The new Paramount+ film “Jerry & Marge Go Large” depicts a couple that profits off a loophole discovered in two state lotteries, including the Massachusetts Lottery. How much did the film get right and how much was Hollywoodized? Let’s look at truth behind “Jerry & Marge Go Large.”
The Massachusetts Lottery has numerous games available to players nowadays, but none like the ones from the movie.
The Boston Globe boasted in 2017 that the Massachusetts state lottery had more repeat winners than any other state. Some of the winners operated legally, while others did not. Paramount’s “Jerry & Marge Go Large” represents a few of the most successful operations against the Massachusetts Lottery in history.
One of them was run by Jerry and Marge Selbee of Evart, MI, portrayed by Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening in the film. The other in the movie was run by a group of Harvard students, led by a vindictive kid named Tyler. Both operations figured out a loophole in a game called Cash Winfall and exploited it to make millions.
The film is accurate in many respects, but some key facts were altered.
Winfall and Cash Winfall games
The two games in the film – Winfall in Michigan and Cash Winfall in Massachusetts – were lottery draw games. Both versions played about the same.
Michigan’s game cost $1 per ticket, players picked six numbers between 1-49 and the jackpot was capped at $5 million. Cash Winfall in Massachusetts cost $2, players picked numbers from 1-46 and the jackpot capped at $2 million.
The film portrays Winfall shutting down immediately, but the real-life Selbees worked that game for two years, racking up five-figures in winnings. When Winfall shut down in 2005, the Selbees moved on to Massachusetts.
They played Cash Winfall for six years, making four plays a year, one every three months, during the “roll downs.” They played their last draw in January 2012. Cash Winfall shut down after that. In all, the Selbees won more than $26 million.
The roll-down effect
The roll-down effect in the two Winfall games is what accounts for the “loophole” they exploited. The film captures it well.
A roll down is the opposite of what most lottery players see with lotto jackpots. Mega Millions and Powerball both feature jackpots that “roll over” if nobody hits them. That means they keep growing until someone finally wins.
A roll down is different for two reasons. First, the jackpot is typically capped. Second, once that cap is reached, all the money paid into the lottery rolls down to the smaller pots, making them bigger. A roll down is nullified if someone hits the jackpot.
Couple incorporated to help family, friends and community
The movie gets this mostly right. The Selbees brought their friends and family (in reality about two dozen people) along for the ride by selling shares of their company. These shares basically gave them the capital they needed to buy enough tickets in bulk.
In terms of how the Selbees spent their winnings, much of it went to securing the education of their six children, 14 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. They also set up a loan service for people looking to improve their businesses or buy homes.
Jerry and Marge’s operation wasn’t entirely lawful
The Massachusetts Lottery, as the movie shows, shut down the Cash Winfall game at the stores where Jerry and Marge played. The movie portrays this as a whim of the lottery. In reality, Jerry and Marge broke lottery law by working the machines themselves.
The Selbees were seen pulling tickets behind the counter by a Boston Globe reporter. The film attempts to explain how the Selbees could do this, but it’s not very coherent. Further, the stores also violated a lottery law that says a player can’t buy tickets for absentee players. The lottery didn’t clarify whether Jerry and Marge were the players buying absentee tickets.
In short, Jerry and Marge caused the shutdown of the Cash Winfall machines at their chosen stores.
College syndicate portrayed as one-entity villain
The film changes quite a bit about the college syndicate that also gamed the Cash Winfall system. First, they were MIT students, not Harvard students. Harvard probably sounded more elitist. Second, there is no evidence the syndicate attempted to sabotage Jerry and Marge. Every movie needs a villain.
In 2005, at just about the time the Selbees started playing Cash Winfall, MIT undergraduate student James Harvey chose lotteries as his final mathematics degree project. He ultimately uncovered the same loophole as Jerry Selbee. As the Selbees did, he incorporated a business with some of his classmates. They pooled their resources to buy tickets in bulk. Harvey made it his full-time job for the next five years. Like the Selbees, he made a huge profit.
The MIT group was not the only college syndicate, either. A Boston University group of students played alongside the Selbees and Harvey. It actually was the first group to figure out that teams competing during the roll downs spread the winnings too thin to make significant profits.
MIT group forced a roll down
In August 2010, the MIT syndicate figured out roll downs could be forced prematurely if conditions were manipulated.
The Massachusetts Lottery estimated the roll-down periods based on historical data. It tracked average ticket sales and the amount of time it took to print tickets. Then it could determine that when a jackpot reached $1.7 million, a roll down would occur during the next draw. Anything under $1.7 million, and there was nearly no way enough ticket sales could be made to push it over $2 million.
The MIT syndicate figured otherwise. It determined it could force a roll down when the jackpot draw stood close to $1.6 million but not over. Under normal circumstances, remaining ticket sales would not be enough to push the next jackpot over $2 million.
With a concerted effort, it could be, however. On Aug, 12, 2010, when the estimated Cash Winfall unclaimed jackpot was $1.59 million, the roll down was expected to be at least two or three weeks away. Savvy lottery players would hold off playing. Not the college syndicate. It launched its plan.
The group had spent the better part of a year filling out 700,000 tickets by hand. It submitted them all over Massachusetts over a few days. The superabundance of ticket sales outpaced the lottery’s estimations and triggered a roll down the next week. Harvey’s syndicate made more than $700,000 during that roll down.
These types of lottery games are mostly fazed out now in the US. Florida has a couple of them, but the loopholes exploited by the Selbees and college students have been closed. The games are common in Europe.