I wish Jerry Kajfasz and his family the best, but we might be better off if we had never heard his lucky lottery tale.
Kajfasz is the Lancaster man who walked into a Depew convenience store in January and turned a lucky streak into a $10 million win. His story was so alluring it was picked up by news outlets from Malta to Australia.
The best part was that Kajfasz almost turned down the winning ticket.
He told reporters last week that when he went into the store in January to buy cigars and a few scratch-offs, the clerk accidentally handed him a $20 Win for Life Spectacular game.
Kajfasz handed it back, got the tickets he wanted and moved on. Seven winning scratch-offs later, he decided he'd better go back and get that $20 ticket, and now he's retired and sharing his $10,000 a week for life with his family.
Sounds nice, right? Who hasn't heard the story and thought, geez, what if I walk out on the winning ticket next time?
It's the type of story the lottery feeds on. There's a powerful pull to the idea that you might regret not buying that next ticket.
Rationally, we know that the odds of winning the lottery are infinitesimally small. In the case of the Win for Life Spectacular, it was one in 3.5 million.
Yet we keep on buying lottery tickets, in part, because we keep hearing stories like this. The lottery doesn't miss a chance to boost its marketing efforts by parading big-time winners in front of the cameras.
And the bigger the odds, the more irrational we seem to get. Remember that co-worker in Albany who opted out of the office lottery pool and missed out on the $319 million Mega Millions?
That's exactly the kind of story that fuels the lottery. It's not just selling dreams. It's selling protection against regret.
The New York Lottery makes sure to include in its marketing materials how much money it takes in for education. It touts its newly designed tickets and builds advertising campaigns around the teeny sliver of hope the lottery provides.
What you don't hear a lot about – aside from the largest Mega Million pots – are the odds. The information is there, for those who look. The lottery system breaks down your odds of winning each game on its website and in the fine print. But it's not prominently featured in advertising campaigns or marketing strategies.
It's kind of like providing calorie counts on fast food menus. Everybody knows the stuff isn't good for you. But when you see that a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese is 750 calories, you might decide it's better as an occasional treat.
There was a lot of talk last year about the impact of expanding casino gambling across the state. What we haven't talked much about is that the New York State Lottery has quietly raised the stakes in recent years.
The lottery isn't just $1 and $2 treats anymore. Some scratch-off tickets have soared to $20 and $30 a pop, expanding serious gambling opportunities across the state with little discussion. There's really not that much difference between a $20 lottery ticket and a $20 bet at the roulette table.
Would featuring the odds more prominently in advertising make people think a little harder about the next lottery ticket they buy? Maybe not.
But when it comes to the lottery odds, we ought to know.