Some people spend their entire lives dreaming of winning the lottery. Jerry Selbee figured out how to actually make it in less time than it takes to brew a cup of coffee.
In 2003, Selbee had recently retired and was settling in the sleepy town of Evart, Michigan (population 1,900) with his wife Marge when one morning in a supermarket he came across a brochure for a state lottery game called Winfall. Reading the fine print, Selbee — a math genius who’d spent much of his career as a materials analyst at a Kellogg’s grain factory — quickly realized that the lottery had a mathematical flaw that would mean guaranteed winnings if he bought enough tickets.
“I looked at the odds, I looked at what the payout would be, and I did a risk-reward analysis,” says the matter-of-fact, pragmatic Selbee, now in his 80s, over the phone from his home in Michigan. “It took me less than two minutes to figure out this game could be profitable.”
After Jerry tested his theory and won almost $16,000, he and Marge spent countless hours purchasing and studying thousands of tickets for the Winfall game and later for a similarly structured lottery in Massachusetts. As their profits began to pile up, they formed a company called GS Investment Strategies LLC and invited a few dozen family and friends in Evart to join. When both lotteries closed in 2012, the Selbees and their partners had earned more than $26 million from the venture.
Then life went quiet again for the Selbees, just the way they like it. Until Hollywood called.
The story of the Selbees, chronicled in a 2018 Huffington Post article by Jason Fagone, became the inspiration for the new film Jerry & Marge Go Large, now streaming on Paramount+. Oscar nominees Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening star in the gently funny feel-good film, which aims to offer audiences a soothing, cynicism-free balm in these troubled times.
“‘Jerry & Marge Go Large’ isn’t a story that’s going to change anyone’s life, but you know what? It could change your day,” says Cranston. “Having put COVID behind us, it feels like the time is right. We need a little entertainment to feel better and reconnect.”
For Hollywood, a heartwarming, too good-to-be-true story that just happens to be true can be as valuable as a winning lottery ticket. Following the publication of the Huffington Post article, the Selbees story quickly became a hot commodity, with at least 17 bidders vying for the rights.
“It just blew up,” says Jerry & Marge writer Brad Copeland, who has been chasing the rights with The Blind Side producer Gil Netter. “There were different directors, there was Scarlett Johansson, who called the family – there was a lot of interest because it’s a great story.”
Reading Copeland’s script amid the gloomy headlines of 2020, director David Frankel, whose credits include The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & I, was instantly hooked. What the story may have lacked in thrills—no FBI agents kicking in doors, no over-the-top greed and extravagance a la The Wolf of Wall Street—it more than made up for in homegrown charm. (The film takes a few small liberties with the true story, bringing the action to the present and heightening the conflict between the Selbees and a group of college students who also discovered the lottery loophole.)
“The idea of two people in their 60s finding a new adventure that would reinvigorate their romance and their city seemed like the perfect antidote to the pandemic,” says Frankel. “That seriousness was important. They make money, which is the root of all evil in many other contexts. But here it does a lot of good.”
After spending a few days with the Selbees before filming began, Cranston and Bening were even more determined to live up to their salt-of-the-earth values and their 60-plus year marriage.
“Marge didn’t have any stars in her eyes or anything, which I just loved about her,” says Bening. “She’s tough – she raised six kids and her family called her Marge the Sarge. But there is a little sparkle about Jerry and she really enjoyed her adventure.”
For Cranston, Selbee represented the moral antithesis of his role as drug lord Walter White on Breaking Bad, who used a similarly sophisticated intellect to become a criminal mastermind. “When you’re doing research like this, you just want to be open to receiving the essence of the people you’re looking at,” says Cranston. “There was a lot of time where we were just sitting on the back porch with Jerry and Marge and rocking or taking a ride or having somewhere to eat with them. It was just really cute.”
As cute as they may be, folksy Midwestern retirees aren’t generally considered the hottest topic for Hollywood — or the most coveted theatrical demo. Going against the youth-obsessed grain, “Jerry & Marge” is aimed squarely at a segment of the public that the industry often neglects. The film is the fledgling release of producer Amy Baer’s Landline Pictures, a label formed last year under independent studio MRC Film to develop film and television projects for audiences over 50.
“It happens all the time that people don’t realize that this audience exists and they go to the movies or watch it via streaming,” says Copeland. “The first film I wrote was [the 2007 comedy] “Wild Hogs,” which was about a bunch of 60-year-old guys on Harley-Davidsons. People weren’t sure if there was an audience for it, and then the movie came out and made hundreds of millions of dollars. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, there’s a huge audience for this!’ Then they just forgot about it.”
For the Selbees, whose town doesn’t have a movie theater, it was hard to see their story made into a movie. “We’re just a retired couple living in northern Michigan and there’s nothing special about us,” says Jerry, who knew Cranston from the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle but was unfamiliar with Bening’s work. “Marge would rather not be in the public eye too much. I don’t mind it myself, but she’s a lot more reserved about it.”
For the Selbees, who meticulously recorded everything they did for the IRS and never broke a single law, taking advantage of a loophole in the lottery was never about becoming famous — or even getting rich. As the profits piled up, Jerry bought a new truck and trailer. The couple renovated their home and helped raise money for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s education. But there were no fancy sports cars, no new hot tub, no lavish vacations.
“It really hasn’t impacted our lives aside from giving us more financial security for our future,” says Jerry. “Other members [of the corporation] bought a timeshare or took cruises. Marge and I didn’t do any of that. We just enjoyed life as it was.”
Still, Jerry has kept his eyes on other lotteries, looking for a similar bug that could tip the odds in his favor. “There’s one in Florida that’s similar but not quite the same,” he says. “The Winfall was such a unique game. That was the only one that could be won without luck based only on purely mathematical and statistical probabilities.”
Nowadays he still gets one or the other lottery ticket. But now it’s just for recreation.
“Occasionally I’ll buy a Mega Millions ticket after the jackpot goes over $300 million, and I’ll occasionally buy a Fantasy 5 ticket after the jackpot goes over $250,000,” he says. “But I don’t spend more than $10. And I’m not going out and buying a new boat or anything dependent on me winning the lottery.”
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