They call themselves the Coolers, based on the 2003 Las Vegas thriller "The Cooler," starring William Macy. He plays a character who is hired in old-school casinos to subdue high rollers' action, until he falls in love.
Unlike the movie, this group has not encountered Lady Luck and has yet to pinpoint its cooler. But that doesn't stop them from continuing their 15-year tradition of Thursday lottery lunches.
It's no coincidence that Thursday just happens to be when the Pick 6 is drawn.
"We haven't figured out who the cooler is," said Doug Viofora of Edison.
Viofora was joined at Peking Chinese Restaurant in Parsippany by Lajos Bartucz of Parsippany and Joe Scirotnak of Cedar Grove.
Driven more by "why not" than "what if,"the trio are just a microcosm of players in the Morris County area who have made the lottery a lifestyle.
For game enthusiasts, whether they play Pick-3 midday and evenings or Pick-6 and Mega Millions, every player has a special number or superstitious ritual.
"It's a recreational thing," Bartucz said. "If you expect and want and must win, you're never going to win. If you're having some fun, then maybe."
This from a grandfather and avid University of Florida Gators basketball fan who puts the group's tickets in a mayonnaise jar on his porch "for additional good luck."
The Coolers befriended each other when they were working in different capacities in the chemical industry. This was prior to their respective retirements.
They concentrate on high yield wins produced by the Mega Millions and Pick-6, and rarel play Pick-3 or Pick-4.
Bartucz purchases the tickets weekly and sends out an e-mail to announce the numbers.
He also carries a ticket containing his late friend's numbers.
"I'm keeping his number alive," he said. "I won $7 on anniversary of his death.
According to the New Jersey State Lottery Commission, the most popular games in 2005, ranked by sales, were as follows:
- Pick-3: $456,582,545.
- Pick-4: $265,003,920.
- Mega Millions: $253,408,054.
- Jersey Cash 5: $123,253,335.
- Pick-6 Lotto: $109,983,537.
The popularity in sales of the Pick-3 and Pick-4 games is mirrored by many players in Morris County.
Unlike the Coolers, who let the Quick Pick computer system draw their Pick-6 and Mega Millions numbers, fans of smaller yield games like to choose their own hand.
"It's always my numbers, a combination of my birthday numbers," said Pat Dougherty of Flanders. "It has become a case where I feel that the day I do not play, that is the day my numbers will win."
Her highest win came from a hitting four numbers on a computer-generated Pick 6 ticket. Total payout: $61.
Dougherty spends about $1,000 annually on lottery games. The most she won using her own numbers was $10.
"Hope springs eternal for we lottery players," she said.
Pick-3 and Pick-4 enthusiast Joanne Billia of Budd Lake is attached to specific numbers like birthdays and Social Security numbers.
"I usually don't switch at all from them,"she said. "Once in a blue moon my husband will give me a number he sees, like when the odometer changes on the truck he'll call and say to play it."
She plays twice daily and faithfully, a routine brought upon by missing out on a $4,000 win a few years back.
"The one day I couldn't get to the store, my numbers came up," she said. Her biggest yield to date is $330.
The same goes for avid Pick-3 and Pick-4 player Kathy Costa of Madison. A regular at Main Street Submarines in Madison, she engages in daily games of Pick-3 and Pick-4, plus scratch offs.
"Yeah, she's 5-2-4 and 8-1-9," store owner Ralph Artigliere said.
"I've been playing a long time, almost 20 years," said Costa, a mother of three. "I mostly use birthdays."
Her children, too, get in on the fever, but just for scratch-offs.
Artigliere said Pick-3 and Pick-4 are most popular among his regulars, but when the Mega Millions hits 100 "the office pools kick in," he said.
"Everyone buys tickets," he said. "One hundred million is the magic number."
Meadowlands Employment Services in Secaucus is one such office, with a lottery pool and a cheering ritual to boot.
"We've been playing for about two years now and never hit the numbers," Phil Gutierrez of Wharton wrote in an e-mail to Daily Record. "There are five of us and we play our birthdays. We have hit three numbers at the most, winning about $11. ...Every time we play, we get together in a circle, put all of our hands together and cheer '1, 2, 3, win.'"
