The South Carolina lottery game is called Holiday Cash Add-A-Play, and the rules are pretty simple: Get three Christmas tree symbols in any vertical, horizontal or diagonal line, and you win a prize.
Monday was Christmas, and some folks in the Palmetto State were feeling jolly.
"I don't play the lottery that much," Nicole Coggins of Liberty, S.C., told local NBC affiliate WYFF. "Every once in a while, I'll buy a Powerball ticket, but something told me to buy a lottery ticket." She paid an extra dollar to add a play.
The ticket was a winner, and she was excited.
"I was calling everyone I knew, 'I won $500,' " she recounted to the station:
"To test her luck, Coggins bought another ticket.
" 'And it was another winner and another winner. So I thought, "Well, maybe there is something wrong with their machine. This can't be real." '
"She drove to two other gas stations with the same result, so she called her mother-in-law, Shawanna Ladd, and suggested she try playing the game.
" 'I played $10 first, and I won on every ticket,' Ladd said.
"Together they racked up almost $18,000 at different Liberty stores including Marathon, Spinx and Ball Mart."
The station says that as word got out about the sudden proliferation of winning tickets, a frenzy ensued. One store manager told WYFF that "it was crazy" as people hurried to buy the tickets.
But the Christmas miracle was too good to be true.
The South Carolina Education Lottery says a programming error in its computer system vendor is to blame for so many winning tickets.
"From 5:51 p.m. to 7:53 p.m., the same play symbol was repeated in all nine available play areas on tickets which would result in a top prize of $500," the lottery said in a statement Wednesday. "No more than five identical play symbols should appear for a single play. As soon as the issue was identified, the Add-A-Play game was suspended immediately to conduct a thorough investigation."
Asked if there was any precedent for this sort of problem in the state's lottery, SCEL spokeswoman Holli Armstrong told NPR, "Not to my knowledge."
Armstrong said she didn't know how many winning tickets there were during the time period in question, and didn't want to speculate on how the lottery would handle the winning tickets, since the investigation is ongoing.
The game's sales and validations remain suspended, and the lottery advises all those who bought tickets during the glitch to keep them while they investigate the issue.
As you can imagine, that stance isn't popular with those holding winning tickets.
"We didn't do anything wrong. The stores didn't do anything wrong. It's [the SCEL's] fault. I think they should either honor the tickets or give us our money back," Coggins told WYFF. She says she had already told her kids that she was going to take them to Disney World with the prize money.
Another winner, 29-year-old Berry Pickens, told The State that he had taken the day off work to collect his $10,000 in winnings.
"I got a child on the way, I've got three kids at home," he told the newspaper. "... This right here was really gonna help me out to buy my house, support my family, put back for college and all of that."
Instead, Pickens left empty-handed and frustrated with the state lottery.
Some players pointed out that not all the tickets generated in the time period were winners.
"I've got losing tickets too, in the middle of the winning tickets," Mike Cofield, a 32-year-old from Charleston, told The State. "So how is it a glitch if I've got losing ones?"
On Twitter, the lottery asked for "patience" as it works to investigate the issue. But commenters made clear how they thought the situation should be handled.
"Pay them their money!!!" one person wrote. "That's it. No question ask[ed]. It's their problem when they lose, now it's your problem because they won."