Players won't participate in a lottery they can't trust
By Tennessean Editorial Staff
September 2, 2007
Today's Topic: When a glitch hits the lottery
Any game of chance needs a high level of trust.
Trust was missing during a recent stretch in the Tennessee Lottery when players who bet on digits showing up more than once were literally shut out of a chance to win because of a computer glitch. The glitch meant that people who bet on repeating numbers in the Cash 3 and Cash 4 games, such as 3-8-3 or 4-4-7-9, had no chance of winning. Repeated digits are supposed to be able to win.
But when the lottery went several days without a repeat number in the winning combination, some players noticed the problem and tried to alert lottery officials. What they were told, however, was that there was no problem. As it turned out, there was indeed a problem, and the computer-generated combinations did not allow anyone who had bet on repeating numbers to win.
Lottery officials uncovered the problem, which had occurred when an employee from a third-party company working with the lottery typed a "u" for unique instead of an "r" for repeat in the computer code. The lottery is offering double refunds or two free plays to people who were shut out if they return signed tickets.
It is also helpful that the lottery will hire an outside consulting firm to look into what happened. Players need to see such corrective action.
The attorney who heads the lottery's audit group says there should be an investigation into whether fraud had a hand in the game. There is no evidence thus far suggesting anything but human error, but a probe of exactly what happened is in order.
James H. Ripley, the audit chairman, has recommended to lottery director Rebecca Paul Hargrove that there be an investigation into the nature of human and machine errors; the identity of all people who were responsible for the problem; an analysis of whether the problem could have been created deliberately; a written account from Smartplay International, the company that sold the computer system to the lottery, to explain what happened; and an explanation for the delay in detecting or reporting the error.
It is troubling that such a glitch could occur. On one hand, typing the letter "u" instead of an "r" sounds like a small mistake. But the two letters are not side-by-side on the keyboard, and such a misstep certainly resulted in large consequences.
Part of the level of trust in the game before it went to a computerized version was that people could actually see balls with numbers chosen for the winning combinations. They could watch the action for themselves. But they have to trust a computer blindly. The biggest error might have been shifting to a computer system. After all, the computerized method did not prove to be absolutely trustworthy. It is equally troubling that lottery officials seemed to dismiss the complaints of people who had legitimate arguments about what was happening with the games.
The Tennessee Lottery has been an overall success, including the fact it has provided many scholarships for the state's college-bound students. But it is not a success when the game is flawed. Such flaws can lead to doubt and mistrust. If there is no trust, there will be no players, and then there will be no lottery.