The Littlest Big Winner?

Tonight, one lucky American may be an overnight billionaire. MegaMillions, the American interstate lottery, has an estimated jackpot of $1.1. billion (but “only” about $587 million — before taxes — if you take the lump sum payment), and the frenzy over the prize pool will likely mean lots of tickets sold. The more tickets sold, the more likely we’ll have a winner. And if we get a winner, we also may get the best part of the lottery for us non-winners — getting to see the winners with a comically large check. Not “large” as in “worth a billion dollars” — although that’s also the case — but “large” as in physically too big to put in your pocket or, in some cases, even your car trunk.

Let’s face it, when it comes to winning the lottery, getting the “large amount of money” is the real goal, not getting the “large novelty check.” Unfortunately, the odds of winning the MegaMillions jackpot is about one in 250 million — so there aren’t a lot of billion-dollar checks to win. On the other hand, winning any prize — even $1 (which isn’t much of a prize, given that tickets are $2) — has much better odds. For MegaMillions, it’s about one in 15. 

And for an Iowan named Tyler Heep, a one-dollar win was all he needed to get what he really wanted: that really big check.

On January 3, 2019, Iowa introduced “Stinking Rich,” an instant lottery game using scratch-off tickets, like the one seen at the top. You couldn’t win a billion dollars — the prizes maxed out a $1,000. On the first day of the contest, Heep bought a ticket and didn’t win the grand prize, but he did break even, which isn’t so bad. Most people, in that case, would have immediately redeemed the winning ticket and either walked away with no financial harm done, or perhaps let their bet ride and purchased another ticket. But Heep had another idea: he drove down to the state lottery office to see if he could be honored with a big check, expecting to have the request declined.

It turned out, though, that no small prize winner had ever asked that lottery office for such treatment. And in this case, the local lottery officials appreciated the joke — a spokesperson told the local news website Patch that “everyone had a big laugh” — and decided to reward Heep’s ambition with the big check, as seen above. The officials even brought him to the back room with the step-and-repeat (that’s what those type of backgrounds are called) and camera already set up, taking the same marketing photo that is usually reserved for winners who have more zeros on the left of the decimal point. (The big check probably cost the Iowa Lottery more than the prize, although that’s unclear; per Patch, the checks “are printed in bulk, just like the tinier checks in personal checkbooks,” with the cost-per-check rather low.)

Heep posted the story to Facebook, it went viral, and he later told the press that he didn’t hold on to his winnings for long: on the way home, he stopped at a convenience store and ended up buying a half-gallon of gas with his $1, according to a post on the Iowa Lottery’s blog. He didn’t have to forfeit the check to get that dollar, though (or maybe he never bothered actually cashing the check), because he still has it. A frame shop in Mississippi offered to give him a free custom frame for his check, which Heep accepted. The framed version — which you can see at the Iowa Lottery site, here — contains the check, the picture of Heep holding the check, a picture of the viral Facebook post, and to fill the empty space, a one-dollar bill. 

Bonus fact: If you have a $1 bill on you — or any American paper currency — chances are you’re also carrying a very tiny amount of narcotics. In 2009, the Guardian reported that “researchers from the American Chemical Society in Washington have discovered that the practice of consuming cocaine through rolled up paper money is far more than just a cinematic cliché. They found that in big cities in the US, up to 90% of the notes tested positive for traces of the drug.” Don’t worry about it, though; the amounts are so tiny, it won’t effect you.

From the Archives: The Man Who Beat the Scratch Lottery: He won a lot more than $1. But he may not have gotten any novelty checks, so in if there’s a contest between him and Tyler Heep, let’s call it a tie.