Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.
When investigators smashed through the concrete slab, they found his body six feet deep, laid out on a bloodstained towel. In a black jacket, shoeless, his hair in a stocking cap, he was partially mummified, embedded in lime. The detectives knew they were looking at the remains of Abraham Shakespeare.
It was January 28, 2010, and Shakespeare had been missing for nine months. Rumors had swirled all through the Lakeland area, in central Florida. Some said he’d split town, tired of the constant requests for money, others that he was hiding from the woman who was his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his child. But after months of no one hearing from him, it was clear that something was terribly wrong.
Now, the detectives discovered he’d been shot and buried in a yard on State Road 60. What exactly had happened remained a mystery, but everyone knew it began with these numbers: 6, 12, 13, 34, 42, 52.
On the night of November 15, 2006, Abraham Shakespeare was happy to be working. He had five bucks to his name, no bank account, no credit card. He didn’t have a driver’s license, either, so he couldn’t operate the truck in which the MBM Corporation had sent him and a coworker, Michael Ford, to deliver meat to fast food restaurants from Lakeland to Miami. But every hour on the road meant another eight dollars. It was a meager living, but it was a living.
In Frostproof, Ford pulled into a Town Star convenience store and asked if Shakespeare wanted anything.
“Get me two quick picks,” he said.
With his very last dollars, he’d play the Florida Lottery. The jackpot that night was $31 million.
What possesses someone to play the lottery, when he’s never caught a lucky break? Many might say ignorance, but a 2008 study in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making shows how mistaken that would be. Participants of an experiment were asked to consider whether rich, middle class, or poor people have better odds of attaining various outcomes, such as being elected mayor, becoming a superstar singer, or receiving a promotion. Then they were given an opportunity to purchase lottery tickets. Compared to a control group, those who’d been asked to consider the relative advantages of different classes were more likely to play the lottery. The authors concluded that low-income individuals “are likely to perceive the lottery as a rare opportunity to compete on equal footing with people who are more affluent.” In a culture that showers benefits upon the already advantaged, a game of chance seems like the only thing that doesn’t discriminate.
Just as lottery play tracks along class lines, so does it have a racial skew. A study of the Virginia lottery showed that 61 percent of its sales are made to just 8 percent of the total population, and more than one in three of that very small slice are Black. It remains an open question whether lotteries intensify marketing campaigns in Black communities—and how effective such campaigns would be—but it’s indisputable that the business would crumble without players like Abraham Shakespeare.
It could never be said that he was among the advantaged. Born in Sebring, Florida, in 1966, Shakespeare dropped out of school after seventh grade, and was incarcerated in a state-run juvenile detention facility from the age of thirteen to eighteen. He was never taught to read or write. Afterward, like many formerly incarcerated people, he couldn’t regain his footing. For much of his life, he struggled to stay afloat.
But everything changed for Shakespeare with the bounce of a numerized ball. His quick-pick ticket hit the jackpot. All at once, he was rich.
Lottery winners are advised to remain anonymous and secure the services of a lawyer before presenting themselves, but Shakespeare casually appeared on TV from Tallahassee, holding an oversized check in a Florida Lottery T-shirt. This unlikely millionaire couldn’t have been a better advertisement for the lottery: a day laborer down to his last dollar, suddenly rocketing to exorbitant wealth. No matter how bad things get, Shakespeare’s face seemed to say, don’t despair. Today could be your lucky day.