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A High Stakes Game: Behind The Scenes Of The New York Lottery

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Schenectady, NY -

From scratch-offs to daily draws to those multi-state jackpots, one thing is clear: New Yorkers love their lottery. Whether it's fueled by habit or superstition, seeing the familiar faces, or you just want to make sure the game isn't rigged, the New York Lottery's live drawings are a big part of the game.

"Our one job is to announce the winning numbers correctly and you can't falter from that," says Yolanda Vega, one of the most recognizable faces on the draw team. 

Watching the day-to-day at lottery headquarters in Schenectady, you see an operation designed so the only thing left to chance are the winning numbers. In a key-card access storage room, machines are lined up against two walls. The room is watched with 24-7 surveillance.

“For each drawing for numbers and win 4, we have four machines available," says Draw Manager Tony Cortez.

Tony Cortez, Draw Manager, shows reporter Amy Hogan where the lottery machines are kept.

One of those machines is selected and one is on standby in case anything goes wrong. In his more than 17 years at the lottery, Cortez says there was only one time they weren't able to complete a live drawing. That day stands out in his memory. It was a machine glitch that sent a ball back down into the chamber before anyone could see which number it was. 

“People are like, come on Yolanda, give us the winning numbers," says Vega.

If only it were that easy. The numbered balls are kept in a locked cabinet near the machines. About two hours before the midday draw, lottery staff, shadowed by an independent auditor, unlock the cabinet and start pulling out little black boxes, each secured with its own padlock. Every one of those boxes is labeled with a number.

Each black box is individually padlocked and contains a set of numbered balls.

Those ball sets are randomly selected and once the seals on the envelopes inside the boxes are checked by the auditor, those balls are loaded into the machines. 

The auditor is from KPMG. Her job is to oversee everything and make sure the crew is following procedure. When we were first introduced to her the morning we visited headquarters, Cortez told us, "We can't talk to her, but she can talk to us." She confirmed that with a nod of her head.

About an hour before the live drawing, Vega and the crew do three run-throughs. This is to ensure the machines are working properly and everything is running like a well-oiled machine. If the same number shows up twice, they do another pretest. 

Yolanda Vega calling numbers in one of three run-throughs before the live midday drawing.

Thirty seconds before noon, the countdown begins. Yolanda Vega kicks things off with her signature introduction and calls the numbers.

The day's pick isn't official until after it's verified by a lottery employee and the auditor. The lottery worker gets on the phone and verifies the numbers with a third party. She passes the phone to the auditor who does the same. Once satisfied that everything is correct, those numbers can be paid out to the winners. It's a critical step in a system created to ensure everyone has a shot.