Each night at 6:59 p.m., the state-run lottery conducts a live drawing at the studios of WITF in Harrisburg. From behind the three cameras that face a Pennsylvania-festooned background and drawing machines, it’s possible to hear the control booth.
“Stand by ready to roll red in 5…4…3…2…1. Cue music.”
The lottery’s theme song pops through the speakers in three-part harmony. The broadcast lasts 60 seconds. Preparing for that minute takes a lot longer, said Craig Troop, drawings director for the lottery.
“Our unofficial motto is 'be perfect,'” he said.
Along with six drawing officials, whose last names are withheld for security reasons, Troop tamper-proofs the lottery.
At 5 p.m. a minimum of six people — two drawing officials, two certified public accountants and two senior citizen witnesses — gather outside the secure room where the lottery keeps its machines and balls: like Nerf balls, but with microchips. They’re locked in a cabinet to which only the accounting firm has the combination. Entrance to the room requires biometric recognition and a WITF staff member. Cameras mounted in and outside the room record all movement, and no one is ever left alone with the equipment.
Drew Svitko, executive director of the Pennsylvania Lottery, said the exhaustive security procedures are essential to the lottery’s success.
“Integrity is the heart of our business. Players have to know, without a doubt, that when they play our games they stand a fair chance of winning,” he said. “What happened in 1980 could never happen again.”
In 1980, the lottery was only eight years old. The Daily Number was a televised drawing conducted nightly at WTAE. The drawing’s host was Nick Perry, a popular television personality perhaps best known for his Bowling For Dollars program. On April 24, 1980, Perry, a state official, a studio technician and several others rigged the drawing. The “winning number” was 666.
Jon Schmitz, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Press at the time, said it was sort of an ingenious plot: White latex paint was injected into eight of ten ping-pong balls, weighing them down enough that they wouldn’t rise easily to the top. The fours and sixes were left untouched.
“When you watched the drawing in full speed motion, and without knowledge of what was going on, it really didn’t look obvious to the eye that there was something wrong with the ping pong balls,” said Schmitz.
But what didn’t seem off on television seemed off to Tony Grosso, then the biggest numbers racketeer in Pittsburgh, said Schmitz.
“Word got back to Tony Grosso and [he] announced he heard the drawing had been fixed and that he wasn’t paying off the winners in his numbers game.”
At the time, the illegal numbers business was huge in Pittsburgh. For a lot of people, buying a chance was as easy as buying a gallon of milk. In 1971, when the state lottery was created, the number runners started using the state’s winning number as their own. But where the lottery paid 500 to 1 if you hit, the illegal game paid 600 to 1, said Schmitz.
“Back then there was heady competition for the Daily Number from the illegal numbers racket,” he said.
The fix endangered the state lottery’s viability. But on April 30, Secretary of Revenue Howard Cohen declared there was no evidence the game had been rigged. He speculated that organized crime figures were discrediting the lottery to boost their own games.
Schmitz said ultimately it was the street chatter that doomed the Triple Six Fix, as it came to be known.
“These guys might have gotten away with it but they let a lot of people in on the fix beforehand,” he said. “Any good conspiracy is limited to the smallest circle possible and these guys failed to observe that.”
So many people bet on the possible combinations of fours and sixes that a full investigation was mounted. Eventually, six people were sentenced in the conspiracy that resulted in the theft of $1.2 million.
“Everybody focused on the bizarre nature of the incident, but when it comes down to it, [Perry] was stealing from senior citizens, and that’s kind of low,” said Schmitz.
Pennsylvania responded by creating the security procedures in use today, making the lottery so trustworthy it’s raised $24.7 billion in its 34 years for programs that support older Pennsylvanians. Executive Director Drew Svitko said it provides another benefit.
“The ability to just dream," he said. "To just dream for a minute about what if I won."
But the conspirators of the Triple Six Fix discovered what so many players already know: Most of the time, you lose.
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