Martha’s Vineyard lottery sales exceed $12 million annually

As with most gambling, the payout favors the house. Last year, Martha’s Vineyard received government aid amounting to less than 3 percent of sales.

Robert Baker, owner of Woodland Variety & Grill, is top dog in Island lottery ticket sales. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Martha’s Vineyard residents like to gamble, and the Massachusetts lottery is happy to take their money. In the 2013 fiscal year (FY) that ended June 30, 2013, Island lottery agents sold $12.2 million in lottery tickets. That is approximately $742 per resident, based on the most recent census data, and exceeds the combined annual budgets of Chilmark and Aquinnah.

Lottery ticket sales have been on the rise. In FY04, sales totaled $7,625,239.50. Since that year, more than $101 million dollars have been spent on lottery tickets on Martha’s Vineyard.

And the appetite appears undiminished. When the Lottery released $30 scratch tickets in March, its most expensive tickets to date, lottery ticket agents on Martha’s Vineyard reported daily sales exceeding $10,000, according to data provided by the Massachusetts State Lottery.

The king of the lottery hill is Woodland Variety and Grill, a small convenience store and grill off State Road in Vineyard Haven that also hosts Keno, an instant monitor based form of gaming. Woodland Variety sold more than $2 million in lottery tickets in FY13. Other Island outlets were not far behind.

Since FY11, Island lottery outlets had $33,653,543 in sales. The products include nightly numbers and scratch tickets in varying amounts.

Sales on Martha’s Vineyard range from one-time buyers who purchase a $1, $2 or $5 ticket as a gift, to customers who spend between $100 and $200 each day on carefully chosen $10 or $20 tickets and claim they can beat the system to produce reliable income.

Lottery scratch tickets provide instant gratification. They are also the leading cause of compulsive gambling addiction statewide, making up more than a third of calls to Massachusetts gambling addiction hotlines, according to the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling.

House rules

Lottery officials tout the dollars the lottery returns to communities. 20 percent of all lottery sales go into a government aid fund which is used to repair roads, fund school programs, hire police officers, and pay for other services. More than $900 million in aid was received by towns in FY13. The payout in comparison to lottery sales varies by municipality, according to a recent analysis by the Boston Globe.

In FY13, Martha’s Vineyard lottery sales generated $2,406,573 for the aid program. The six Island towns combined received $363,050 in aid, 15 percent of the amount generated, and less than 3 percent of total Island sales.

West Tisbury received $157,108, more than any other Island town. Tisbury received $82,939, Oak Bluffs $61,514, and Edgartown $56,341.

Aquinnah and Chilmark, which have no lottery ticket agents and therefore $0 in sales, were the only Island towns that officially received more than they put in.

Chilmark received $3,172 and Aquinnah received $1,976.

Christian Teja, director of communications for the Lottery, rejected the idea that the lottery acts as a tax on low-income individuals in low-income communities where it has the widest appeal. “The Lottery is the largest source of local aid in the Commonwealth, with $11 billion awarded to 351 cities and towns, although the sales from the city or town do not affect the amount that goes back out,” he said. “There’s no demographics. Our games appeal to a wide range of people, dating back to 1972 as a well-recognized entertainment.”

Following a dollar

Lisa McDonald, a researcher for the Lottery, broke down the process for The Times in terms of a single dollar.

According to Ms. McDonald, an average of 72 cents is returned to purchasers in the form of prize money, with $30 tickets paying out as much as 80 cents. Six cents go to lottery ticket agent commissions. Two cents go to fund Lottery administration. Twenty cents, she said, go to the Department of Revenue, for local aid distribution.

“The formula for local aid is complicated,” Ms. McDonald said in a telephone conversation. “But it can be roughly simplified as depending on population and property values. Municipalities with small populations and high property values will receive less aid, while areas with large populations and low property values will receive more.”

She emphasized that the amount of aid returned to local governments is completely unrelated to the amount of sales in those towns. “There are no restrictions on purchases,” she said. “Customers can buy tickets anywhere.”

By the store

There are a total of 21 lottery outlets on Martha’s Vineyard. Of those, 20 are located in Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, and Vineyard Haven. The only up-Island outlet is Conroy Apothecary in West Tisbury. There are no outlets in Chilmark or Aquinnah.

Stores receive a 5 percent commission on sales and 1 percent on winnings from tickets cashed at their outlet. Lottery outlet owners said that lottery tickets bring customers in the door, where they’ll also grab a sandwich or a drink.

