It wasn't long ago that word spread across the world. A woman from Bishop, Texas, won her fourth lottery jackpot, bringing her total winnings to about $20 million.
Joan Ginther's first win came on a Lotto Texas play in 1993. As the story goes, it was her father who played and gave her the winning ticket. But that can't be independently confirmed. From there, Ginther won three more multi-million dollar jackpots on scratch-off tickets. Apparently each came from the same store, the Times Market in Bishop, which closed down in 2011.
Ginther's story is the stuff of urban legend. You could say it put Bishop on the map. And it also put Ginther in the spotlight. For someone who has chosen, with each win, to remain anonymous, her name has been thrust into the headlines over the years. Each time her story is told, it comes with a huge question: did Ginther figure out a way to beat the system?
On a trip to Bishop to try to learn something about this lucky lotto lady, we ran into Victoria, who works at the Stop 'n' Shop. She rhetorically asked me, "Who wins the lottery four times? Like really?"
Victoria says she has sold Ginther countless tickets, entire rolls of $50 scratch-offs at a time.
"She'll come around and she'll be here for a couple days, a couple weeks, and then out of nowhere she leaves and you won't see her for a while," Victoria said.
Ginther reportedly stays in a corner room at the local Days Inn when she's in Bishop. We also heard a rumor she stays at the local Motel 6. Either way, we couldn't find her.
For the most part, Ginther has remained anonymous. A Google search only turns up a grainy snapshot. But locals told me tales of an understated, generous woman who still helps local families and churches, despite word she took her winnings and moved to Las Vegas. For someone with great fortune, they say Ginther doesn't look the part -- no flashy jewelry, luxury handbags, or expensive accessories. But that's coming from the few people who would actually talk on camera. We stopped at two stores, a few churches, and chatted with a couple guys on the street. They were all quick to suggest that Ginther has bought so many tickets, she was bound to win, rolling their eyes as if she didn't deserve it. But no one wanted to say that on camera.
The folks who do talk just add to the mystery of how Ginther did it.
At the local West Wing Grill, over lunch, Donald from Corpus Christi said, "She's got something figured out 'cause I can't win it."
Anna Contreras owns the place and was happy to talk about how generous Ginther has been -- helping a family that lived just around the corner from the restaurant. But when asked about Ginther's possible method, Contreras replied, "She does some kind of math. That's what I heard."
Back at the Stop 'n' Shop, Victoria heard similar stories. "They think that she knows the system, like where to buy the tickets, like she does all the math to find like what ticket number she should scratch," said Victoria. "I don't know. That's what I've read. I don't know if it's true."
We do know Ginther has a degree in Mathematics, a Ph.D. from Stanford University. But does that really make her a math genius with a secret algorithm to beating the lottery?
We took that question to University of Houston Math Department Chairman Jeff Morgan.
"She's not a professional statistician. She just happens to be someone who has some statistics in her background," said Morgan. "I doubt very seriously that she's found a way to game the system or anything else."
Sure, the odds against Ginther were immense. But Morgan says they're not as crazy as you might think. "She had a better chance of winning four times than someone has of winning this Mega Millions thing."
It's all about the numbers. Consider your own odds. Morgan said the odds of one person winning four scratch-off jackpots is basically zero, "but when I think of 20 million copies of you going out and buying tickets all the time, every week, across a period of 20 years," said Morgan, "then it's not so crazy."
The fact is you can increase your odds of winning scratch-offs by buying more. But the amount of money it would take for an individual to sway the odds in their favor would be insane. Even playing as often as Ginther apparently does, Morgan says the odds were still basically zero that she alone would win four jackpots. So let's say she beat the odds, but not the system. Still other lotto players look to Ginther's story as validation to keep on playing. Morgan said, "There's a lot of people that are addicted to gambling who lose everything they've got. She happens to be one of the lucky ones."
If you're thinking of trying your luck and taking the drive to Bishop, think about this analogy from Morgan -- going a mile out of your way to buy a ticket gives you a better chance of being killed in a wreck or killing someone else than hitting the jackpot.
And here's one more -- you have a better chance of standing out in your backyard and having a part fall off an airplane and strike you dead than winning four jackpots.
Morgan said simply, "The system's always going to win."