But it doesn't end there. The group also indulges in scratch-offs and Gutierrez reaped an eye-opening $500.
"Other times I've won $100, $60, $50 and $57," he said.
The odds for a jackpot look something like this, as listed on the New Jersey Lottery Web site, www.state.nj.us/lottery:
- Mega Millions: 1 in 175,711,536.
- Pick-6: 1 in 13,983,816.
- Pick-5: 1 in 658,008.
- Pick-4: 1 in 10,000.
- Pick-3: 1 in 1,000.
So the odds increase with the cash flow, but is there a way to beat them?
"There is no system that can eliminate the odds entirely, but there certainly are ways to reduce the odds against the player," said Gail Howard, author of "Lottery Master Guide."
Pick-3? Waste of time. Pick-4? Ditto.
Quick Pick? Blasphemy.
"You should never let the computer pick for you," she said.
Howard would probably shun the Coolers for their Quick Pick tactic.
Howard devised a systematic approach to the lottery based on her work as a Wall Street stock broker and commodity futures trader.
"I began to question whether price is based on supply and demand or random luck," she said. "I started charting the New York lottery numbers the same way I charted the commodities in my stock. It formed the same patterns and predictability. I become obsessed with the lotteries and realized I was on to something."
She devoted a year to tearing the numbers apart and began a weekly column in 1983. Her books deal with lottery strategies in all 50 states and internationally as well.
Howard touts Jersey Cash 5 as the Garden State's best bet, because of its jackpot odds of one in 658,008 and the freedom of picking five numbers from 1 to 40.
She has implemented the following strategy when it comes to number selection for Pick 5.
- Have a balanced mix of odd and even numbers, three odd and two even, or two odd and three even.
- Cut the number field in half. Jersey Cash 5 allows a player to choose any number from 1 to 40. Numbers 1-20 would be the low field and numbers 21-40 would be the high field.
- Best is to have three high (21-40) and two low, (1-20) or two high and three low.
- Play a balanced game. After you choose five numbers, add them together and make sure that the sum of the five numbers adds up to somewhere between 77 and 128.
Howard advises studying number patterns and avoiding playing figures that fail to show.
"People say, 'Shouldn't I keep playing same set of numbers every week?'" she said. "No. If you want to play birthdays or Social Security numbers or anniversaries, play the numbers across the board."
The same Pick 5 strategy she applies to the Mega Millions.
She describes this game as two different lotteries built into one game.
"Take five numbers and treat it like the Cash Five game," she said. "But now you pick five numbers out of 56 instead of 40. Plus one out of 42 for the mega ball." [Editor: Ms. Howard is incorrect on this point. Mega Millions uses numbers 1-46 for the Mega Ball, not 1-42 (which is Powerball's number matrix).]
A systematic approach to lotteries does not sit well with Professor Steve Kass of Drew University in Madison.
The associate professor of mathematics and computer science put Howard's Jersey Cash 5 strategies to the test. He studied winning numbers on the New Jersey Lottery Web site, dating back to 1992, and applied her theory.
"I also did what she suggested not to do,"he said. "I used five numbers in a row, 1-2-3-4-5."
Three out of five numbers hit quite a few times, an $11 win, and four out of five came out once.
"Any five you pick are just as likely to hit as 1-2-3-4-5," he said.
His personal strategy is an anti-strategy.
"Find out what everyone's playing and do something different," he said. "Then your chance of having to share the jackpot go down."
Doug Viofora studied number patterns for a year.
"It was a complete waste of time," he said.
Instead he and the Coolers will continue shelling out their give-or-take $10 a week and convening for lunch.
Should they hit it big?
"I'll get a house down in South Carolina for the golf," he said. "And also help my children out with mortgages and my grandchildren with education costs."
Ditto on fleeing South for Lajos.
"I'll buy a house in Jacksonville to be near my children and grandchildren," he said.
As for Scirotnak? No thanks.
"It's too much disruption to the family to move," he said. "But sure the money helps."