Published Sunday February 26, 2006

Harold W. Andersen: Huge Powerball payoff obscures hard facts concerning gambling

BY HAROLD W. ANDERSEN

Odds good that lives will change

Powerball winners might have their fill of fame

Before Nebraska Lottery officials, Gov. Dave Heineman and the always cooperative press turn Nebraska's newest multimillionaires into some kind of folk heroes, let's look hard at some of the facts.

In the first place, for the eight Lincoln meat-processing plant workers to hit a mega-million Powerball jackpot, the payoff money - and a good deal more - had to be lost by other gamblers in Nebraska and 27 other states.

My pantheon of folk heroes would not include anyone who has become wealthy ($15.5 million after taxes) without in any way earning it and anyone who reacts by "retiring," as at least four of the lucky eight indicated they plan to do. In one case, the "retiree" is 29 years old; in another case, 30.

Also unlikely picks for my folk-heroes list are people who, while basking in the publicity surrounding acquisition of unearned wealth, fail to suggest that at least some of the money would be used to assist people less lucky than they.

There is, however, one nominee for my folk-heroes list among the eight lucky instant millionaires. I refer to David Gehle, a 20-year employee who is a night shift supervisor. He reported for work after he learned he was on his way to becoming a millionaire. "They would have been short of help," Gehle said.

Now, as to all the hoopla that Nebraska Lottery officials helped generate: The commission's responsibilities would have been fully discharged by simply issuing a press release announcing the names of the winners and the financial details, period. It seems to me totally unnecessary to call a press conference, invite Gov. Heineman to speak and supply each of the lucky eight gamblers with a "photo opportunity" poster representing an oversized version of the multimillion-dollar check payable to each winner.

The Lottery Commission's intent seems pretty obvious: Encourage more gambling by Nebraskans, in spite of the fact that the law of probabilities makes it less likely that a record-breaking Powerball payoff will strike in Nebraska again.

As to my reference to the "always cooperative press," I think you will understand what I mean if you will follow this suggestion: Recall the number of times - an exact count is not necessary, of course - that you have seen the press give major attention to the winning of a large gambling jackpot.

Then try to recall - you are likely to come up with zero in this case - the number of times you have seen the press report the amount of money lost by other gamblers in a predictably vain pursuit of that jackpot.