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Get lucky: winning advice from lottery expert Ben Johnson.

AS AN EDUCATOR and a free-lance writer, Anna Maria Island's Ben Johnson knows how to get up to speed on any subject, fast. Five years ago, when the Florida lottery began, he started reading about lotteries all around the country. He soon knew enough that one evening, he entertained his friends for three hours by answering all their questions about playing the lottery. Johnson went home thinking, "I could write a column about this subject!" Today "The Lottery Column," syndicated through United Features, appears weekly throughout the country. (Locally, it runs in the Bradenton Herald.) And Johnson has published one book about the lottery, with his second, "Winning the Lottery," out in bookstores this month.

The Florida lottery, Johnson says, is considered the best in the country. Players spend about $2.5 billion each year, and winners take home more money than in any other state -- $1.25 billion in most years. We asked this national lottery guru to share with us the most frequently asked questions -- and answers -- about winning the lottery.

Okay, tell us straight off. How do we win the lottery?

I have no idea -- other than luck. There's no sure way. If anybody had a winning system, then there wouldn't be any lottery. They exist to make money.

Should you select your own numbers or play quick pick?

I recommend quick pick rather than using lucky numbers. The reason is most of your lucky numbers are probably under 31, since they usually include children's ages, your birthday, your spouse's birthday, that kind of thing. Quick pick selects from 49 numbers, so there is a good chance winning numbers will be spread beyond 31, which means there is less likelihood someone else will get the same numbers. There has been only one occasion -- in Oregon -- when a computer has given the same set of winning quick pick numbers to different people. But almost every time a person wins using lucky numbers, someone else also wins. Take the set of numbers where you probably won't have to share the winnings.

Will it pay to invest a lot of money in the lottery?

Some guy in Jacksonville bought $80,000 worth of Lotto tickets for one drawing. That gave him 80,000 chances out of nearly 14 million possible chances, or about one-half of one percent of all possible number combinations. That still left him close to 13,900,000 number combinations that he didn't buy. He didn't win anything. The chances of even a huge amount of money giving you a winning ticket are very slim.

Then what's the best way to increase your chance of winning?

Spend the same amount of money but join a lottery pool. When you win, you share. You buy one and I'll buy one. Now, instead of just one chance each, we both have two chances of winning. One out of every three major prize winners nationwide belongs to a pool.

Once you've won, how soon can you get your money?

If you win the Lotto, you notify lottery officials and turn in your winning ticket. Officials with the Florida Lottery Commission validate it and make sure it's a winning ticket. After about a week, you can get your money. If you win under $600, you can walk into any store selling lottery tickets -- Circle K, 7-11 -- and get the money that day.

Any great schemes for beating the lottery?

It's almost impossible to fool a state lottery. But there have been some wonderful scams that almost worked. In 1988 in Pennsylvania, a $6 million win came in and no one claimed the prize. It was getting down to the wire. Officials were anticipating that the money would go back into the pool.

Suddenly, a man appeared with the winning ticket. He said he had been using it as a bookmark. He was paid his first installment of $490,000. He celebrated extensively, but three weeks later he and a computer programmer who worked for the company that printed the ticket were arrested.

Officials won't say how they discovered the scam, but here's what happened. After the winning numbers were announced and no one came forward, the computer programmer printed a blank ticket with the winning numbers. Because he worked for the printer, he knew that each store selling tickets has its own code number printed on the ticket, and he knew the code number of the store that had sold the winning ticket. He printed that store number on the ticket. He and his friend did win something: a jail sentence. Incidentally, every state generally counts on about 20 percent of winnings being unclaimed.

Should I keep track of the winning numbers and play the "hot numbers" theory?

You can if you want to. We all want to believe there is a force at work behind the scenes guiding our lives. That would be nice, but there is no evidence of it when it comes to the lottery. Thousands of scam artists will sell you things guaranteeing you a winning lottery number. They don't work. People have won by dreaming of numbers. The largest individual lottery winner in the country -- $51 million -- picked the first six numbers she saw in a newspaper. She won.

