You know what they say when the odds of something happening are really low? “It’s like winning a lottery.”
Well, what would you say if I told you that one man, over the course of 30 years, actually did win the lottery 14 times in a row? Sounds inconceivable, however this is the real story of Stefan Mandel (mathematical genius). It all began in the 1960’s, when a poor Romanian accountant was trying to make ends meet and feed his family.
His salary was so low that he was getting desperate — living basically on $88 a month was a torture. Mandel couldn’t find a job with a higher pay at the time, and resorting to illegal activities was against his moral code. So he came up with a solution that, perhaps,only he could think of: lottery. Now, for most people that would be lunacy. I mean, what chance do you have, one in a million? I don’t think I’ll surprise you if I say it might be even less than that, depending on the number of tickets distributed, winning combinations, and some other factors. But Mandel wasn’t like most people, and he certainly didn’t come unprepared.
He called himself a “weekend mathematician” who’s fascinated with numbers. And it showed: he spent every minute he had off work and family life analyzing papers on math and working on his own algorithm. And finally, after several years, it was ready. Mandel called the result of his research “combinatorial condensation.”
He didn’t want to disclose the method, but he claimed that, in a lottery with 6 total winning numbers, he could accurately predict 5 of them. That brought the probability of winning the lottery from one in several million to one in several thousand — a drastic drop, don’t you agree? Using his algorithm and having gained support of his friends and relatives, Mandel managed to buy huge quantities of tickets with numbers that were most likely to win.
And the risk paid off: he won the first prize,which was about $19 thousand, paid his debts to everyone who helped him, and still benefited quite a lot: his net profit was 4 grand — enough to start a new life. And that’s exactly what he did. Mandel packed his family’s stuff and went to Western Europe where he moved from place to place for 4 years. Such a lifestyle is tiring when you’re not alone, though, so he finally settled in Australia (quite a far cry from Europe, huh?). There, he decided to continue his research into the lottery business — and succeeded.
You see, when he earned his Australian citizenship,he got access to every Common wealth resource available for anyone with this status. And that meant he could take part in the UK lottery system, which happened to be much less complicated than the Romanian one that he cracked before. So he sat down, took a good long look at the system, and after some time got an idea that would make him a millionaire — and a prisoner.
But that’s getting a bit ahead of the story,so let’s first see what came to Mandel’s mind. His new and advanced method was pretty much genius in its simplicity. Mandel realized that, in order to win every time, he only needed to buy all the number combinations there were! Sounds crazy, I know. But even so, he made it work with a very deliberate solution. His plan included six steps. First, he would calculate the total number of combinations possible in any given lottery. For example,
— one where you had to pick six numbers from 1 to 40 would have 3,838,380 combinations. Yeah count ‘em yourself if you don’t believe me!
— Second, he would find lotteries where the jackpot was at least three times as big as the number of combinations. This was a requirement because otherwise he would either win nothing at all or even lose money. You’ll see why in a few moments.
— Third, he’d raise money to buy every single combination. This was the toughest part of all. He would convince people his method worked and persuade them to sponsor his venture by buying as many lottery tickets as they could afford and sending them to him. He promised them to share the winnings among the investors and himself, so, after a while, his ideas got popular enough to attract hundreds of backers willing to win some part of the jackpot.
— Fourth, he would print out literally millions of tickets. Doing this, he ensured that every possible winning combination would be somewhere among those millions. And that, in its turn, made Mandel a multiple winner of every lottery there was: not only did he win the jackpot, but he also took the second, third, and other minor prizes.
— Fifth, having printed out the tickets, he would deliver them to the official dealers. They had no choice but to accept the tons of paper Mandel hauled to them because, however crazy it sounds, the whole operation was legal. The British Common wealth and Australian authorities just couldn’t believe anyone would be so bold as to do something like this. Stefan Mandel was one of a kind, and he probably knew it himself.
— And finally, the sixth step was to take the prize. And this one is exactly why he needed the jackpot to be three times the number of possible combinations. You see, after winning, Mandel had to pay his investors their due. That meant the more backers he had and the more they paid, the more money he had to cough up after winning the lottery. But that wasn’t all, since Mandel also had other costs to pay, including printing and logistics, so eventually he would be left with not a very astonishing sum on his hands. If the jackpot had been smaller, he would’ve probably found himself with less money than he’d had before the whole affair.
Since charity wasn’t exactly what he was after, he needed some sort of security — hence the prize amount. The plan was incredibly simple, come to think of it, but at the same time it needed a lot of effort. Stefan Mandel worked day and night to make it come true, and over the years he succeeded in creating what he called a “lotto syndicate” :a network of hundreds of investors who believed in his method and were more than willing to help. With 1980’s came the computer era, and Mandel was more than happy to embrace new technology.
He bought several computers and a dozen printers that ran on an algorithm he created, and filling out the combinations became easy-peasy. By the end of the decade he and his “syndicate” managed to win 12 lotteries across Australia and the UK. But such a scheme couldn’t have gone unnoticed. Although perfectly legal, it bothered the authorities that one person could perform such a trick, so the lottery laws were changed twice in Australia: first they prohibited printing tickets at home (now you had to buy them first hand from a store), and then banned purchasing them in bulk.
That made Mandel look to the west. Despite his many successes, they brought modest amounts of money. What Mandel wanted now was to make headlines all over the world, so he set his sights on the Virginia lottery in the US. It was 1992, and the jackpot was more than three times larger than the number of combinations: $27 million against approximately 7 million tickets. It was exactly what he needed. Given credit for his previous achievements,he quickly gained support of over 2,500 investors, each of them paying about $3,000 to bulk purchase all the combinations. Then he printed all those tickets at his base of operations back in Sydney and shipped the bulk to the US. That’s where the big game started.
Hired couriers worked tirelessly all around the state, paying for tickets at stores in cashier checks worth $10 thousand each. They were short on time, but that wasn’t the biggest trouble. The one that made Mandel bite on his nails was that just hours before the deadline for entry one of the stores that bought tickets in bulk became overwhelmed and stopped its operation. As a result, out of 7.1 million tickets bought by Mandel’s syndicate, only 5.5 million were processed, leaving too much to chance. There was nothing he could do to ensure his victory, and he only had to hope none of those missing 1.6 million combinations were winning.
On February 15, 1992, the moment of truth came: the final draw on live television. Mandel’s team were frantically rifling through the combinations to see whether one of them was the winner. And at last, a triumphant cry: they’d won! The lotto syndicate hit not only the jackpot but also the second and third prizes, along with dozens of minor ones, their overall winnings amounting to about $30 million. It was the greatest victory of Mandel’s venture yet, and it did make international headlines just like he’d wanted.
But as we know all too well, money spoils. While Stefan Mandel himself became a millionaire, his investors received only a meager compensation for what they had spent. And they couldn’t even sue him for not carrying out his obligations because technically he did. On a larger scale, Mandel’s actions caused the US authorities to change the lottery rules so no one would ever repeat his stunt. That made him the first and last person to perform it in history. He didn’t really stop pursuing his ambitions even having earned millions. And in 2004 it brought him to a 20-month prison sentence in Israel, where he tried to pull another lottery stunt and failed.
Perhaps that was what brought Mandel to his senses: since his release in 2006, he’s been living a quiet life on a tropical island off the coast of Australia. But he’ll forever be remembered as a man who changed the game of lottery in the whole world.
Have you ever played lottery yourself? Let me know down in the comments!