Earlier this month, an Iowa man took his winning scratch-off ticket to the regional lottery office and asked for his prize. Soon, he could be seen in photos grinning and holding a giant novelty check. His winning amount: $1. Can anyone really get the jackpot winner’s treatment for a tiny prize just by asking for it?
Almost certainly—in Iowa. But other states might give you a harder time. The question is largely untested, because for most small prizes, even up to a few hundred bucks, you’d probably just claim your prize at the store where you bought your ticket and get your cash on the spot—with no celebratory flourishes. But it’s safe to say it comes down to how much a specific office cares about optics and how much they care about keeping a tight budget.
Anyone wanting a novelty check would have to drive to their state lottery’s regional office, which in large states like Texas or California could be hours away. If you make the trip, be prepared for a strange reaction: It would be highly unusual for someone come in for a small prize, according to different state lotteries we asked. And while you should still expect to get your prize money, you wouldn’t be guaranteed one of those checks.
First, the obstacles: Many states require you agree to take a photo with your novelty check, and some of those still won’t let you keep it. According to a spokesman for the Texas Lottery, as long as you agree to allow them to use your photo for publicity, they’ll hand you a 11.5-inch by 21.5-inch novelty check for a photo op, but you’ll have to hand it back. The considerably larger checks you may have in your mind are just for jackpot prizes, but the spokesman said no one has asked for one in years. (In Colorado, winners can cover their faces with giant glasses, boas, and other party store props in their publicity photos.)
Some states have minimum amounts. Florida only hands them out to winners who get more than $250,000 (if the winner agrees to have their photo taken, they get to take their check home). California also offers checks for prizes bigger than $250,000. Iowa and Kansas offer them for prizes over $10,000. Colorado will allow it for any prize over $5,000, but the checks are tiered: small cardboard ones for the smaller prizes, giant 48- by-22-inch ones mounted on a foam board for “big winners.”
Some lotteries, though, might see feting an enthusiastic small-prize winner as good press, as it has been for Iowa. But the spokespeople for several states also said that after the first gimmicky photo-op, they’d be less inclined to humor every winner who walked through the door. “I thought it was a really wholesome story,” said Cory Thone, the spokesman for the Kansas Lottery. “But at the same time, I don’t want everyone in Topeka to come in and try to get these checks. It wouldn’t be fiscally responsible to give them out to everyone.”
Just how fiscally irresponsible that might be also varies state to state. There’s no one source for novelty oversized checks. Some states order them from local stores or online retailers, and at least one has its own graphics department to handle it in-house. According to the Colorado, its largest checks cost $32 a pop. The bulk-ordered 30-by-12-inch ones set them back $6 each.
As with many service requests, it may just come down to the person you get at the office. “It’s silly, but if someone wants a dollar, if they’re going to take the time to go to the district office for that … I don’t think anyone will deny them that,” a spokesman for the California lottery said. “It’s an awful lot of effort.” Thone agreed: “Obviously, it’s hard to say unless you’re in the moment. But if it was me and the guy came in and was super amped, I’d probably do it, I guess.”
In Iowa, the state where the $1 prize had been celebrated, the lottery spokeswoman was more enthusiastic. “To see this guy who just had a ball winning a dollar, we just went with it and had fun with him,” she said. “Because why not, right?”