In addition to Woodland Variety, five other stores exceeded $1 million in lottery sales in FY 13. Cumberland Farms in Vineyard Haven, Tony’s Market in Oak Bluffs, Your Market in Edgartown, and Our Market in Oak Bluffs each netted around $1.3 million for the Lottery. Depot Market in Edgartown was a close sixth at $1.1 million.

Robert Baker, owner of Woodland Variety, was not surprised that his store had the highest sales. “Convenience plays a big factor. We have parking, and we also offer food and coffee,” he said in a conversation with The Times. “If you’re killing a couple minutes, it’s also a destination for breakfast and lunch too, you get a ticket.” Mr. Baker said that people buy entire books of lottery tickets in his store, and the same people come in every day and buy hundreds of dollars worth of tickets. “People have won $200,000 or $250,000 on lottery tickets, but we’ve had no jackpots per se,” he said. “We can cash up to $600. If you win more than that, you have to go to New Bedford, where you can cash up to $50,000, or the headquarters in Braintree.”

He said that most people don’t walk away with their winnings. “What we sell, it’s not all cash value: people exchange their tickets. If someone comes in with a $10 win, most times they get another $10 ticket,” he said.

Mr. Baker was not surprised by the Island’s high number of sales. “I’d say it’s a lack of access to other games, or casinos,” he said. “I don’t know if there’s a correlation there, but for years, lottery sales have been very good.”

At one Island outlet, a manager who spoke on condition of anonymity due to company policy commented on the attraction of the lottery for young people.

“Now it’s all ages too; 18- and 19-year-olds buy tickets every day, and for me, that’s sad,” the manager said. People will use the ATM and spend it all. Some people come in every, single, day.”

A store’s morning haul

On Monday morning, June 2, a visit to Cumberland Farms in Vineyard Haven between between 10 and 11 am revealed brisk lottery ticket sales of more than $300. Most of the ticket buyers rushed out the door, scratching furiously with a nail or coin, but not all.

“My sister’s birthday is today, so I figured I’d leave a few tickets in her car,” Carly Smith, a summer resident of Oak Bluffs, said outside the store. “I got her a $10 ticket and two $2 tickets.”

She has bought lottery tickets as presents before. “But no one’s ever won anything,” she said, “And I don’t come very often.”

Jake Seletsky of Barnstable was on the Island for a construction project. “I get a $5 or two, I buy a ticket on Fridays when I get some beers for the weekend,” he said outside the store. “The most I’ve ever won was $100, and I’ve been buying them since I was 18. It’s just something to do.”

A retired veteran from Vineyard Haven disagreed on the odds. Some days, he said, he will buy three $30 tickets and ten $10 tickets, and strike out completely. Overall, however, he claims he is ahead.

“Last year, I ended ahead $31,000 after spending around $14,000 and winning $45,000,” he told The Times. “I’ve won $10,000 nine times. I keep a record of all that I spend.”

He said he has a system he heard about in an interview. “I go to Xtramart, Cronig’s, Cumberland Farms, Stop & Shop, sometimes Our Market in Oak Bluffs. I go to the same places and play the same numbers, and won’t play off a book once I’ve got a win of at least $100 off it,” he said.

He is adamant that his system works. “The past 13 years I haven’t lost more than $2,000 in a year,” he said. “They call it gambling, and it’s not made for anyone to be a consistent winner unless they have the luck with them, but I’m up $31,000 this year alone.”

He requested anonymity for what he called “financial reasons.” He said, “I’m only supposed to make so much a year because I’m on veteran’s pension, and it’s not a good idea to let people know you’re carrying a lot of cash,” he said.

Gambling addiction

“I’d say 40 percent of calls are lottery-related, mostly scratch tickets, 30 percent casinos or slot machines,” Margot Cahoon, communications director for the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling said in a recent telephone conversation with The Times. “A lot of callers think they’re the only people in the world who have problems with lottery tickets, that they’re being silly. We call it a hidden addiction. These people have no external signs of addiction, but they have inner turmoil. Their spouses think they’re having an affair.”

Ms. Cahoon said lottery tickets follow a typical addiction path. Gambling addicts are notorious for inflating their winners, understating their losses, and throwing good money after bad money. “People try to chase their losses with lottery tickets, a classic sign of gambling addiction,” said Ms. Cahoon. “One reason we get so many calls about lottery tickets is instant gratification. Gambling addiction is not all about money, it’s about the thrill. There are lottery winners who just gamble those winnings away.”

