What would you do if the love of your life ripped up a lottery ticket worth nearly a billion dollars? For most of us, this would be a thought experiment--a chance to explore our true feelings about our loved ones and the role money plays in our lives. But for Mark Budesa, a photographer and bartender in Las Vegas, it's more than that because it actually happened. 

A week ago, I published a piece on why winning the Powerball might be a bad thing. Budesa got in touch to tell me his incredible story, and he's given me permission to share it here.

Like many Americans, Mark Budesa and his wife Shannon have been buying tickets for the recent record-breaking Powerball lottery prizes. Because they live in Nevada which, ironically, is one of only seven states without its own lottery, they drive to Rosie's Den, a shop in Arizona to get these tickets, about an hour each way, with their 4-year-old daughter and 2-month-old son along for the ride. 

On January 10, the day after a Powerball drawing in which, yet again, no one had won the grand prize, they headed back to Rosie's Den for more tickets. Since Mark knows himself to have a gambling problem, Shannon always buys the tickets. Usually she brings their daughter along, and in the interest of time, she buys Quick Picks, in which you play numbers randomly selected by a computer rather than choosing numbers yourself and filling out a lottery ticket form. 

On this day, there was a longer line than usual so the daughter stayed in the car. Waiting in line alone, Shannon grew bored and idly started filling out a lottery ticket. Though not a gambler, like most Las Vegans, she sometimes finds herself playing slot machines while socializing with her co-workers, and she always plays the same sequence of numbers: 4 (her and her daughter's birth month), 8 (Mark's birthday), 27 (her mother's birthday), and 34 (her mother's birth year). And so she filled in those numbers.

This is where it gets weird.

"Now this is where it gets weird, because she was going to use her birthday, 15, for the last number," Mark says. But she found herself thinking about how much she missed her sister, who died in 1984. Shannon felt bad that she hadn't had a chance to visit her sister's grave on a recent trip home. "With that thought, she filled in the last number of the game--19, the day her sister passed away." She filled in all five games on her ticket in this manner. For the extra Powerball game on each ticket she used her daughter's birthday, 10, on four out of the five games, and her own birthday, 15, for the last one.

Meanwhile, things weren't going so well on the lottery ticket line. A woman ahead of Shannon was on the phone with her mother, arguing about what numbers they could play, struggling to correctly fill out her card, and straining the patience of everyone around her. Shannon began to worry that she, too, would hold up the line since she wasn't used to filling out tickets. And with that thought, she tore up the ticket, tossed it on a stack of discards on a nearby table, and decided to play a Quick Pick as usual.

After the drawing, Mark checked their ticket and discovered they'd won all of $2. Then they went to bed. "It wasn't until 5:30 the next morning that my wife turned on the news to see all six of her numbers splashed across the screen," he says. "She couldn't believe it. She waited till I woke up to tell me and I didn't want to believe it."

For a whole day, Mark did everything he could think of to poke holes in his wife's account. "She had no proof. She threw away the evidence," he says. Why didn't she use her own birthday, which was the same as their daughter's birth year? he asked. Why didn't she pick their son's birthday? Or his birth month, which was the same as Mark's? How could she remember numbers she'd picked three days earlier? 

She was unshakeable. "She didn't have to work too hard to remember," he says. "Those numbers were us." Finally, he found a ticket form online, printed it out, and asked her to fill it in the same way she had at Rosie's Den. "I hope and prayed that she filled it out wrong," he says. "She didn't." 

The Budesas had no choice but to recognize the truth. "For 10 minutes, while she stood in line, my son slept, and my daughter and I played music in the car, she had in her hand a ticket for the biggest Powerball drawing in history," Mark says. The winning numbers drawn were 4, 8, 19, 27, 34, and 10 as the Powerball number. Mark calculated that the ripped-up ticket would have won four grand prizes plus a million-dollar prize for the fifth game--a total of $915 million and a world record. 

"I got scared."

"I don't know how you would have reacted, but for some reason I got scared," he says. "I got scared of myself. I didn't know if this was something I could learn to live with. Would it break me? Would it break us?"

The knowledge "consumed me slowly," he says. "The pain crept up from my gut into my chest and stayed there. My chest felt like it was ripping apart. Then it finally took over my mind." What if the lady on the phone hadn't been in the line, he wondered? What if her transaction had gone smoothly? What if he had driven more slowly? "All she had to do was hand in the ticket," he says. "My mind wouldn't stop recycling those thoughts. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep."

