no one, they were a booming success. As the only shop in town, they annexed the market slingin’ cigarettes, beer, and eventually, a lottery machine.
Success didn’t stop Jerry from always searching for ways to rake in even more revenue. Like when he took notice of the men shuffling in from the graveyard shift, an ingenious idea blossomed in his mind…
As part of his nightly closing ritual, he turned down the beverage cooler temperature in the wee hours. By morning, all the beer bottles were covered in an icy cold frost, proving irresistible to the thirsty hump-busting night shifters.
Finely tuning every angle of work at the shop to finagle the best possible value was Jerry’s white whale. He turned massive profits, undercutting the big tobacco companies by reselling cigarette cartons to other businesses at a higher price.
But installing the first lottery machine in Evart was probably the savviest decision of the lot. Marge and Jerry’s store constantly buzzed with people coming in on payday to select their lucky numbers.
Jerry shelled out the money for newspaper ads and stuck “lucky pennies” on slower rolling games. Since he took a 6% commission on every individual ticket sale, not to mention the 2% of any winnings cashed in, Jerry was swimming in profits.
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Fifteen years passed, and in 2000, Jerry decided it was finally time to press pause on his mental gymnastics. Marge and Jerry retired. They sold the Corner Store to new owners. But relaxing on some tropical beach and living off their ample savings wasn’t in the cards for the Selbees…
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Nope, Jerry and Marge chose a quiet life in Evart. Now they were the customers stopping in for a gallon of milk at their former shop, but Jerry’s analytically inclined mind kept him from impulse buying lottery ticket.
Putting store in luck wasn’t something Jerry did. Spending money on a whim was not his style. Until one day while poking around the store, his eyes fell on a pamphlet for a new lottery game.
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One dollar was all it cost to play Winfall, a game where you select six numbers, 1-49. If you guessed all six correctly, you’d win millions. However, if you guessed 4 or 5 digits, and even 3 or 2 accordingly, you still scored a little cash. That aspect wasn’t what triggered Jerry’s interest though…
The feature that appealed to the math man was called a roll-down. In essence, if no one guessed all 6 digits, the jackpot wasn’t claimed. If the prize grew to over 5 million big ones, that money trickled down and was split between the lower tier winners.
Roll-downs occurred roughly every 6 weeks, and they were certainly no secret. The Michigan Lottery spread the word far and wide in order to lure in hopeful gamblers. It worked.
Right there on the pamphlet were listed the odds of a 3 number win: 1 in 54 for a $5 prize, and 1 in 1500 for a 4 sequence winning $100. The cogs in Jerry’s mind were whirling.
It was basic math. A player stood to win more during a roll-down week, as long as no one guessed all six. Jerry explained, “I just multiplied it out, and then I said, ‘Hell, you got a positive return here.'”
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Eager to test out his new theory, Jerry finally decided to gamble. At first, he hid the experiment from Marge. She was a woman who didn’t approve of games of chance, preferring to earn her way via hard work and effort.
When the next run-down came, Jerry hopped in his car and took off for a convenience store 47 miles outside of Evart. He couldn’t get caught by a nosy neighbor. The trick to the payout would be shelling out the money on enough tickets, so he dropped $2,200.
When the winning numbers were announced, Jerry was disappointed, but only slightly. Based on his 3 and 4 number matches he scraped $2,150, not a profit, but his theory was actually correct. All he needed was to invest a larger sum.
Roll-down week arrived again, and this time Jerry upped the ante. In the same convenience store, he shuffled through $3,400 worth of tickets. But all the tedious sneaking around paid off; Jerry won $6,300.
Renee Rendler-Kaplan / Flickr
Buying in bulk made Jerry a rich man. His next gamble was 8 grand and he won $15,700! Now was the time to clue Marge into his amazing way to beat the lottery system.
His reluctance had been for nought: Marge was all in. Soon they teamed up, and hit all the convenience stores in the area. Luckily their retiree lifestyle granted them spare time, because it took hours to print out thousands of tickets.
With their piles of tickets sometimes hundreds of thousands high, Marge and Jerry set up shop in their living room in front of the TV, stacking and sorting winners from losers into corresponding piles. Then they counted again, just to be sure.
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Their hands made fast work of the process, and soon sorting became second nature. Winning big all alone seemed foolish, so they explained the glitch in the system to their grown-up children. Within a few months, they were all seeing huge payoffs.
Jerry was the kind of man who liked to do everything above board. So it was a natural step when he made his group betting into a legitimate corporation — GS Investment Strategies LLC. Each share cost $500 a pop, and their sole business was playing the lottery.
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By 2005, GS Investment Strategies had completed 12 roll-downs and racked up hundreds of thousands. Jerry indulged in a brand new truck. Marge tucked her winnings safely away in savings. Then it all came to a screeching halt.
Without a peep or warning, Winfall was shut down by the Michigan Lottery. Spokespeople claimed it was due to dwindling ticket sales, but Jerry didn’t buy it. Mostly, he was crushed his passion project was ripped away.
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“You gotta realize, I was 68 years old. So it just — it gave me a sense of purpose,” he said. Jerry and Marge were totally bummed that their hobby was unceremoniously cut short. Though all hope for Winfall wasn’t lost just yet…
One of the shareholders of GS Investment Strategies heard tell that Winfall was back, this time, in Massachusetts. Dubbed Cash Winfall this time, there were some minor changes. Now tickets cost $2 each and the numbers went from 1-46, but the roll-down started at 2 million instead of the previous 5.
MassStateLottery / YouTube
Jerry busted out the ol’ pencil and paper and ran the numbers. The same rules applied to the new version of the game, but there were tons of logistical problems that made the company’s continuation questionable.
First off, all lottery ticket sales had to be done in person. So Marge and Jerry were staring down a 700 mile trek to Massachusetts, one way. The twelve \-hour journey would be out of the question for most, but Jerry was not most.
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Next, the problem of convenience store connections. The local business owners let the Selbee’s monopolize the lottery machines for hours on end, but would the Massachusetts stores be as accommodating?
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Yep, one shopkeep, Paul Mardas, owner of Billy’s Beverages of Sunderland granted them permission and became a shareholder. That’s how they continued: Jerry and Marge in his new truck covering long miles for the potential to keep winning big.
All the while, the team had to haul their losing tickets back to Evart. If the IRS demanded a paper trail, their back shed was bursting with Rubbermaid containers.
By 2009, the nine or so trips each year to Massachusetts, playing a cool $600,000 each time, had amassed the Selbee’s a fortune of 5 million dollars after taxes and expenses. No matter how big they won, they continued to live their frugal, blue collar life. Marge still scrubbed dishes by hand, foregoing a dishwasher.
Like all good things, the lottery hacking streak had to end. A reporter, Andrea Estes, received a tip about the betting groups duping Cash Winfall. The Selbees weren’t the only people to crack the algorithm.
Another betting group composed of sharp MIT students had garnered 3.5 million in winnings. But after the Boston Globe published its story, the Massachusetts state treasurer launched an investigation into the betting groups, and ultimately the “Cash Winfall” ended.
Of course, Marge and Jerry passed through the investigation seamlessly. They had followed the rules, kept their receipts, and never increased their bets to force a roll-down. The MIT pupils couldn’t say the same.
When the curtains closed on Cash Winfall, the GS Investment Strategies totaled 27 million dollars in earnings over 9 years. Marge and Jerry settled back into the retirement life, enjoying their family. But at 79 years old, Jerry still perks his ears and pays attention to the latest games — and always runs the numbers.