To the Powerball crowd, Lady’s Liquors is a lucky store.
Two years ago, the Southern Maryland booze purveyor sold a winning $414 million Mega Millions ticket. Lady’s Liquors has been cashing in on that ever since, advertising the accomplishment on its marquee sign to players looking for a touch of magic.
“They think we are the ones who can make it happen,” owner Tina Patel said. “They believe the store is special.”
With the Powerball jackpot topping $1.5 billion — the largest lottery prize in U.S. history — players throughout the country looking for an edge are turning to stores with winning pedigrees. They are trying to bend the laws of probability and randomness $2 at a time.
“That old saying that lightning never strikes the same place twice — that’s a bunch of bull,” declared Jim Robertson, 60, who has spent $160 on Powerball tickets at Lady’s Liquors for Wednesday’s drawing. “I think it can.”
The lightning-strikes-twice strategy of lottery play might seem totally batty, but it has been pushed for years by retailers and state lotto organizations, many of which offer lists of historically lucky retailers. Ohio even has a “$1 Million Luck Locator,” letting players search for hot retailers by Zip code.
But the odds are the odds — 1 in 292 million, no matter who sells the ticket or where. Even so, millions of Americans in 44 states (plus the District, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) have lined up in pursuit. The jackpot, which has been rolling over since Nov. 4, is so large that billboards are overwhelmed with the extra digit, displaying only a $999 million prize.
Everyone has a system — children’s birthdays, favorite baseball players’ numbers, astrological teachings. Others just let the machine pick. But for many players, their rituals are complex and curious, setting them off on long drives for that perfect store.
Behavioral economists say that by hyping lucky stores, the lottery industrial complex is, unwittingly or not, capitalizing on the foibles of the human brain, which is frequently befuddled by the concept of randomness.
“People should behave as if these things are totally random,” said Melissa Kearney, a University of Maryland economist. “But they don’t.”
And Kearney has proved it.
In 2008, she co-authored a paper titled “Gambling at Lucky Stores: Empirical Evidence from State Lottery Sales.” She and co-author Jonathan Guryan found that in the week after selling a big ticket, stores see lottery sales jump as much as 38 percent. This effect takes place right away and can last months.
For retailers, who typically earn about 5 percent of lottery ticket sales, the intensity of the Powerball mania is a big win. And that’s especially true for stores viewed as destinations by players.
Wesley’s Restaurant in Elkton, Md., not far from the Delaware border, sold a $129 million Powerball ticket in 2011. Owner Jennifer Wesley said her Powerball sales in recent weeks, as the jackpot has snowballed, are probably 25 percent higher because of the store’s winning résumé.
“People who don’t normally play here will come in and play because we sold a big one,” Wesley said. “We go along with it. We’re just like, ‘Okay, let’s see what we can spit out.’ ”
Kearney and other economists who study the lottery have connected “lucky store” behavior to several famous economic theories, particularly the “hot hand” fallacy. That describes the mistaken belief that the success of one random event increases the chances of it repeating.
The theory is often linked to streaky basketball players, who aren’t as streaky as they might appear — but don’t tell that to TV color commentators (or lottery ticket buyers).
“Many people tend to see patterns in data when in fact there are none,” noted another research paper on lucky lottery stores. And lottery players display this malfunctioning logic in other interesting and amusing ways.
While they will happily drive long distances to play at lucky stores, they don’t feel as confident about playing previously winning numbers — even though the numbers, again, are totally random. Studies have shown that money bet on particular numbers declines after those numbers are drawn.
There’s a name for this, too: “the gambler’s fallacy.” Picture the guy at a roulette table who won’t play a number that just hit. Or think of a coin toss. Flipping a coin four times, with it landing on heads each time, is likely to prompt a person to pick tails for flip No. 5. But the odds of it landing on tails are no better than they were during the first four flips.
With the lottery, economists aren’t sure why there’s a difference in behavior between the numbers and the stores, but Kearney suspects that it is about machines vs. humans.
“People are more likely to attribute persistent luck when we’re talking about a person,” Kearney said. “So, ‘He’s got good karma. I’m going to buy my ticket from him because he’s lucky. This is a lucky store.’ ’
Robertson, who is planning to buy even more tickets before the drawing, feels that way about Lady’s Liquors. He’s won small amounts at the store in the past.
“They know me by name,” he said. “I have had pretty good luck there.”
So lightning must be making preparations to strike again. Right?
Or, in the case of Wine World in Abingdon, Md., for a third time.
A few years ago, the store sold a winning $108.8 million Powerball ticket. Six months later, it sold a winning $250,000 Mega Millions ticket.
“People come in and tell us that we’re due for a third one,” said store manager Michael Cullison. “They say everything happens in threes.”