Lou Sander gets a kick out of looking like a high roller when he steps to a lottery ticket counter with thousands of dollars in cold, hard cash.
The clerk is often astonished and the people in line behind him stand in awe of the vast number of tickets he buys. What they don't know is that he's betting to hit the lottery jackpot with a big wad of other people's money.
Mr. Sander is president of the USS Rankin Lottery Pool, a group of 107 people who are so serious about playing the Powerball and Mega Millions lottery games they have turned their club into a professionally run organization with written rules, bylaws and an automated system of tabulating their winnings after each drawing and relaying that information to the members.
While their system is first-rate, their returns are not.
Club records show since its inception in 2007 to the end of 2012, members of the USS Rankin Lottery Pool shelled out $46,186 on lottery tickets, and won back only $5,633, for a total loss of 88 percent on their investment over five years.
"We are in it to win the big one," said Mr. Sander, 73, a retired hospital equipment salesman who lives in Ross. "I think we have a few people who really hope they win that kind of money. But the chances are very slim. Even with the number of tickets that we buy, the chance of getting eaten by a shark is greater than the chance we have of winning here."
The club members have had no luck hitting the "big one" since they started pooling their money to play the lottery in 2007. They always win a little something in each drawing -- between $2 and $10 -- because of the sheer volume of tickets they buy. Within 15 minutes of a Powerball or Mega Millions drawing, an automatically generated Tweet goes to the members that essentially tells them what the winning numbers were and how much the club won. The information also is posted on the club's website, www.ussrankin.org.
Members of the USS Rankin Lottery Pool are scattered across the country, but the headquarters is in Pittsburgh because Mr. Sander lives here and he does all the work.
Most of the members are former officers and enlisted men who served on the USS Rankin Navy warship from 1945 to 1947 and from 1952 to 1971, including during World War II the Korean War. They formed a reunion committee in 2003 and were able to track down about 1,200 men who served together.
"It was a big task and a challenge to find them, but we found a lot of guys," said Mr. Sander, who served as an officer on the ship from 1961 to 1963 and is head of the reunion group.
The former computer science instructor for Kaplan Career Institute started publishing a newsletter for the group, and after a few years he began looking for other things to get the members interested in. Mr. Sander found out that other members of the reunion group enjoyed playing the lottery as much as he does, so in 2007 he put the wheels in motion to start a lottery pool.
Members must make a three-month commitment to join the pool. To buy a share in the pool costs $25. Members are allowed to buy multiple shares at $25 each. Any jackpot is divided based on the number of shares a member has purchased.
What members get for their $25 is a share in 52 drawings for Powerball and Mega Millions, which comes to four drawings a week for 13 weeks. Mega Millions numbers are drawn every Tuesday and Friday. Powerball numbers are drawn every Wednesday and Saturday.
Members as old as 90 send their money to Mr. Sander from all around the country, and he makes every effort to deposit their checks before the end of each day. One of the club rules dictate that if a member's money is not deposited at the time the club hits the jackpot, they are not part of the pool.
If they ever do hit it big, USS Rankin pool members already have an action plan with detailed procedures. The rules require them to immediately hire a lawyer, a financial adviser and an accountant to help sort things out.
"There is a threshold," Mr. Sander said. "Small winnings, anything less than $10,000 we plow back into the pool and use it to buy more tickets when the jackpot gets huge. If we win $10,000 or more, that's when the shares kick in and we would portion out the money based on how many shares someone has."
As the pool manager, Mr. Sander is entitled to an additional share if they win.
Andrew Stoltmann, a Chicago-based securities lawyer, said professionally run lottery pools such as the USS Rankin Lottery Pool are relatively rare. Most lottery pools, such as office pools, are loosely organized with absolutely no game plan for what happens if lightning strikes and they actually do hit a jackpot worth millions of dollars.
"Office lottery pools are inherently dangerous," he said. "There have been multiple lawsuits over the years from alleged nonmembers against winners of the office lottery pools. The claws come out, and these legal fights are often vicious."
A judge in March 2012 ordered Americo Lopes to share his $38.5 million lottery jackpot with five of his former Newark, N.J., co-workers. Mr. Lopes had run a lottery pool for the group of construction workers for years, but when they hit big in November 2009, he quit his job and didn't tell anyone. He argued that he bought the ticket on his own.
When nine fast food workers in Canada hit $14 million in the lottery in 2005, two other employees claimed that they also had chipped in some money for the tickets and were entitled to a share of the windfall. The problem is they didn't have a shred of paperwork to prove they were part of the winning pool.
The USS Rankin Lottery Pool is far more organized.
Powerball tickets costs $2 each, and the club buys 35 of them for each game twice a week. Mega Millions tickets are $1 each, and the club buys 46 of them. The tickets for each pool are bought three months in advance. It costs the club about $2,800 every three months, or about $11,000 a year.
They play the same numbers each drawing, mostly quick picks. But sometimes members contribute numbers they like.
Mr. Sander enters all the club's numbers into the computer at the beginning of each pool's three-month cycle.
"When a pool starts we decide if we are going to use the same numbers as last time or not," he said. "It's a very democratic system in that members contribute numbers. But few do. I figured out of a hundred people there would be a bunch of people saying 'These are my numbers; my daughter's birthday; play these,' but very few do.
"It's a lot of fun for me. The main amount of work is collecting the money at the beginning of a pool, keeping track of all those checks and who played and all that stuff. The investment amounts to $100 a year for members.
"The attitude you have to have is 'I get $100 worth of fun per year out of this, contemplating how nice it would be to win. Someone else is keeping track of it and, hey, I might win a lot of money.' "
The biggest jackpot they've won so far was about $170 when they managed to match three numbers on a Mega Millions drawing.
Tim Grant: email@example.com or 412-263-1591.