The cookie crumbled right for 110 people who chose Chinese food.
Betting on the numbers recommended in fortune cookies, they won from $100,000 to half a million dollars each in a multi-state Powerball lottery, organization director Charles Strutt said on Wednesday.
By the laws of statistical probability, there should have been only four or five winners among the 10.4 million ticket buyers in the lottery operated by the governments of 27 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
But there were nearly 20 times that number, meaning $19 million had to be paid to unexpected winners in the March 30 drawing.
‘Out of the realm of possibility’
“Something was wrong; it was out of the realm of possibility,” Strutt told Reuters. “So we suspected a great system error or a fraud. In the lottery business, you have to be naturally suspicious: Whenever we see a statistical aberration we check it out.”
Another possibility was a recommended lucky number in the media. So bewildered staff at Multi-State Lottery Association, which runs Powerball from Uniondale, Iowa, spent the next day scanning magazines recommending lucky numbers.
They even replayed and replayed an ABC television show “Lost” and an episode of the soap opera “The Young and the Restless” in which Powerball numbers were discussed. No match.
When winners of the prize came forward to claim the prize on April Fool’s Day, state lottery officials had instructions to grill them, Strutt said.
The first hint came from Tennessee, where the first three winners told lottery officials they took the numbers from fortune cookies. The story was repeated across America.
Tennessee and Idaho officials visited dozens of Chinese restaurants and traced the cookies back to a distributor in the New York area. The New York Times investigated the story, tracking the cookies to New York’s Wonton Food, which calls itself the world’s biggest fortune cookie maker.
And in fact, the cookie didn’t crumble that finely.
Fortune narrowly missed jackpot
The fortune cookie featured six lucky numbers. The first five were good enough for six-figure prizes. The sixth figure, needed for the jackpot of $25.5 million, was listed as 40, when the winning number was 42. A Tennessee man who shunned fortune cookie luck landed the biggest prize, Strutt said.
Wonton Food sales manager Derrick Wong told Reuters none of 110 workers at the Queens factory that produced the winning cookie had played the lottery.
The factory produces 4 million fortune cookies a day, at least 97 percent of which carry a string of six numbers. There are 10,000 combinations of numbers, all picked by workers drawing from 40 folded papers with numbers placed in a bowl.
“We’re now going to go to use a computer (to pick the numbers) because it’s more efficient,” Wong said. “Using the computer reduces the chances of a repeat combination and we don’t want that to happen.”
Another executive at the factory, Richard Leung, estimated that the Queens factory had produced hundreds of thousands of cookies that carried the winning combination.
Lottery director Strutt said that some of the winners had eaten the fortune cookie in the days before the drawing, but one had kept the winning combination from a cookie crunched three years earlier.