Recalling 11 years working in the field of addiction, she said, “One woman sticks in my mind. She would buy her tickets at one store, but then she would get embarrassed and go to different stores, or dress strange, like a disguise.”

Ms. Cahoon said gambling addiction strikes people from every walk of life, from working class individuals to high-paid executives.

She has concerns about more expensive tickets and the role of gambling in a healthy life. “With the higher tickets we’re worried about the larger amount, with more exciting winnings that will encourage people to seek wish fulfillment,” she said. “We advise people to put gambling into their entertainment budget, and to not let it creep into other parts of their life.”

She advised anyone struggling with a gambling addiction to call the hotline at 1-800-426-1234 or to visit

“There are many ways to help people,” she said. “There are meetings, counselors, self-help literature that we send in the mail, even online chats. You are not alone.”

New scratch ceiling

On April 22, the lottery unveiled a new scratch ticket with an eye-popping $30 price and a minimum reward of $30, with a chance to win $15 million in an instant.

“We track our sales on a weekly basis, and in the first full week of the World Class Millions (WCM), outlets reported the largest instant ticket sales since the $20 ticket was released in 2007,” Mr. Teja told The Times. “People were excited to play the new game, a high payout game with an instant result, rather than Keno or Powerball.”

He outlined the statistics on the new ticket. “WCM offers 80.7 percent payout, highest in lottery history, with a smallest prize of $30. There are $600 million in prizes, across 25.2 million tickets. There are four $15 million tickets and 36 $1 million tickets.”

For one player, the lottery proved to be the road to riches

On November 10, 2007, Sandra Grant of Edgartown walked into Our Market in Oak Bluffs with three jobs. She walked out with $10 million, before taxes and fees. At the time, it was the largest prize in the history of lotteries in the United States.

Sandra had wanted to save money on groceries and was on her way to Reliable Market, where there was a sale, when she stopped at Our Market to buy two Instant Lottery tickets, one for $10 and another for $20,” she told The Times in an earlier interview following her big win.

The first ticket was a loser. Sandra scratched the boxes on the second ticket. When she got to the last row two dollar signs appeared. “I was thinking, oh good, I probably got my $20 back,” she said. “And it said $10 million. And I was just looking at it and thinking, gee, is this right?”

Sandra described herself as a very quiet person. “I don’t yell or and scream and make a scene,” she said.

She decided to speak to the manager, but he was on the phone. So she went back to the clerk, Nick Robinson, who sold her the ticket. “I think I am looking at this right, but my stomach is in knots, and I’m a little bit queasy. Am I looking at this ticket right,” she asked him.

Nick, a longtime seasonal visitor and employee who had been working at the store for about three months after returning from a stint teaching English in Japan, examined the ticket, looked at Sandra, and smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s $10 million.”

Sandra asked him, “What do I do now?”

Nick showed the ticket to the manager. His reaction would echo the reaction of people across the Vineyard: “Wow, $10 million?”

The manager processed the ticket through the Lottery machine. And that was that. Sandra left and went shopping for all her sale items. She did allow herself a few extras.

A lifelong Edgartown resident, Sandra had plenty of relatives to call. They screamed plenty, she said at the time.

Ms. Grant was smart. She hired a financial advisor, a lawyer, and an accountant, intent on avoiding the later bankruptcy that often plagues inept lottery winners within years of a huge win. Seven years later, she believes her effort was a success.

“When I first won, I was intimidated, but that’s why I got all those people to help me,” she said in a telephone conversation with The Times last week. “Most people who win the lottery, they go broke within 6-8 years. Me, I’m all set. I don’t have to worry for the rest of my life, and my son will be well taken care of after I’m gone.”

She referred to herself as frugal. “I didn’t go on a world tour or buy a boat or a limousine driver. I used to use coupons. I don’t do that anymore. But I still keep an eye out for sales at Stop and Shop, just like everyone else. It hasn’t really changed me. When I won, I was just relieved. I thought, I don’t have to work anymore.”

However, she still buys the occasional ticket, and says that if she won again she would do things differently. “I would go on a big spending spree,” she said. “Not that I couldn’t have done that before, still could, but I would collect my money all at once instead of monthly installments.”

For now, she plans to keep gardening, riding her bike because she hates traffic, and caring for her miniature horses.