For 10 days, there was a dark cloud hanging over their house. "I was worthless during that time, and that made it hard for my wife," he says. "She refused to discuss it anymore. She was tired of me. I was tired of me." They turned on the TV--and there was Mr Deeds, a movie about a regular guy who inherits $40 billion. "We laughed at the irony," Mark says. 

The dark cloud began to lift, and the two of them began talking about what they would have done with the money, and how it might actually have changed their lives. And, beginning from that conversation, came healing, and a deeper understanding of what they truly wanted.

Here's some of what they learned from the experience:

1. How you react to things is up to you.

In the depths of Mark's despair, Shannon apologized profusely for ever telling him about the winning ticket that she threw away. "She blamed herself for how I wasn't able to handle it," he says. "I told her, even in the midst of it, that it wasn't her. She didn't cause me this pain. I brought it upon myself." 

She herself handled it fairly calmly by thinking about the butterfly effect, a term coined from a short story in which a time traveler accidentally kills a butterfly and completely changes the course of history. The idea is that even seemingly insignificant actions have profound and unpredictable consequences. If she had played the ticket, she concluded, things would have been altered and different numbers would have been drawn.

2. Getting what you've always wanted might not be what you want.

Mark began thinking about the incidents of bankruptcy, divorce, drug overdose, and even murder that have plagued lottery winners. "Just last week, a lottery winner was murdered in a home invasion in Georgia," he says. 

And that unfortunate winner, 20-year-old Craigory Burch Jr., had won only about $434,000--an insignificant sum compared to what the Budesas would have had. "It would have been pandemonium," Mark says. "A world-record win? The media would find us. There would be no hiding. No lawyers could protect us." 

3. Listen to your gut. It will point you in the right direction.

As Mark and Shannon talked through the what-ifs, the conversation turned darker, he says. "We would have to move, no doubt about it. We would have to hide. We have young children, we have extended family. Everyone had a hand in it; people might feel they were owed. There would be no escaping the attention. It would have been frightening and dangerous, for us and for our families as well." 

After they'd talked for a while, Mark stepped outside for some fresh air. "I looked up into the sky, breathed in and let my thoughts drift." In his imagination, he held that winning ticket in his hand. And his first instinct was to throw it away.

4. Some lotteries are even more important than Powerball.

Mark started thinking back to their struggle to have a child. After a year of trying, they visited a fertility clinic. They were both 38 and were told their odds of having a baby were at least 100 to 1. 

"We beat those odds with our daughter," he says. "Four years and eight miscarriages later, we beat them again with a healthy baby boy, delivered when we were both 43. What are the odds of that? Maybe they're close to 1 in 292 million. Maybe throwing away the ticket balanced us out."

5. Maybe this is what you've always wanted.

Years ago, Mark came up with an idea for a movie. "It was about an average guy, living his life, never reaching his dreams, struggling through disappointments, never really satisfied with where his life was taking him." Eventually, the guy in the movie finds himself on a ledge, wishing he could start his life over again.

Somehow, the wish is granted, and the man wakes up as his 4-year-old self, but still has the memories and experiences of his previous life. Because he knows the future, he knows which companies to invest in, so he becomes hugely wealthy. He avoids the relationships that caused him pain in his previous life, but winds up in other relationships that are even worse. Though financially successful, he's a failure at life--and he finds himself back on that ledge, now wishing he could have his old life back. 

"I think my wife did the right thing," Mark says now. "After all the pain I suffered and grief I put her through, the more I thought about it, the less desirable it seemed. We'll never know the path that ticket would have taken us on. Maybe somewhere, sometime, we went down that path and didn't like what we found. Maybe her throwing that ticket away wasn't an accident at all."

Think of the odds, he says. What are the chances of someone picking four grand prizes plus a million-dollar prize on a single ticket--and then throwing that ticket away? "Sounds like someone who may have felt it would ruin her life," he says. "Maybe we were on that ledge in a different future. Maybe our wish was granted. Maybe this is our second chance, so let's try and make it a good one."

 inline image

Mark and Shannon Budesa Image: Budesa Photography