(*Note: this column was written on the 3rd day of the recently completed government shutdown)
As we finish Day 3 of the government shutdown, it is hard to find a news story that is about anything else. I was pleasantly surprised (initially) when my eye caught a story on Yahoo's main news page that dealt with lotteries. Apparently, they were revealing the secret of how to win the Powerball Lotto. Who doesn't want to win Powerball? I read the article, which was all of about two paragraphs.
It began by talking about last month's sole winner, who won $400 million. He 'beat the odds' by hitting the lottery which is a 1 in 175 million chance (I'll take their word for this). Per the article, the odds of getting struck by lightning is a mere 1 in 10,000 (again, I'll take their word for this). Finally, the article gets to the important question "How can you increase your chances of winning the lottery?" Then they apparently provide the way. A statistician in Louisiana has discovered that certain numbers come up more often than others!
The most frequent powerball number is 20. The most common white ball numbers are 42, 16, 35, 26 and 19. There you have it. The winning numbers! So, to increase your changes all you need to do is play these 5 numbers with the number 20 and you can start spending your millions! I didn't actually look up the historical winning numbers, but I'm going to take a strong guess that this particular combination has NEVER come up before, but undoubtedly they are on their way.
Now, nothing in this article gives the actual frequencies of these numbers. Nothing shows that they show up an abnormally high amount of times. Let's assume that Powerball has been drawing twice a week for 20 years. That is 2000 total draws. That is 10000 numbers drawn (white balls) and 2000 red balls drawn. There are 59 white numbers and 35 red balls. On average each white number should be drawn 169.4915 times. So, for all we know the 5 numbers he cited showed up 170 or 171 times while the rest of the numbers showed up 169 times. Clearly a massive statistical edge! On the red balls, the average is 57.14. So, 20 may have shown up a couple more times that all the others. Again, a clear statistical advantage!
I've always been strong at math. I realize not everyone is. I don't expect everyone to be. But, bad math packaged as an article on the front page of Yahoo news really drives me absolutely nuts. To add insult to injury, the article went on to suggest you should buy your ticket in Pennsylvania because that's where the largest number of winning Powerball tickets have been sold. It doesn't even take into account the possibility that more tickets have been SOLD in that state than many others!
I've often said (semi-jokingly) that the world's largest casino is the stock market. But, there is one critical way that the stock market greatly differs from gambling. With stocks, past performance CAN BE used to determine the likelihood of future performance. While there are no guarantees, there are likelihoods. A stock that has paid a dividend for the past 100 years is not likely to stop paying it next year (barring any specific news being known). Stocks have their ups and downs, but you are NOT really dealing with random events.
The same cannot be said for what happens in a casino (or a lottery). The last 3 numbers on the roulette wheel could've been red and the likelihood of the next number being red will still be 18/37 (or 38). The last 10 numbers could've been red and the probability will STILL be 18/37 (or 38). The last 5 hands of video poker could've contained the 2 of diamonds in the initial deal and the probability of it showing in the next hand's deal will still be in 5 in 52. Nothing changes when we are talking about the lottery. It does not matter if one number has appeared more often than others. Next week's numbers are completely random and each number has the same probability of being drawn as the next.
Okay, I'll admit it. Maybe I'm just jealous that after a decade of writing for Gaming Today, Yahoo has not covered a single one of my columns, but some guy writes a complete nonsensical piece of useless information and that makes their front page. The sad part will be how many thousands of people will read that article and actually run out to play those numbers. There is only ONE way to increase the likelihood of winning the lottery - buy more tickets.