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The fifty dollar flop

Guess those fifty-dollar scratch-off Lottery tickets weren’t such a big deal after all.

The Texas Lottery Commission is set to cut several poorly performing scratch-off games, even though more than $25 million in promised top jackpot prizes have yet to be awarded or claimed by winners.

Though its Web site still advertises “9 prizes from $1,000,000 to 5,000,000” for its priciest scratch-offs, a $50 ticket called $130 Million Payout Bonanza, the game will close next month, and as of Thursday only three of the nine jackpots had so far been claimed by winners.

Another $50 game, $130 Million Spectacular, the state’s first $50 game, which became the nation’s priciest ticket when it was rolled out in May 2007, is due to close the same day, though only $10 million of its $21 million in top prizes has been doled out to winners.

Boy, remember when these pricey games were going to be the next big thing? When we thought this was going to be so successful there was talk of a $100 scratch-off ticket? Those were the days.

Lottery officials say the soon-to-be-closed-games are not selling well and take up valuable shelf space in the stores where they’re sold. Yet Lottery spokesman Robert Heith concedes the agency has no set criteria for closing games.

Since early 2007, the commission has allowed itself to close games for any one of three reasons: its sales were sluggish, its top prizes had been claimed, or 85 percent of its total prizes had been claimed. Earlier this month, the commission authorized game closings for reasons that don’t fall into the previous three categories.

“It could be anything,” Heith said.

Michael Anger, the director of the agency’s operations division, said flexibility is critical if the agency is going to give players games they want.

But Gerald Busald, a math professor at San Antonio College and frequent Lottery observer, said the lack of specific criteria for closing games could be used to disadvantage players. By closing them, the commission avoids paying out the promised big prizes.

“You ought to have procedures for doing anything,” he said.

Dawn Nettles, a Lottery watchdog who runs a Web site for players on Texas Lottery games, believes the commission may close games knowing full well that its winning tickets have never left its Austin warehouse.

Heith scoffs at any suggestion the Lottery commission knows where its winning scratch-off tickets are — or that it holds them back.

It’s not exactly a ridiculous suggestion, is it? I mean, in one game two-thirds of the big winners will go unclaimed; in the other, more than half the big prize money stayed home. Given that these games are being shelved more or less on a whim, it’s not at all hard to understand why some people are suspicious. The ironic thing is that just before the $50 scratch-offs were introduced, the Lottery was being accused of continuing to sell games long after all the top prizes had been won. Heck of a job, Texas Lottery Commission!

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