How much tax must you pay on your winnings?

All lottery winnings must be reported on your income tax. Every lottery win more than $5,000 is taxed 20 percent immediately. Soon that will be 30 percent. Winnings between $600 and $4,999 are reported when you collect them, and you must pay taxes.

What do winners do with their new-found wealth?

Surprisingly, very little happens to most winners. We have the largest lottery in the country here in Florida. California and Pennsylvania used to compete with us. Not anymore. We're used to $6-, $7- and $8-million jackpots. Small-population states like Montana have smaller jackpots -- like $25,000. The average winner nationwide wins about $1 million. Spread out over 20 years, that's $50,000 annually. After taxes, that's $35,000. That amount of money doesn't change your life drastically.

Winners pay off their bills, buy a new car, take a trip -- generally a cruise -- and give some of their money to immediate family members. Hardly any goes to "shirttail relatives" -- the third cousins on your mother's side -- who wind up mad.

Ninety-nine percent of all winners say it doesn't change their lives. Ninety percent of them keep their jobs; they don't win enough money to quit. But a small percentage of winners, those who win $3 million or more, get $150,000 a year, and that's enough to change your life and let you quit your job. Managing their winnings is a pretty big task for people who win that big.

Do people change after winning the lottery?

Nope. If you're a poor money manager, you're still a poor money manager. If you're a real jerk or a criminal, you're still going to be a real jerk or a criminal. People who have won the lottery have actually ended up in jail for selling drugs or whatever.

What social class plays most?

Educated, middle class, usually between the ages of 20 and 45, making $20,000-25,000 annually. Generally, they're high school graduates who may have attended college for one or two years. It's a myth that mainly poor people play. Older people play about as much as young people. About 51 percent are female. When men play, they generally wager more.

How much does the lottery benefit education in Florida?

Fifty percent of the $1 wagered in Florida goes into the prize pool. About 37 percent goes to the state to be used for education. Eight percent goes into operating the lottery, and five percent to ticket sellers, as commission.

$1.5 billion was given to the state last year from the lottery proceeds. That still amounts to only six percent of the total education budget.

Fourteen states (35 states have lotteries, and three more are in the process of developing them) use a portion of their proceeds to benefit education. In almost all those states, there is an outcry that education is not benefiting as it was supposed to. Instead of using lotteries to enhance their education budgets, legislatures are diverting money from education to other state programs, then using lottery monies to replace the difference. Bills have been introduced in all 14 states that would require the states to fund education at the levels they were before the lottery began. Such a bill has not yet passed in Florida. Of course, given today's tight government budgets, if we didn't have a lottery, we would be in more trouble than we are now.

I've got $10 and want to play. What's the best way to go about it?

Diversify. Buy two Lottos, two Fantasy 5, two Cash 3s, two Play 4s and two instant games. Your chances of winning increase as you play games other than Lotto. The chance of winning at Lotto is 1:14 million. The next toughest, Fantasy 5, the chances are better: 1:575,757. Play 4, the chances are even better, 1:10,000; Cash 3, 1:1,000-1:100; instant is 1:3.5.

Does that mean if you buy three instant scratch-offs you're sure to win with one of them?

No. If 24 million tickets are printed, you can count on eight million of those winning, but it's impossible to determine where they're located in that group of 24 million. Three companies produce most of the lottery tickets worldwide. They design the games, do the research and determine randomly where the winning tickets will appear before they're delivered to state lotteries. So state lotteries have no idea where the winning tickets are.

Since you're America's foremost expert on the lottery, how about picking some winning numbers?

If I were able to pick winning numbers, would I give them to you? Not a chance. If I had some way to figure out the right numbers, I would win $200 million and retire to my own private yacht on the Caribbean.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Words:1681
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